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If you think that law isn’t written for lawyers, try reading some.  It can even start looking normal after a while (say about the length of time it takes to get through law degree).  But research on the main street impact of legal language suggests that for most people, the law is likely to be either incomprehensible or very hard to read.

This problem is a focus of a research project which a team of us at ANU and Cornell LII have been addressing over the past months (Eric McCreath (Australian National University, Research School of Computer Science), Wayne Weibel (Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Insitute), Nic Ceynowa (LII), Sara Frug (LII), Tom Bruce (LII) and myself (ANU)).  With the generous help of thousands of LII users, as part of a citizen science project, we’ve been collecting data on the readability of law as well as demographic data about the users of law.

If you are concerned about access to law, and many are, the current situation is not really good enough.  Whether you tend to ‘human rights’, ‘democratic values’, ‘economic efficiency’, ‘rule of law’ or are just wanting to make sure your hapless minions follow your every command, you’ll be able to think of a good reason why the law should be more accessible (readable) than it is.

Of course the problem has been around for a very long time, and plain language is a standing goal of many legislative drafting offices.  Reform efforts have been underway since the middle ages.  Certainly legal language has improved considerably, particularly as a result of 19th and 20th century reforms with that goal in mind.  Still, the law can’t be said to be readily accessible to the general public, in the sense of its readability.

What has changed that makes the problem more urgent today is that the general public can now at least get to the law.  That’s the revolution that’s been achieved by online publishers of the law, including the Free Access to Law Movement and official and commercial law publishers.  As the UK’s First Parliamentary Counsel observed last year:

Legislation affects us all. And increasingly, legislation is being searched for, read and used by a broad range of people. It is no longer confined to professional libraries; websites like legislation.gov.uk have made it accessible to everyone. So the digital age has made it easier for people to find the law of the land; but once they have found it, they may be baffled. The law is regarded by its users as intricate and intimidating.

In 2010, the Plain Writing Act was adopted by the US Congress with the aim of improving government writing. Sad to say, the Act itself is no model of plain language. Section, sub-section and paragraph roll on, line after line, provision after convoluted provision. In substance they say not much more than: write clearly so that the public can understand and use what you write.  Didn’t anyone see the irony?  Then again, reality check, most legislation is never read by the people who vote to make it law. Just to make sure the drawbridge was well and truly up, if you read through to the fine print at the end there is an important rider.  What happens if no one can understand what the law is supposed to mean? Well, nothing a judge can do about it.  Great aspiration, but …

A sea change could be on the way, though. The Good Law initiative is one great example of efforts to address the complexity and readability of legislation. What is significant is that how we are thinking about legal rules is changing.  Official publishers of the law are beginning to talk about the law as if it’s data.  The UK National Archives Office has even published an API — Application Programmers Interface (basically a ‘how to’ for developers who want to use the “data”).So now we’re thinking of law as data.  And we’re going to unleash computer scientists on it, to do whatever their imaginations can come up with. Bommarito and Katz‘ work on the legal code as a mathematical network is a great example of the virtually infinite possibilities.

Our own research uses the potential of computational technologies in another way. Online legal sites are not just ‘documents’.  They are places where people are actively interacting with the law. We used crowd-sourcing to engage with this audience, asking them to rate law on readability characteristics as well as exploring the demographics of who uses the law. Our aim was to develop a labelled dataset that could be used as input to machine learning. “Labelled data” is machine learning gold — hard to get, but if you can you get it, you can use it to make predictions about what human judges would say. In our case we are trying to predict whether a legal sentence will be readable or not.

In the process we learned quite a bit about the audience using the law, and about which law they use. Scouring the Google Analytics data, it became obvious that the law is not equally read. We may all be equal before the law, but the law is not equal before us. Just 37 sections of the US Code account for almost 10% of the page visits to US code pages (there are about 65,000). So a tiny fraction of the Code is being read all the time.  On the other hand there are huge swathes of the Code that hardly ever see the light of a back illuminated screen. This is not trivial news. Computer scientists love lists. Prioritised lists get their own special lectures for first year CS students — and here we have a prioritized list. You want to know what law is at the top of your priority list — the users will tell you. If you’re concerned with cleaning up the law code or making it easier to understand, there’s useful stuff here.

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

It will be no surprise that we found that law is harder for just about every part of the community than legal professionals.  What was surprising was that legal professionals (including law students), turn out to be a minority of those interested enough to respond, on the LII site at least.

These were just a few of the demographic insights we were able to draw.

