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Lessons Gained from Parliamentary Information Visualization (PIV)

The emerging topic of Parliamentary Informatics (PI) has opened up new terrain in the research of the scope, usefulness and contribution of Informatics to parliamentary openness and legislative transparency. This is pretty interesting when visualizations are used as the preferred method in order to present and interpret parliamentary activity that seems complicated or incomprehensible to the public. In fact, this is one of the core issues discussed, not only on PI scientific conferences but also on parliamentary fora and meetings.

The issue of Parliamentary Information Visualization (PIV) is an interesting topic; not only because visualizations are, in most cases, inviting and impressive to the human eye and brain. The main reason is that visual representations reveal different aspects of an issue in a systematic way, ranging from simple parliamentary information (such as voting records) to profound socio-political issues that lie behind shapes and colors. This article aims to explore some of the aspects related to the visualization of parliamentary information and activity.

Untangling the mystery behind visualized parliamentary information
Recent research on 19 PIV initiatives, presented in CeDEM 2014, has proven that visualizing parliamentary information is a complicated task. Its success depends on several factors: the availability of data and information, the choice of the visualization method, the intention behind the visualizations, and their effectiveness when these technologies are tied to a citizen engagement project.

To begin with, what has impressed us most during our research is the kind of information that was visualized. Characteristics, personal data and performance of Members of Parliament (MPs)/Members of European Parliament (MEPs), as well as political groups and member-states, are the elements most commonly visualized. On the other hand, particular legislative proposals, actions of MPs/MEPs through parliamentary control procedures and texts of legislation are less often visualized, which is, to some extent, understandable due to the complexity of visually depicting long legislative documents and the changes that accompany them.

Gregor Aisch – The Making of a Law visualization

Gregor Aisch – The Making of a Law visualization

However, visually representing a legislative text and its amendments might possibly reveal important aspects of a bill, such as time of submission, specific modifications that have been performed, and additions or deleted articles and paragraphs in the text.

Another interesting aspect is the visualization method used. There is a variety of methods deployed even for the visualization of the same category of Parliamentary Informatics. Robert Kosara notes characteristically: “The seemingly simple choice between a bar and a line chart has implications on how we perceive the data”.

In the same line of thought, in a recent design camp of the Law Factory project, two designer groups independently combined data for law-making processes with an array of visualization methods, in order to bring forward different points of view of the same phenomenon. Indeed, one-method-fits-all approaches cannot be applied when it comes to parliamentary information visualization. A phenomenon can be visualized both quantitatively and qualitatively, and each method can bring different results. Therefore, visualizations can facilitate plain information or further explorations, depending on the aspirations of the designer. Enabling user information and exploration are, to some extent, the primary challenges set by PIV designers. However, not all visualization methods permit the same degree of exploration. Or sometimes, the ability of in-depth exploration is facilitated by providing further background information in order to help end users navigate, comprehend and interpret the visualization.

Beyond information and exploration
Surely, a visualization of MPs’ votes, characteristics, particular legislative proposals or texts of legislation can better inform citizens. But is it enough to make them empowered? The key to this question is interaction. Interaction whether in the sense of human-computer interaction or human-to-human interaction in a physical or digital context, always refers to a two-way procedure and effect. Schrage notes succinctly: “Don’t view visualization as a medium that substitutes pictures for words but as interfaces to human interactions that create new opportunities for new value creation.”

When it comes to knowledge gained through this exploration, it is understandable that knowledge is useless if it is not shared. This is a crucial challenge faced by visualization designers, because the creation of platforms that host visualizations and enable further exchange of views and dialogue between users can facilitate citizen engagement. Additionally, information sharing or information provision through an array of contemporary and traditional means (open data, social media, printing, e-mail etc.) can render PIV initiatives more complete and inclusive.

An issue of information representation, or information trustworthiness?
Beyond the technological and functional aspects of parliamentary information visualization, it is interesting to have a look into information management and the relationship between parliaments and Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations (PMOs). As also presented by a relevant survey, PMOs serve as a hub for presenting or monitoring the work of elected representatives, and seem to cover a wide range of activities concerning parliamentary development. This, however, might not always be easily acceptable by parliaments or MPs, since it may give to elected representatives a feeling of being surveilled by these organizations.

