Monday, March 16, 2015

Almost Digital Congress: ToDo List

When fitness hero Jack Lalanne, then in his nineties, was asked about his sex life, he said that he and his wife had sex almost every night. "Almost Monday, almost Tuesday, almost Wednesday...". Similarly, if you ask me about progress in modernizing the legislative process, I would say that Congress is almost digital. Not bad, considering the age of the institution, but still leaves something to be desired.

The confluence of last week's panel at SXSW, organized by the Congressional Data Coalition, and this week's #Hack4Congress show we've come a long way in the last couple of years [1]. In this, and the next few posts, I'll discuss what needs to be done to eliminate the "almost" and reap the full benefits of a digital Congress.

My focus is on the key documents that Congress produces: bills, amendments and ultimately, laws. Whether your guide is the Library of Congress or Schoolhouse Rock, the process should be familiar. An introduced bill goes through a number of changes before it becomes law. This is a change-tracking problem and at each stage we need to know (1) the original document, (2) the proposed change and (3) how that proposed change will affect the original.

I was recently asked, for example, if it is possible to show an automated comparison of the impacts on the law of two patent bills now before Congress: Coons's STRONG Patent Act (S. 632) and Goodlatte's Innovation Act, H.R. 9 (114th). The short answer is no. As a pre-requisite, each bill needs to be available in machine-readable form. H.R. 9 is available in XML, but Coons's Act is currently available only in pdf, not text or XML.

As a second pre-requisite, we would need a tool to apply the language of the bill directly to the law which it amends, in this case Title 35 of the U.S. Code. Take the example of section 4 of Goodlatte's bill. It currently reads:

(a) Amendments.—Section 290 of title 35, United States Code, is amended—
(1) in the heading, by striking “suits” and inserting “suits; disclosure of interests”;
(2) by striking “The clerks” and inserting “(a) Notice Of Patent Suits.—The clerks”...

These changes would be displayed in the context of the target law (section 290 of Title 35) in redlining, e.g.:
§ 290 Notice of patent suits suits; disclosure of interests
The clerks (a) Notice Of Patent Suits.—The clerks of the courts of the United States, within one month after the filing of an action under this title shall give notice thereof...
I've mocked up these changes by hand above, but if this process were automated, it would be possible to show the impacts of this patent bill side-by-side with other proposed patent bills. The 1929 "Ramseyer Rule" requires this kind of redlining when a bill is reported out of committee, but that is often late in the process. Ideally, the textual impact of a bill could be seen as soon as it is introduced.

In California, my company, Xcential, has worked with the legislature to automate this kind of tracking in its "As Amends the Law" feature. For any bill before the Assembly, the public can see the additions and deletions that the bill would effect in the context of current law. You can see how this works with the bill AB 26 Medical cannabis. You can see the bill's impacts on the current law, as well as the changes between different versions of the bill as it is amended.

The other major change-tracking challenge is the application of amendments to bills. This is the aim of the Amendment Impact Program, which Xcential is working on as part of the U.S. House's Modernization Project. Progress on this project was reported by the Committee on House Administration and in House Legislative Counsel Sandra Strokoff's presentation at the 2014 Legislative Data Transparency Conference. [While I work on these projects for Xcential, the information in this blog all comes from public sources and my opinions here are my own.]

In total, to follow a bill from introduction to law, Congress needs to:
  1. Ensure bill transparency: 
  2.  Bill text in consistent machine-readable formats. Many bills, particularly in the Senate, are still only available in pdf until later in the process.
  3. Automate bill-to-law change tracking:
  4. Apply bills directly to the U.S. Code and to non-positive law statutes.
  5. Pass codification bills:
  6. Make all titles of the U.S. Code into "positive law". This is primarily a political challenge, which I have discussed previously.
  7. Ensure amendment transparency:
  8. Amendment text in consistent machine-readable formats.
  9. Automate amendment-to-bill change tracking:
  10. Now being tackled in the Amendment Impact Program, discussed above.
In future posts, I will discuss these goals in more detail: the benefits that each of them brings, the progress that has been made toward achieving them, and some of the challenges that remain.

[1] Almost two years ago, I declared that legislative data has a posse and since then, that posse has been getting results. Congress now publishes machine-readable forms of most bills and amendments. The U.S. Code is also digitized, and updates are made available on the Law Revision Counsel's website shortly after new bills are passed. These and other advances were highlighted in testimony submitted (pdf) by the Congressional Data Coalition to House appropriators.