On the machine learning front, we were able to show that machine learning can improve on traditional readability metrics  in predicting language difficulty (they’ve long been regarded as suspect in application to legal texts anyway). That said, it’s early days and we would like to extend the research we have done so far. There is a lot of potential for future research applying computational techniques to the readability of law.  A co-authored publication further describing the research introduced in this article will be presented at this year’s Law Via the Internet Conference being held at the end of September.

But while we’re thinking about it, there are other ways to think about `access’ to law.  What if instead of writing the law, it was visualized?  You know — like in pictures.  Before you storm off in contempt, note this: research is validating that pictures can improve user experience — for example in the contract space, where what your clients think of your contract can impact on your bottom line.

It’s radical enough unleashing computer scientists on legal rules. What might the law look like if we try thinking like designers?   ‘User experience’ of legal rules? That one didn’t come up in law school.  We’re in some surreally different world at this point. Designers create artefacts for people to use which are optimised for functionality, beauty and other characteristics –- not things that are meant to tell people what to do. ‘User experience’ is their kind of thinking.

As readers of Vox Pop will know, the idea of legal design is starting to get traction. Helena Haapio and Stefania Passera’s great article on legal design covers some of the field. An article they jointly published last year points out some of the benefits of visualization. Earlier this year, we worked on a joint paper exploring the feasibility of automating legal visualization. We were able to demonstrate the automation of visualization of clauses, such as a contract term clause, a liquidated damages clause or a payment clause. Visit our proof of concept site, where you can play with visualizing different options.

OK. So perhaps some of the above reads like we’re on the up-slope of the hype curve. But that of course is the fun. For those of us who’ve spent many years in the law, looking at the law from a different professional paradigm can help us see things that didn’t stand out before. It certainly enjoyable and brings a breath of fresh air to the law.

Michael CurtottiMichael Curtotti is undertaking a PhD in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.  His co-authored publications on legal informatics include: A Right to Access Implies a Right to Know:  An Open Online Platform for Readability ResearchEnhancing the Visualization of Law and A corpus of Australian contract language: description, profiling and analysis.  He holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of New South Wales, and a Masters of International Law from the Australian National University.  He works part-time as a legal adviser to the ANU Students Association and the ANU Post-graduate & research students Association, providing free legal services to ANU students.

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Other related posts on VoxPopuLII on this topic include Law in the Last-Mile: The Potential of Mobile Integration into Legal Services by Sean Martin McDonald, Incomprehension Compounded by Mistranslation – The Imperatives of Access to Legal Information in South Africa by Eve Gray and Accessible Law by Nick Holmes

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

At my organization, the Sunlight Foundation, we follow the rules. I don’t just mean that we obey the law — we literally track the law from inception to enactment to enforcement. After all, we are a non-partisan advocacy group dedicated to increasing government transparency, so we have to do this if we mean to serve one of our main functions: creating and guarding good laws, and stopping or amending bad ones.

Freedom of InformationOne of the laws we work to protect is the Freedom of Information Act. Last year, after a Supreme Court ruling provided Congress with motivation to broaden the FOIA’s exemption clauses, we wanted to catch any attempts to do this as soon as they were made. As many reading this blog will know, one powerful way to watch for changes to existing law is to look for mentions of where that law has been codified in the United States Code. In the case of the FOIA, it’s placed at 5 U.S.C. § 552. So, what we wanted was a system that would automatically sift through the full text of all legislation, as soon as it was introduced or revised, and email us if such a citation appeared.

With modern web technology, and the fact that the Government Printing Office publishes nearly every bill in Congress in XML, this was actually a fairly straightforward thing to build internally. In fact, it was so straightforward that the next question felt obvious: why not do this for more kinds of information, and make it available freely to the public?

That’s why we built Scout, our search and notification system for government action. Scout searches the bills and speeches of Congress, and every federal regulation as they’re drafted and proposed. Through the awe-tacular power of our Open States project, Scout also tracks legislation as it emerges in statehouses all over the country. It offers simple and advanced search operators, and any search can be turned into an email alert or an RSS feed. If your search turns up a bill worth following, you can subscribe to bill-specific alerts, like when a vote on it is coming up.

This has practical applications for, really, just about everyone. If you care about an issue, be it as an environmental activist, a hunting enthusiast, a high (or low) powered lawyer, or a government affairs director for a company – finding needles in the giant haystack of government is a vital function. Since launching, Scout’s been used by thousands of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, by professionals and ordinary citizens alike.

Scout search for 5 USC 601Search and notifications are simple stuff, but simple can be powerful. Soon after Scout was operational, our original FOIA exemption alerts, keyed to mentions of 5 U.S.C. § 552, tipped us off to a proposal that any information a government passed to the Food and Drug Administration be given blanket immunity to FOIA if the passing government requested it.