To further explain this, questions such as who owns vs. who holds parliamentary information, where and when is this information published, and to what ends, raise deeper issues of information originality, liability of information sources and trustworthiness of both the information and its owners. For parliaments and politicians, in particular, parliamentary information monitoring and visualization initiatives may be seen as a way to surveil their work and performance, whereas for PMOs themselves these initiatives can be seen as tools for pushing towards transparency of parliamentary work and accountability of elected representatives. This discussion is quite multi-faceted, and goes beyond the scope of this post. What should be kept in mind, however, is that establishing collaboration between politicians/parliaments and civil society surely requires time, effort, trust and common understanding from all the parties involved. Under these conditions, PIV and PMO initiatives can serve as hubs that bring parliaments and citizens closer, with a view to forming a more trusted relationship.

Towards transparency?

Most PIV initiatives provide information in a way compliant with the principles of the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness. Openness is a necessary condition for transparency. But, then, what is transparency? Is it possible to come up with a definition that accommodates the whole essence of this concept?

Transparent labyrinth by Robert Morris, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Dezeen)

Transparent labyrinth by Robert Morris, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Dezeen)

In this quest, it is important to consider that neither openness nor transparency can exist without access to information (ATI). Consequently, availability and accessibility of parliamentary information are fundamental prerequisites in order to apply any technology that will hopefully contribute to inform, empower and help citizens participate in public decision-making.
Apart from that, it is important to look back in the definition, essence and legal nature of Freedom of Information (FOI) and Right to Information (RTI) provisions, as these are stated in the constitution of each country. A closer consideration of the similarities and differences between the terms “Freedom” and “Right”, whose meanings we usually take for granted, can provide important insight for the dependencies between them. Clarifying the meaning and function of these terms in a socio-political system can be a helpful start towards unraveling the notion of transparency.

Still, one thing is for sure: being informed and educated on our rights as citizens, as well as on how to exercise them, is a necessity nowadays. Educated citizens are able not only to comprehend the information available, but also search further, participate and have their say in decision-making. The example of the Right to Know initiative in Australia, based on the Alaveteli open-source platform, is an example of such an effort. The PIV initiatives researched thus far have shown that citizen engagement is a hard-to-reach task, which requires constant commitment and strive through a variety of tools and actions. In the long run, the full potential and effectiveness of these constantly evolving initiatives remains to be seen. In this context, legislative transparency remains in itself an open issue with many interesting aspects yet to be explored.

 

The links provided in the post are indicative examples and do not intend to promote initiatives or written materials for commercial or advertising purposes.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAspasia Papaloi is a civil servant in the IT and New Technologies Directorate of the Hellenic Parliament, a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens and a research fellow of the Laboratory of New Technologies in Communication, Education and the Mass Media, contributing as a Teaching Assistant. She holds an MA with specialization in ICT Management from the University of the Aegean in Rhodes and a Bachelor of Arts in German Language and Literature (Germanistik) from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her research area involves e-Parliaments with a special focus on visualization for the achievement of transparency.

gouscosDimitris Gouscos is Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens and a research fellow of the Laboratory of New Technologies in Communication, Education and the Mass Media, where he contributes to co-ordination of two research groups on Digital Media for Learning and Digital Media for Participation. His research interests evolve around applications of digital communication in open governance, participatory media, interactive storytelling and playful learning. More information available on http://www.media.uoa.gr/~gouscos.

 

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

AT4AM_LOGO

AT4AM – Authoring Tool for Amendments – is a web editor provided to Members of European Parliament (MEPs) that has greatly improved the drafting of amendments at European Parliament since its introduction in 2010.

The tool, developed by the Directorate for Innovation and Technological Support of European Parliament (DG ITEC) has replaced a system based on a collection of macros developed in MS Word and specific ad hoc templates.

Why move to a web editor?

The need to replace a traditional desktop authoring tool came from the increasing complexity of layout rules combined with a need to automate several processes of the authoring/checking/translation/distribution chain.