The House Majority is making digital transparency as a priority, adding this section to the House Rules for the 114th Congress:
The Committee on House Administration, the Clerk, and other officers and officials of the House shall continue efforts to broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats in the One Hundred Fourteenth Congress in furtherance of the institutional priority of providing public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees.
Fortunately, more and more citizens are interested and educated about what it will take to fulfill this commitment.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Code Across 2015 -- San Francisco -- And Hiring

I'm looking forward to join more than a hundred other programmers and civic activists at the Code Across 2015 event in SF, part of Code Across 2015, an event collaboratively organized by Code for America as part of International Open Data Day.

The scope of Open Data Day can be seen from this very long list of other Open Data Day hackathons and events (Google Document, not sure where it came from).

And if this event is your kind of thing and you want to make it your day job, get in touch with me. At Xcential, we're always looking for civic-minded programmers who are interested in working on browser-based applications for writing, amending and publishing law. We work with the state of California, Hong Kong, the U.S. Congress and others to bring law into the digital age.

Happy Hacking!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

UK Sets High Bar for Digital Democracy: Steal this Report, Please

Last week, the Digital Democracy Commission of the UK House of Commons released its report. Just having such a Commission says something (John Boehner, are you taking notes?) According to their Speaker of the House, this is meant as the "start of a roadmap for improving and opening up the workings of the House of Commons." With simple, but compelling goals. Like:
  • By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does
  • By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital
And more. The report, their goals and even their presentation, richly hyperlinked and with embedded videos, is a terrific model to follow. Or even better just to steal wholesale. And they make it easy. Substitute the "U.S. House" or "Congress" for most of their goals and we have the results of a U.S. Digital Democracy Commission, all nicely packaged. Other countries could do the same.

I envision a cross-Atlantic Commission or workshop on digital democracy (John Boehner, are you still with me?). See, here's the thing. Ideas are catching. If the UK succeeds at Digital Democracy, it makes it easier for us. And the standards that are being developed can make the spread of these ideas even faster (e.g. the AKN legislative data standard, a 'lingua franca' of structured legislation). We can also share technology. The U.S. government has come a long way in the last few years with open source goals and initiatives (e.g. 18F at the and our own work with the U.S. House). The UK has done groundbreaking work at that we could learn a lot from.

Here, I pause for disclosure of personal interest: the global policy pushed forward by these UK goals are very good news for my company, Xcential. As is the political movement that is growing in the UK to reinforce these open government policies. Because building technology for digital democracy is what we do. And I want to be a part of helping the UK meet its goals. I have long admired the groundbreaking work done by, and see many overlaps with the work we are doing at the U.S. House and in other jurisdictions. Grant and I got a chance to work with hundreds of years-worth of UK laws, through the innovative "Good Law" hackathon  (we created an XQuery search tool for UK Public General Acts -- And there is a great deal more the to be done with these laws, from web-based drafting to standards-based publishing online and on paper.

There are only 5 years before 2020, so we've got to get cracking. Talking about good public policy is fun. Implementing it is priceless.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

New Name, Same Domain

This blog expresses my personal thoughts on law, legal technology and occasionally other musings. I'm changing the title today from "Tabulaw" to "Linked Legislation". I'm keeping the domain name (, because the comments on this blog are tied to that domain and I don't want to lose the many valuable thoughts that commenters have added to these posts. At the same time, I would like the blog's title to reflect its broad focus and to evolve along with my thinking on these subjects. That evolution is, of course, influenced by my experience building technology for law.

Tabulaw was my first start-up, focused on delivering legal drafting tools to lawyers-- many of the kinds of tools that have since been built into WestLaw Plus, Lexis Advance and others. We were on to something with Tabulaw, but we did not have access to those companies' massive legal document databases. For that, and other reasons common to start-ups in the legal field and start-ups in general, Tabulaw failed.

I am now working with Xcential, a company started by Grant Vergottini and Brad Chang that, I believe will change the way that legislatures write and publish the law. We're already doing this with some great partners in the U.S. House of Representatives, with the House Modernization Project. We are in the first days of a new industry. I hope to be embarrassed, when the industry is more fully developed, by some of the naive thoughts I express on this blog. I also hope to be able to quote passages, from my posts and your comments, that make it sound like we knew all along what we were doing.