If that sounds crazily broad, that’s because it is, and when we in turn passed this information onto the public interest groups who’d helped negotiate the legislation, they too were shocked. As is so often the case, the bill had been negotiated for 18 months behind closed doors, the provision was inserted immediately and anonymously before formal introduction, and was scheduled for a vote as soon as Senate processes would allow.

Because of Scout’s advance warning, there was just barely enough time to get the provision amended to something far narrower, through a unanimous floor vote hours before final passage. Without it, it’s entirely possible the provision would not have been noticed, much less changed.

This is the power of information; it’s why many newspapers, lobbying shops, law firms, and even government offices themselves pay good money for services like this. We believe everyone should have access to basic political intelligence, and are proud to offer something for free that levels the playing field even a little.

Of particular interest to the readers of this blog is that, since we understand the value of searching for legal citations, we’ve gone the extra mile to make US Code citation searches extra smart. If you search on Scout for a phrase that looks like a citation, such as “section 552 of title 5″, we’ll find and highlight that citation in any form, even if it’s worded differently or referencing a subsection (such as “5 U.S.C. 552(b)(3)”). If you’re curious about how we do this, check out our open source citation extraction engine – and feel free to help make it better!

It’s worth emphasizing that all of this is possible because of publicly available government information. In 2012, our legislative branch (particularly GPO and the House Clerk) and executive branch (particularly the Federal Register) provide a wealth of foundational information, and in open, machine-readable formats. Our code for processing it and making it available in Scout is all public and open source.

Anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with how easily legal information, even when ostensibly in the public domain, can be held back from public access. The judicial branch is particularly badly afflicted by this, where access to legal documents and data is dominated by an oligopoly of pay services both official (PACER) and private-sector (Westlaw, LexisNexis).

It’s easy to argue that legal information is arcane and boring to the everyday person, and that the only people who actually understand the law work at a place with the money to buy access to it. It’s also easy to see that as it stands now, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If this information is worth this much money, services that gate it amplify the political privilege and advantage that money brings.

The Sunlight Foundation stands for the idea that when government information is made public, no matter how arcane, it opens the door for that information to be made accessible and compelling to a broader swathe of our democracy than any one of us imagines. We hope that through Scout, and other projects like Open States and Capitol Words, we’re demonstrating a few important reasons to believe that.

Eric Mill

 

Eric Mill is a software developer and international program officer for the Sunlight Foundation. He works on a number of Sunlight’s applications and data services, including Scout and the Congress app for Android.

 

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

[Editor’s Note: For topic-related VoxPopuLII posts please see, among others: Nick Holmes, Accessible Law; Matt Baca & Olin Parker, Collaborative, Open Democracy with LexPop; and John Sheridan, Legislation.gov.uk

The Civic Need

Civic morale in the U.S. is punishingly low and bleeding out. When it comes to recent public approval of the U.S. Congress, we’re talking imminent negative territory, if such were possible. Gallows chuckles were shared over an October 2011 NYT/CBS poll that found approval of the U.S. Congress down to 9% — lower than, yes, communism, the British Petroleum company during the oil spill, and King George III at the time of the American Revolution. The trends are beyond grim: Gallup in November tracked Congress falling to 13% approval, tying an all-time low. For posterity, this is indeed the first branch of the federal government in America’s constitutional republic, the one with “the power of the purse“, our mostly-millionaire law-makers. Also: the branch whose leadership recently attempted to hole up in an anti-democratic, unaccountable “SuperCommittee” to make historic decisions affecting public policy in secret. Members of Congress are the most fallible, despised elected officials in our representative democracy.

OpenCongress: Responding with open technology

Such was the visceral distrust of government (and apathy about the wider political process, in all its messy necessity) that our non-profit organization, the Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF), sought to combat with our flagship Web application, OpenCongress.org. Launched in 2007, its original motto was: “Bringing you the real story about what’s happening in Congress.” Our premise, then as today, is that radical transparency in government will increase public accountability, reduce systemic corruption in government, and result in better legislative outcomes. We believe free and open-source technology can push forward and serve a growing role in a much more deliberative democratic process — with an eye towards comprehensive electoral reform and increased voter participation. The technology buffet includes, in part, the following: software (in the code that powers OpenCongress); Web applications (like the user-friendly OpenCongress pages and engagement tools); mobile (booming, of course, globally); libre data and open standards; copyleft licensing; and more. One articulation of our goal is to encourage government, as the primary source, to comply exhaustively with the community-generated Principles of Open Government Data (which, it should be noted, are continually being revised and amended by #opengov advocates, as one would expect in a healthy, dynamic, and responsive community of watchdogs with itchy social sharing fingers). Another articulation of our goal, put reductively: we’ll know we’re doing better when voter participation rates rise in the U.S. from our current ballpark of 48% to levels comparable to those of other advanced democracies. Indeed, there has been a very strong and positive public demand for user-friendly Web interfaces and open data access to official government information. Since its launch, OpenCongress has grown to become the most-visited not-for-profit government transparency site in the U.S. (and possibly the world), with over one million visits per month, hundreds of thousands of users, and millions of automated data requests filled every week.