In fact, drafters not only faced complex rules and had to search among hundreds of templates in order to get the right one, but the drafting chain for all amendments relied on layout to transmit information down the different processes. Bold / Italic notation or specific tags were used to transmit specific information on the meaning of the text between the services in charge of subsequent revision and translation.

Over the years, an editor that was initially conceived to support mainly the printing of documents was often used to convey information in an unsuitable manner. During the drafting activity, documents transmitted between different services included a mix of content and layout where the layout sometime referred to some information on the business process that should rather be transmitted via other mediums.

Moreover, encapsulating in one single file all the amendments drafted in 23 languages was a severe limitation for subsequent revisions and translations carried out by linguistic sectors. Experts in charge of legal and linguistic revision of drafted amendments, who need to work in parallel on one document grouping multilingual amendments, were severely hampered in their work.

All the needs listed above justified the EP undertaking a new project to improve the drafting of amendments. The concept was soon extended to the drafting, revision, translation and distribution of the entire legislative content in the European Parliament, and after some months the eParliament Programme was initiated to cover all projects of the parliamentary XML-based drafting chain.

It was clear from the beginning that, in order to provide an advanced web editor, the original proposal to be amended had to be converted into a structured format. After an extensive search, XML Akoma Ntoso format was chosen, because it is the format that best covers the requirements for drafting legislation. Currently it is possible to export amendments produced via AT4AM in Akoma Ntoso. It is planned to apply Akoma Ntoso schema to the entire legislative chain within eParliament Programme. This will enable EP to publish legislative texts in open data format.

What distinguishes the approach taken by EP from other legislative actors who handle XML documents is the fact that EP decided to use XML to feed the legislative chain rather than just converting existing documents into XML for distribution. This aspect is fundamental because requirements are much stricter when the result of XML conversion is used as the first step of legislative chain. In fact, the proposal coming from European Commission is first converted in XML and after loaded into AT4AM. Because the tool relies on the XML content, it is important to guarantee a valid structure and coherence between the language versions. The same articles, paragraphs, point, subpoints must appear at the correct position in all the 23 language versions of the same text.

What is the situation now?

After two years of intensive usage,  Members of European Parliaments have drafted 285.000 amendments via AT4AM. The tool is also used daily by the staff of the secretariat in charge of receiving tabled amendments, checking linguistic and legal accuracy and producing voting lists. Today more then 2300 users access the system regularly, and no one wants to go back to the traditional methods of drafting. Why?

Automatic Bold ItalicBecause it is much simpler and faster to draft and manage amendments via an editor that takes care of everything, thus  allowing drafters to concentrate on their essential activity: modifying the text.

Soon after the introduction of AT4AM, the secretariat’s staff who manage drafted amendments breathed a sigh of relief, because errors like wrong position references, which weBetterre the cause of major headaches, no longer occurred.

What is better than a tool that guides drafters through the amending activity by adding all the surrounding information and taking care of all the metadata necessary for subsequent treatment, while letting the drafter focus on the text amendments and produce well-formatted output with track changes?

After some months of usage, it was clear that not only the time to draft, check and translate amendments was drastically reduced, but also the quality of amendments increased.

QuickerThe slogan that best describes the strength of this XML editor is: “You are always just two clicks away from tabling an amendment!”

 

 

Web editor versus desktop editor: is it an acceptable compromise?

One of the criticisms that users often raise against web editors is that they are limited when compared with a traditional desktop rich editor. The experience at the European Parliament has demonstrated that what users lose in terms of editing features is highly compensated by the gains of getting a tool specifically designed to support drafting activity. Moreover, recent technologies enable programmers to develop rich web WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors that include many of the traditional features plus new functions specific to a “networking” tool.

What’s next?

The experience of EP was so positive and so well received by other Parliaments that in May 2012, at the opening of the international workshop “Identifying benefits deriving from the adoption of XML-based chains for drafting legislation“, Vice President Wieland announced the launch of a new project aimed at to providing an open source version of the AT4AM code.

