Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lead-up to ABA Techshow

Last week started with an article by Christina Farr in VentureBeat on a new generation of legal technology start-ups, including Tabulaw. For all the recent coverage given to law and law school in the New York Times and other mainstream media publications, there has been comparatively little on legal technologies. In part, that may be due to the fact that a clear inflection point--where the pace of innovation visibly accelerates--has been slow to materialize in law. Indeed, the author did not sugar coat the difficult reality of start-ups in this space. But I believe that the article reached an important audience of engineers, tech entrepreneurs and investors, who can help this inflection take place. And I have been fortunate, as a result of the article, to be able to speak with some of the trailblazers in legal tech, including Rich Granat, who started the mylawyer.com network, and Donna Seyle, founder of Law Practice Strategy. Both will be presenting at the ABA Techshow in Chicago. And though I will miss that event, thanks to these recent contacts and the growing legal tech community in the Bay Area, I feel that I've gotten a mini version of the Techshow experience out West.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Legislative Transparency and the Open Government Partnership

The elements are aligning for a major transformation in how governments publish laws. Open data and open government go hand-in-hand and one significant benefit of this pairing is that the accelerated pace of technology can pull open government forward faster than it would otherwise move. Earlier this week, President Obama and UK Prime Minister issued a press release that highlighted a number of joint initiatives of the two countries. Among them is the Open Government Partnership, promoting transparency initiatives around the world. Transparency means many things to many people, but at the core, it is about improving citizen access to information about the actions and workings of government. I am encouraged to see that the U.S. commitments to the Open Government Partnership are headed by two items that are directly related to making legal data more accessible to citizens: Promote Public Participation in Government and Modernize Management of Government Records. These two items could make a big difference, at a relatively low cost, for many of the other participant countries in the OGP, and improve transparency for all countries. Transparency in the 21st century is almost synonymous with being web accessible. Making laws web accessible, in a standard, structured data format means that laws are not only accessible to a wider population of citizens within a country, but means that citizens around the world can compare their own laws to those of other countries, on the subjects of Freedom of Information, anti-Corruption, environmental protection and a hundred other dimensions of an open society. This can create a race to the top and pressure on laggards to bring up their standards in these areas.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Glimpse of Linked Legal Data: U.S. Named Statutes

At tax26.com, we are trying to push the envelope of digitization of primary tax law. Early on, we worked to convert references in documents to other parts of the law, regulations, etc. This gets us closer to a digital linked data set, but anyone who has looked at legal citations can tell you that this is a never ending task. One of the challenges is to convert the references that are made to individual statutes, as opposed to the U.S. Code. So, for example, references may be made to the Olympic Commemorative Coin Act, but where has that been classified in the U.S. Code? The Law Revision Council maintains an amazing Popular Names table, that points to the classification of named statutes, where possible. (See here) However, that table is in pdf format and, as far as I could find, there is no spreadsheet or database representation connecting a statute with its place in the code. So Serge Ulitin, the talented data whiz who I work with, took on this task and has converted the Popular Names table to digital form: http://www.tax26.com/laws/named-acts This provides a listing of the statutes and, where possible, the source in the U.S. Code has been linked. This allows us to capture many more of the references to these "Named Acts" in the Code itself. The conversion is not perfect, and a lot of clean up is still needed, but this is one more of the steps that is needed to fulfill the promise of digital law I spoke of in the last post. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

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.