OpenGovernment.org: Opening up state legislatures

The U.S. Congress, unfortunately, remains insistently closed-off from the taxpaying public — living, breathing people and interested constituent communities — in its data inputs and outputs, while public approval keeps falling (for a variety of reasons, more than can be gestured towards here). This discouraging sentiment might be familiar to you — even cliché — if you’re an avid consumer of political news media, political blogs, and social media. But what’s happening in your state legislature? What bills in your state House or Senate chambers are affecting issues you care about? What are special interests saying about them, and how are campaign contributions influencing them? Even political junkies might not have conversational knowledge of key votes in state legislatures, which — if I may be reductive — take all the legislative arcane-ness of the federal Congress and boil it down to an even more restrictive group of state capitol “insiders” who really know the landscape. A June 2011 study by the University of Buffalo PoliSci Department found that, as summarized on Ballotpedia :

First, the American mass public seems to know little about their state governments. In a survey of Ohio, Patterson, Ripley, and Quinlan (1992) found that 72 percent of respondents could not name their state legislator. More recently, an NCSL-sponsored survey found that only 33 percent of respondents over 26 years old could correctly identify even the party that controlled their state legislature.

Further, state legislative elections are rarely competitive, and frequently feature only one major party candidate on the ballot. In the 2010 elections, 32.7 percent of districts had only one major party candidate running. (Ballotpedia 2010) In 18 of the 46 states holding legislative elections in 2010, over 40 percent of seats faced no major-party challenge, and in only ten states was the proportion of uncontested seats lower than 20 percent. In such an environment, the ability to shirk with limited consequences seems clear.”[1]

To open up state government, PPF created OpenGovernment.org as a joint project with the non-profit Sunlight Foundation and the community-driven Open States Project (of Sunlight Labs). Based on the proven OpenCongress model of transparency, OpenGovernment combines official government information with news and blog coverage, social media mentions, campaign contribution data, public discussion forums, and a suite of free engagement tools. The result, in short, is the most user-friendly page anywhere on the Web for accessing bill information at the state level. The site, launched in a public beta on January 18th, 2011, currently contains information for six U.S. state legislatures: California, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin. In March 2011, OpenGovernment was named a semi-finalist in the Accelerator Contest at South by Southwest Interactive conference.

Skimming a state homepage — for example, California — gives a good overview of the site’s offerings: every bill, legislator, vote, and committee, with as much full bill text as is technically available; plus issues, campaign contributions, key vote analysis, special interest group positions, and a raft of social wisdom. A bill page — for example, Wisconsin’s major freedom of association bill, SB 11 — shows how it all comes together in a highly user-friendly interface and, we hope, the best-online user experience. Users can track, share, and comment on legislation, and then contact their elected officials over email directly from OpenGovernment pages. OpenGovernment remains in active open-source development. Our developer hub has more information. See also our wish-list and how anyone can help us grow, as we seek to roll out to all 50 U.S. state legislatures before the November 2012 elections.

Opening up state legislative data: The benefits

To make the value proposition for researchers explicit, I believe fundamentally there is clear benefit in having a go-to Web resource to access official, cited information about any and all legislative objects in a given state legislature (as there is with OpenCongress and the U.S. Congress). It’s desirable for researchers to know they have a permalink of easy-to-skim info for bills, votes, and more on OpenGovernment — as opposed to clunky, outmoded official state legislative websites (screenshots of which can be found in our launch blog post, if you’re brave enough to bear them). Full bill text is, of course vital for citing, as is someday having fully-transparent version-control by legislative assistants and lobbyists and members themselves. For now, the site’s simple abilities to search legislation, sort by “most-viewed,” sort by date, sort by “most-in-the-news,” etc., all offer a highly contemporary user-experience, like those found by citizens elsewhere on the Web (e.g., as online consumers or on social media services). Our open API and code and data repositories ensure that researchers and outside developers (e.g., data specialists) have bulk access to the data we aggregate, in order to remix and sift through for discoveries and insights. Bloggers and journalists can use OpenGovernment (OG) in their political coverage, just as OpenCongress (OC) continues to be frequently cited by major media sites and blog communities. Issue advocates and citizen watchdogs can use OG to find, track, and contact their state legislators, soon with free online organizing features like Contact-Congress on OC. OpenGovernment‘s launch was covered by Alex Howard of O’Reilly Radar, the National Council of State Legislatures (The Thicket blog), and Governing, with notes as well from many of PPF and Sunlight’s #opengov #nonprofit allies, and later on by Knight Foundation, Unmatched Style, and dozens of smaller state-based political blogs.

