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The Future of Legal

Erin Brockovich Speaks Up on Embracing Technology While Maintaining Our Humanity

Photo: Courtesy of Erin Brokavich

“I think there is more for us to be excited by than there is for us to be fearful of,” she says.

For the past 22 years, Brockovich has been fighting for the little guy — consumers facing big problems like environmental contamination, faulty medical devices and bad drugs. She’s spent that time meeting with people all over the country and the world, steadily tracking problems and looking for solutions.

It’s rewarding work, but is can also be challenging, especially when it comes to keeping tabs on data.

Assisted by technology

Eight years ago, she created a website, communityhealthbook.com, for individuals to self-report issues in their community. Now anyone can log on to report concerns or see what’s happening in their area.

Many complaints come from people who live on or near polluted sites, including near polluted water. While exposure to certain chemicals can lead to disease, it can take years for those diseases to show up. By then, people who were exposed may have moved away. Mapping those cases can bring together people with similar experiences and illnesses.

Brochovich started mapping concerns around the country and was shocked to see the volume of complaints. “The map was so filled up, I almost couldn’t see the United States,” she recalls.

Finding balance

Technology is helping streamline the process of getting and sorting information. Programmers can create algorithms to do “a deep data dive” of public records,” Brockovich notes, adding that technology can uncover problems and help find solutions.

The Columbia School of Public Health has created the largest website of documents — ToxicDocs.org — which contains 20 million previously classified documents on industrial poisons. Access to those documents can help lawyers find information and litigate cases.

Still there’s more than data. Brockovich urges balancing tech and humanity. “There’s nothing like human interaction because you can see people’s reactions,” says Brockovich, who concludes, “I don’t think technology can replace that.”

While Brockovich isn’t doing legal work, she remains curious, likes putting pieces together and isn’t afraid to ask tough questions. “I am doing this for all of us. I have grandchildren now,” she says. “I just think we are better off knowing the truth.”

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