Liveblogging #ODR2014: The Developing Field of Online Dispute Resolution | MIT Center for Civic Media

Liveblogging #ODR2014: The Developing Field of Online Dispute Resolution

I’m here at the #ODR2014 conference. ODR2014 is the annual meeting of the Online Dispute Resolution Forum, an international assembly of lawyers, mediators, technologists, and others who care about technology and dispute resolution.

The livestream is here.

Day 2 of #ODR2014 opens with an address (slides) from Ethan Katsh, the Director of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution (and my undergraduate thesis advisor). Ethan is considered by many to be the 'father' of the field of Online Dispute Resolution, although he begins his talk disclaiming the title by describing the many other people who contributed to it.

Ethan sketches the development of ODR as he sees it. It's a different field, he says, developing its own identity distinct from Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), not simply more efficient, but separate. He points to talks yesterday from tech industry professionals who do not use the concepts or terms familiar to the ADR field, but who are beginning to build an entirely different concept of what it would mean to build systems that assist in the resolving of disputes between people, as opposed to tools which assist mediators in resolving disputes between people.

It's a maturing field as well. Companies no longer ignore or hide disputes. Lawyers and mediators view disputes as property and jealously guard it, and historically, companies hid disputes as things which were embarrassing. As we heard yesterday, companies like eBay, AirBnB, and TaskRabbit now realize that a good dispute resolution system helps build trust, retain users, and is a key value add to their platform. The boundary between dispute resolution and dispute prevention is dissolving, as is the boundary between 'online' and 'offline.'

As disputes move from the shadow into the light, the members of the field grows. Ethan gestures to the audience at ODR 2014 and notes that it's one of the largest in memory, which he ascribes to the expansion of the field. It has grown academically (Ethan and his colleagues just launched a new peer-reviewed journal of ODR) and also professionally (through the tech industry, peacebuilding organizations, etc).

Appropriately enough, Ethan hands off the presentation to Scott Carr, CEO of Modria, one of the sponsors of ODR2014. Modria was cofounded by Colin Rule, another NCTDR fellow and the former Director of Dispute Resolution at eBay, and Chittu Nagarajan, who founded the first ODR systems in India. Modria is based on the code developed in-house at eBay for dispute resolution, and their goal is to provide a well-designed, white-labeled ODR solution.

Originally, Modria was envisioned to be a service for startups and small companies, but their clients now include major municipalities and NGOs. Scott is here today for a live demo of Modria's recently announced partnership with the American Arbitration Association (AAA), which will use Modria's software to manage its New York No Fault Insurance Process caseload (about 100,000 cases per year).

Scott is joined by India Johnson, CEO of AAA, who talks about why they hired Modria. In New York, there is a 150,000 case backlog in the courts, and people can wait years for decisions on No Fault cases to be resolved. India's background was in large dollar B2B cases, but after she oversaw 20,000 No Fault Insurance claims stemming from Hurricane Katrina, she realized that individuals people quick, fair decisions which allow them to get the money to which they are entitled. She believes that Modria will help AAA achieve its mission.

Next up is Charley Moore, CEO of RocketLawyer, a small firm which "combines free legal documents and free legal information with access to affordable representation by licensed attorneys." (slides) Charley frames his conversation by posing a question: "who can afford the cost of justice today?" Most people can't afford the tremendous cost of legal disputes, and small businesses can get rolled by incumbents who use their greater resources to engage in strategic, anticompetitive litigation. Everyone loves 'Main Street' small business in theory, says Moore, but in practice they're not always well-served. He juxtaposes Mitt Romney's "47%" comment with a survey which reported 47% of small businesses were unable to afford access to traditional legal services and challenges the ODR community to serve them better.

"We're not putting lawyers out of business," says Moore; instead, their goal is to provide technological and procedural prosthetics to help lawyers be more effective, analogous to Intuitive Surgical which creates systems that augments the abilities of surgeons. Moore was influenced by Richard Susskind, who Moore considers the Nicholas Negroponte of his field, able to envision the future of the field. Moore believes that the kind of technological and procedural augmentations they're working on at RocketLawyer (and elsewhere) will broaden access to justice.