The technology that powers OpenGovernment.org

The technology behind OpenGovernment was assembled by PPF’s former Director of Technology (and still good friend-of-PPF, following his amicable transition to personal projects) Carl Tashian. In designing it, Carl and I were driven first by a desire to ensure the code was not only relatively-remixable but also as modular as possible. Remixable, because we hoped and expect that other open-source versions of OpenGovernment will spring up, creating (apologies for the cliché, but it’s one I am loathe to relinquish, as it’s really the richest, most apt description of a desirable state of affairs) a diverse ecosystem of government watchdog sites for state legislatures. Open data and user-focused Web design can bring meaningful public accountability not only to state legislatures, but also to the executive and judicial branches of state government as well. PPF seeks non-profit funding support to bring OpenGovernment down to the municipal level — county, city, and local town councils, as hyper-local and close to the neighborhood block as possible — and up to foreign countries and international institutions like the United Nations. In theory, any government entity with official documents and elected official roles is a candidate for a custom version of OpenGovernment facing the public on the open Web — even those without fully-open data sets, which of course, most countries don’t have. But by making OpenGovernment as modular as possible, we aimed to ensure that the site could work with a variety of data inputs and formats. The software is designed to handle a best-case data stream — an API of legislative info — or less-than-best, such as XML feeds, HTML scraping, or even a static set of uploaded documents and spreadsheets.

Speaking of software, OpenGovernment is powered by GovKit, an open-source Ruby gem for aggregating and displaying open government APIs from around the Web. Diagrammed here, they are summarized here with a few notes:

  • Open States – a RESTful API of official government data, e.g. bills, votes, legislators, committees, and more. This data stream forms the backbone of OpenGovernment. A significantly volunteer effort coordinated by the talented and dedicated team at Sunlight Labs, Open States fulfills a gigantic public need for standardized data about state legislation — largely by the time-intensive process of scraping HTML from unstandardized existing official government websites. Really remarkable and precedent-setting public-interest work, the updates are by James Turk on the Labs Blog. Data received daily in .json format, and wherever possible, bill text is displayed in the smooth open-source DocumentCloud text viewer (e.g., WI SB11).
  • OpenCongress – API for federal bills, votes, people, and news and blog coverage. OpenGovernment is primarily focused on finding and tracking state bills and legislators, but one of our premises in designing the public resource was that the vast majority of users would first need to look up their elected officials by street address. (Can you name your state legislators with confidence offhand? I couldn’t before developing OpenCongress in 2007.) So since users were likely to take that action, we used our sibling site OpenCongress to find and display federal legislators underneath state ones (e.g., CA zip 94110).
  • Google News, Google Blog Search, Bing API – we use these methods to aggregate news and blog coverage of bills and members, as on OpenCongress: searching for specific search terms and thereby assembling pages that allow a user to skim down recent mentions of a bill (along with headlines and sources) without straying far from OpenGovernment. One key insight of OpenCongress was that lists of bills “most in the news” and “most-on-blogs” can point users towards what’s likely most-pressing or most-discussed or most-interesting to them, as search engine or even intra-site keyword searches on, say, “climate change bill” don’t always return most-relevant results, even when lightly editorially curated for SEO. On pages of news results for individual bills (e.g., CA SB 9) or members (e.g., WI Sen. Tim Carpenter), it’s certainly useful to get a sense of the latest news by skimming down aggregated headlines, even given known issues with bringing in similarly titled bills (e.g., SB 9 in Texas, not California) or sports statistics or spam. Future enhancements to OpenGovernment will do more to highlight trusted news sources from open data standards — a variety of services like NewsTrust exist on this front, and there’s no shortage of commercial partnerships possible (or via Facebook Connect and other closed social media), but PPF’s focus is on mitigating the “filter bubble” and staying in play on the open Web.
  • Transparency Data API (by Sunlight Labs) to bring in campaign contribution data from FollowTheMoney. If Open States data is the backbone of OpenGovernment, this money-in-politics data is its heart. PPF’s work is first and foremost motivated by a desire to work in the public interest to mitigate the harmful effects of systemic corruption at every level of government, from the U.S. Congress on down. (See, e.g., Lessig, Rootstrikers, innumerable academic studies and news investigations into the biased outcomes of a system where, for example, federal members of Congress spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time fundraising instead of connecting with constituents.) Part of this is vocally endorsing comprehensive electoral reforms such as non-partisan redistricting, right-to-vote legal frameworks, score voting, parliamentary representation, and the Fair Elections Now Act for full public financing of elections. But the necessary first step is radical transparency of campaign contributions by special interests to elected officials, accompanied by real-time financial disclosure, stronger ethics laws, aggressive oversight, and regulation to stop the revolving door with lobbyists and corporations that results in oligarchical elites and a captured government. Hence “The Money Trail” on OpenGovernment, e.g., for Texas, is a vital resource for connecting bills, votes, and donations. The primary source for money figures is our much-appreciated and detail-oriented non-profit partners at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, who receive data in either electronic or paper files from the state disclosure agencies with which candidates must file their campaign finance reports. Future enhancements to OG will integrate with MAPLight‘s unique analysis of industries supporting and opposing individual bills with their donations. MAPLight has data for CA and WI we’re looking to bring in, with more to come.
  • Project VoteSmart’s API brings in special-interest group ratings for state government and allows OpenGovernment to highlight the most-impactful legislation in each state, marking their non-partisan “key vote” bills (e.g., for TX). VoteSmart does remarkable legislative analysis that neatly ties in bills to issue areas, but VoteSmart doesn’t have a built-in money-in-politics tie-in on their pages, or tools to track and share legislation. (This is just another way in which OpenGovernment, by aggregating the best available data in a more user-focused design, adds value, we hope, in an open-source Web app, about which more below.) Project VoteSmart’s work is hugely valuable, but the data is again ornery — special interest group ratings are frequently sparse and vary in scale, and are therefore difficult to accurately summarize or average — so for members, where applicable, we show a total of the number of ratings in each category (e.g., for TX Sen. Dan Patrick) and link to a fuller description.
  • Wikipedia – OG first attempts to match on a legislator’s full name to a bio page on Wikipedia, with largely good but occasionally false-positive results. Of course many politicians go by nicknames, so this is a straightforward enhancement we’ll make once we can prioritize it with our available resources. See, e.g., TX Sen. Joan Huffman on OG, and her bio on Wikipedia.
  • Twitter – OG has first-pass implementation of bringing in mentions of a state hashtag and bill number, e.g., #txbill #sb7, and for members, state name and legislator name, e.g., Texas Joan Huffman. This is another relatively straightforward engineering enhancement that we can make more responsive and more accurate with additional resources — for example, bringing in more accurate mentions and highlighting ones made by influential publishers on social media. Spending our time working within walled gardens to capture mentions of key votes isn’t inherently pleasant, but bringing out vital chatter onto the open Web and making it available via our open API will be worth the time and investment.
  • Miro Community, free and open-source software from PPF’s sibling non-profit the Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF), makes it possible to crowdsource streaming online video about state legislatures (e.g., CA).

