Sunday, April 22, 2012

Legislative Standards and the International Legislation Unhackathon

The International Legislation Unhackathon is being held May 19 at UC Hastings and Stanford Law Schools. Sign up, if you haven't already, at http://internationallegislation.eventbrite.com/. It is free, and lunch will be provided, thanks to the UC Hastings Center for State and Local Government.

The event is designed to be accessible for non-programmers and non-lawyers (hence an 'un'hackathon) who will 'get their hands dirty' adding metadata to actual legislation, using a developing international standard for legislative data, Akoma Ntoso. Future (and previous) posts will discuss such questions as Why Metadata in Legislation? and Why should legislatures use XML standards. You could get started by reading this excellent post by Andrew Mandelbaum of the National Democratic Institute.

Assuming that you agree that metadata and standards for legislation are a good thing, there are still questions of implementation: (1) At a technical level (does the proposed standard actually match the structure of real legislation 'in the wild'; is it workable, etc.), and (2) At the practical level (will legislatures actually adopt the standard, or can the private sector add the metadata post-facto to legislation?).

This unhackathon will be an experiment in both of these elements of implementation. Grant is developing a browser-based tool to easily add Akomo Ntosa metadata to legislation. The idea is to lower the barrier for anyone to just try it out. It should take no more than 5 minutes to learn how to add the data fields to legislation. Then the real test-- how well does the data model fit the actual data of laws? Can it be extended easily, for example to accomodate the requirements of the DATA Act?

As anyone who has worked in the web world knows, HTML has been an evolving standard, applied differently by different browsers over many years. It has undergone testing in the real world on billions of webpages with millions of authors. Data standards for legislation are, by comparison, much newer and have a much smaller audience. I am hopeful that participants in this unhackathon, including myself, will come away with a better understanding of what data models in legislation can do. And I also expect that the learning will go both ways-- that the developing standard of Akomo Ntosa can be refined through exposure to events like this one and as more legislatures begin to test and ultimately adopt the standard for drafting legislation.

Look for more about the event, our goals, and legislative data from Charles Belle, of UC Hastings, Pieter Gunst of Stanford and Lawgives, Grant Vergottini, who are co-organizing.