Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Who is the Steve Jobs of Digital Legislation?

With the announcement of the new iPad 4   3 (including in this hilarious Onion article: This Article Generating Thousands of Dollars in Ad Revenue), it's a good time to think about the tremendous gap between the promise of digitization and the widespread adoption of digital technology for different media.

A recurring theme for technically-minded people who start to think about how law and legislation works is: why can't the law be more like computer code? By this, they mean, why can't we use the same tools (version control, integrated development environments, compiling, testing) to work with legal code? This thought has been reflected in many recent conversations I've had with programmers about the law, and by the popularity, among a largely technical audience, of my answer to this Quora question: http://www.quora.com/Could-Git-be-used-to-track-bills-in-Congress.

For people who work with digitized data in other fields, the state of tools in law is puzzling.  The current state of legal data is similar to that of music before the iPod.  At the time, CDs had been around for a number of years. Anyone who had "ripped" a CD or otherwise moved music on and off of a desktop computer's hard drive had, at some point, thought about what it would be like to skip the CD altogether.  I, myself, had a 100 CD player, and thought often about how nice it would be to compress that into a (relatively) small hard drive.  In fact, digital music players did exist, but they were clunky. Getting mp3s on and off of them was cumbersome.  And most people professed being quite happy with their large CD libraries.  Then came the iPod.

The evolution of digital cameras tells a similar story.  And it is inevitable that digital law will follow that path, sooner or later.  There are lurches toward building digital toolsets in various jurisdictions: e-discovery, e-filing, e-compliance...

But these all have to contend with the basic lack of data structure in underlying legal data.  What can be done with the data is therefore severely limited.  But it is not far-fetched to imagine that laws around the world will soon be tagged with a common data format, taking us one step closer to having an iPod for law.

Grant Vergottini and I are hatching a plan for a hackathon, following up on the California Law Hackathon, to mark up sample legislation around the world in a standard XML format.  Grant has done this already for the U.S. Code, California legislation, Hong Kong's Basic Law (essentially their Constitution) among others.

Although we have not yet "officially" announced this event, response to the idea has already been extremely encouraging, thanks in large part to Robert Richards' great outreach.  We are already getting hints of legislatures around the world that may be ready to make the leap to linked digital data (like the UK has largely done, under John Sheridan's leadership). So there may not be a Steve Jobs of legislation (yet), but I believe that there are visionaries in legislatures worldwide who, together, can make this happen.