The OpenGovernment.org Web app is free, libre, and written in open-source Ruby on Rails code (developer hub). Like OpenCongress, the site is not-for-profit, non-commercial, promotes #opengovdata, open standards, and offers an open API, with volunteer contributions and remixes welcome and encouraged. Two features: most pages on the site are available for query via JSON and JSONP; and we offer free lookup of federal and state elected officials by latitude / longitude by URL. PostgreSQL and PostGIS power the back-end — we’ve seen with OpenCongress that the database of aggregated info can become huge, so laying a solid foundation for this was relevant in our early steps. The app uses the terrific open-source GeoServer to display vote maps — many enhancements possible there — and Jammit for asset packaging. For more technical details, see this enjoyable Changelog podcast w/ Carl from February 2011.

Web design on this beta OG Web app is by PPF and PCF’s former designer (and still good friend after an amicable parting) Morgan Knutson, now a designer with Google. As product manager, my goal was creating a user interface that — like the code base — would be as modular as possible. Lots of placeholder notes remain throughout the beta version pointing to areas of future enhancement that we can pursue with more resources and open-source volunteer help. Many of the engagement features of the site — from tracking to commenting to social sharing — were summarized brilliantly by Rob Richards in this Slaw.ca interview with me from July 29th, 2011 — viz., walking users up the “chain of engagement.” It’s a terrific, much-appreciated introduction to the civic-engagement goals of our organization and our beliefs regarding how well-designed web pages can do more than one might think to improve a real-life community in the near-term.

More on open government data and online civic engagement

To briefly run through more academic or data-driven research on the public benefits of #opengovdata and open-source Web tools for civic engagement (not intended to be comprehensive, of course, and with more caveats than I could fit here) :

OpenGovernment.org: Some metrics

To wrap up this summary of OpenGovernment in 2011, then, I’ll summarize some of the metrics we’ve seen on Google Analytics — with limited outreach and no paid advertising or commercial partnerships, OpenGovernment beta with its six states will have received over half a million pageviews in its first year of existence. As with OpenCongress, by far the most-viewed content as of now is bills, found via search engines by their official number, which send approximately two-thirds of all traffic (and of that, Google alone sends over half). Hot bills in Texas and the WI organizing bill constitute three of OG’s top ten most-viewed pages sitewide. After hearing about a firearms bill in the news or from a neighbor, for example, users type “texas bill 321″ or “sb 321″ into Google and end up on OG, where they’re able to skim the bill’s news coverage, view the campaign contributions (for example) and interest group ratings (for example) of its authors and sponsors, and notify their legislators of their opinions by finding and writing their elected officials.

OpenGovernment.org: Next steps, and How you can help

In addition to rolling out to all 50 U.S. states and launching pilot projects in municipal areas, one of our main goals for OpenGovernment is integration with the free organizing features we launched this past summer on OpenCongress version 3. Enabling OG users to email-their-state-reps directly from bill pages will significantly increase the amount of publicly transparent, linkable, query-able constituent communication on the open Web. Allowing issue-advocacy organizations and political blog communities to create campaigns as part of future MyOG Groups will coordinate whipping of state legislators for a more continually-connected civic experience. And as always, tweaks to the beta site’s user interface will allow us to highlight the best-available information about how money affects politics and votes in state legislatures, to fight systemic corruption, and to bring about a cleaner and more trustworthy democratic process. Help us grow and contact us anytime with questions or feedback. As a public charity, PPF aspires to be grow to become more akin to the Wikimedia Foundation (behind Wikipedia), Mozilla (behind Firefox), and MySociety (behind TheyWorkForYou, for the UK Parliament, and other projects). We’re working towards a future where staying in touch with what’s happening in state capitols is just as easy and as immediately rewarding as, for example, seeing photos from friends on Facebook, sharing a joke on Twitter, or loading a movie on Netflix.com.

David MooreDavid Moore is the Executive Director of the Participatory Politics Foundation, a non-profit organization using technology for civic engagement. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not legal advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice, consult a lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or said) a variation of one of these tired truisms: “Politics is dominated by lobbyists and spending.” “Policy making has degenerated into a glorified yelling match.” “Our country has never been more polarized.” “Today’s online communities foster echo chambers of the like-minded rather than fora for discussion.”

Is your hand raised? Because ours certainly are.

The only thing anyone can seem to agree on today is that the current U.S. political system is broken. We’re mired in a confluence of corporate spending, ugly discourse, and voter voicelessness.

LexPop provides an open public platform for tackling these problems.

Meet LexPop

LexPop allows participants to collaborate in the creation of legislative bills — bills that are later introduced by actual legislators. At its most basic, LexPop is a Wikipedia for creating public policy. (There’s a lot more to it than that, as we’ll explain below.) In our first project, Massachusetts Representative Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland) — one of those actual legislators we’re talking about — has agreed to introduce a net neutrality bill created on LexPop.

LexPop has two primary goals. Our first goal is to give the public a voice. We hope to provide a space for ordinary people (i.e., people who can’t afford to hire lobbyists) to contribute substantively to public policy — to give their best ideas a fair hearing.

As you know, lobbyists write the bulk of the legislation coming out of our various legislatures. LexPop provides a voxlobbylane.jpgcounterpoint to the current model — a way for the public to provide legislators with voter-created model legislation. A legitimate, 21st-century democracy will invite the public into meaningful collaboration, and LexPop is part of the march in that direction.

Our second goal is to determine the best way to achieve the first. That is, a compelling movement is attempting to take governance into the 21st century, and organizations like PopVox and OpenCongress are doing great work. Several organizations and initiatives, including a government-sponsored effort in Brazil, are trying to make it possible for citizens to help write legislation. But at this point, nobody knows the best way to make the co-creation of laws a reality. Our work will contribute to figuring out what’s possible, what works, and what doesn’t.

How LexPop works

There are two ways to use LexPop. Our primary focus is on Policy Drives — where legislators pledge to introduce bills written on the site. Policy Drives are somewhat analogous to what goes on at Wikipedia, but LexPop provides more structure through the use of three specific phases:

  • Phase 1: Initial discussion, debate, argument, and research;
  • Phase 2: Outlining the bill in plain English (for those who aren’t regular readers of Vox PopuLII); and
  • Phase 3: Transforming the ‘plain English’ outline into legislative text.

voxnet-neutrality.jpgWe’re currently in the discussion phase of our first Policy Drive, devoted to the net neutrality bill Rep. Sannicandro has agreed to introduce.

A second option on LexPop is working on a “WikiBill.” WikiBills are written via the familiar, wide-open wiki model, and they offer a spot for the public to create model legislation on their own, without the three-phase structure of Policy Drives, and without a legislator-sponsor. WikiBill creators collaborate through a free-for-all process, very similar to Wikipedia — start from scratch and cobble the bill together. There’s no end to the WikiBill process, so participants can create a bill, submit it to their representatives, modify it, and submit it again.

Yeah, sounds great. But can this really work?

It’s usually at this point in the conversation that questions start coming up. LexPop, and similar projects, are largely operating in uncharted waters, and so there’s good reason to think the project sounds ambitious, perhaps even crazy. Below are a few of the questions we’re asked most often, along with our preliminary answers.

Will anyone contribute to this sort of effort?
We think so. (Obviously.)

Here’s why: Ordinary people collaborate on difficult projects online — especially online — often with great success. Take Linux, the open source operating system. The vast majority of people who work on Linux aren’t paid; they’ve incrementally created it in their spare time.

Are you reading this blog on Firefox? Well, guess what? Your browser was built almost entirely by volunteers.

At LexPop, we’re asking people who are passionate about certain issues to give some of their free time to developing better policy, in the same way engineers have asked them to help develop software. Sure, it will be complicated, but people are smart, and given the right opportunity and tools, they’ll be able to (once again) create something extraordinary.

Politics is too controversial — How can you expect people to come to consensus on one answer?
To answer this question, we like to look to Jesus — the “Jesus” page on Wikipedia, that is.

There are plenty of controversial topics addressed on Wikipedia, but it’s the pages for these topics that are often the most accurate. Wikipedians who edit the Jesus page know the topic is controversial, so they back up what they say with facts — otherwise, the crowd of users won’t allow it. Over time, the Jesus page has turned into something that most users are pretty happy about. And this is the similarity between LexPop and Wikipedia: They’re both about collaboratively writing something that isn’t perfect in the eyes of any one participant, but is better than the alternative.

Fine, but isn’t there a better model than a wiki?
This is one of the things we’re trying to figure out, and one of the things with which we need your help. We’re starting with a modified wiki (the three phases), but as we learn, we’ll adapt. A wiki allows a certain type of collaboration (the kind found on Wikipedia), but it may not be the best way to collaborate. Is the three-step process we’re using the right model, or should the phases be combined? With your help, we’ll find out — and we promise to share our findings.

Will legislation created on LexPop be representative?
We don’t claim that bills made on LexPop will be perfectly representative, and we’re not trying to make representative democracy obsolete. After a bill is written on the site, it will still have to go through the same bill-into-law process as every other piece of legislation.

voxexperts.jpgBut LexPop will certainly be more representative than the system we have now. With LexPop, non-profit organizations with valuable knowledge of an issue, passionate experts well-versed on a topic, and regular voters (Joes the Plumber, if you will) will no longer be shut out of the process. Right now, we live in a world where participation too often means a voter pours out her heart in a letter and receives a form response that the intended recipient didn’t write, read, or even sign. Our system for adding more voices to lawmaking may not be perfect, but it will be less imperfect than the current political system.

LexPop provides a first draft of legislation that’s written by people, not by lobbyists. This is our value-add; we’re opening a new channel for public participation, and taking a step toward a more legitimate and deliberative democracy.

But we need your helpvoxmeeting_brains.jpg

And we need it big time. For a project like this to work, we need participants.

If you’re interested in collaborative democracy, please get involved in the conversation. You’ll be helping even if you post only one comment. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in net neutrality, we encourage you to learn more about it on the site, and then make sure you come back when we have a Policy Drive on your favorite issue.

Also, we’d be grateful if you spread the word about our site. Like us on Facebook, Tweet about LexPop (@LexPopOrg), blog about us, or, even better, let us write a guest blog post on your site (Thanks, VoxPopuLII !).

We’d also love for you to tell us what we’re doing wrong. LexPop is perfect in neither theory nor practice. So please help us make LexPop and, ultimately, deliberative democracy better with your feedback. We have a Google Group for discussion about LexPop, or you can contact us through the website.

Coda

LexPop is a platform for public engagement and empowerment. LexPop provides a space for discussion-driven public policy and a stronger, more agile democracy. LexPop is about more voices. Add yours.

Matt_BacaMatt Baca is a joint J.D./M.P.A. student at New York University School of Law and the Harvard Kennedy School. He’s interested law, public policy, government 2.0, and the Rockies (team and mountains).

Olin_Grant_ParkerOlin Parker is a Master’s in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. His interests include disability policy, education reform, the states of Kansas and Louisiana, and his 17 month-old daughter.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.