AT4AM for All in a video conference with the United Nations Department for General Assembly and Conference Management from New York on 19 March 2013, Vice President Wieland announced,  the UN/DESA’s Africa i-Parliaments Action Plan from Nairobi and the Senate of Italy from Rome, the availability of AT4AM for All, which is the name given to this open source version, for any parliament and institution interested in taking advantage of this well-oiled IT tool that has made the life of MEPs much easier.

The code has been released under EUPL(European Union Public Licence), an open source licence provided by European Commission that is compatible with major open source licences like Gnu GPLv2 with the advantage of being available in the 22 official languages of the European Union.

AT4AM for All is provided with all the important features of the amendment tool used in the European Parliament and can manage all type of legislative content provided in the XML format Akoma Ntoso. This XML standard, developed through the UN/DESA’s initiative Africa i-Parliaments Action Plan, is currently under certification process at OASIS, a non-profit consortium that drives the development, convergence and adoption of open standards for the global information society. Those who are interested may have a look to the committee in charge of the certification: LegalDocumentML

Currently the Documentation Division, Department for General Assembly and Conference Management of United Nations is evaluating the software for possible integration in their tools to manage UN resolutions.

The ambition of EP is that other Parliaments with fewer resources may take advantage of this development to improve their legislative drafting chain. Moreover, the adoption of such tools allows a Parliament to move towards an XML based legislative chain. The distribution of legislative content in open document formats like XML allows other parties to treat in an efficient way the legislation produced.

Thanks to the efforts of European Parliament, any parliament in the world is now able to use the advanced features of AT4AM to support the drafting of amendments. AT4AM will serve as a useful tool for all those interested in moving towards open data solutions and more democratic transparency in the legislative process.

At AT4AM for All website it is possible to get the status of works and run a sample editor with several document types. Any Parliament interested can go to the repository and download the code.

Claudio FabianiClaudio Fabiani is Project Manager at the Directorate-General for Innovation and Tecnological Support of European Parliament. After an experience of several years in private sector as IT consultant, he started his career as civil servant at European Commission, in 2001, where he has managed several IT developments. Since 2008 he is responsible of AT4AM project and more recently he has managed the implementation of AT4AM for All, the open source version.

 

 

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

 

There have been a series of efforts to create a national legislative data standard – one master XML format to which all states will adhere for bills, laws, and regulations.Those efforts have gone poorly.

Few states provide bulk downloads of their laws. None provide APIs. Although nearly all states provide websites for people to read state laws, they are all objectively terrible, in ways that demonstrate that they were probably pretty impressive in 1995. Despite the clear need for improved online display of laws, the lack of a standard data format and the general lack of bulk data has enabled precious few efforts in the private sector. (Notably, there is Robb Schecter’s WebLaws.org, which provides vastly improved experiences for the laws of California, Oregon, and New York. There was also a site built experimentally by Ari Hershowitz that was used as a platform for last year’s California Laws Hackathon.)

A significant obstacle to prior efforts has been the perceived need to create a single standard, one that will accommodate the various textual legal structures that are employed throughout government. This is a significant practical hurdle on its own, but failure is all but guaranteed by also engaging major stakeholders and governments to establish a standard that will enjoy wide support and adoption.

What if we could stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? What if we ignore the needs of the outliers, and establish a “good enough” system, one that will at first simply work for most governments? And what if we completely skip the step of establishing a standard XML format? Wouldn’t that get us something, a thing superior to the nothing that we currently have?

The State Decoded
This is the philosophy behind The State Decoded. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The State Decoded is a free, open source program to put legal codes online, and it does so by simply skipping over the problems that have hampered prior efforts. The project does not aspire to create any state law websites on its own but, instead, to provide the software to enable others to do so.

Still in its development (it’s at version 0.4), The State Decoded leaves it to each implementer to gather up the contents of the legal code in question and interface it with the program’s internal API. This could be done via screen-scraping off of an existing state code website, modifying the parser to deal with a bulk XML file, converting input data into the program’s simple XML import format, or by a few other methods. While a non-trivial task, it’s something that can be knocked out in an afternoon, thus avoiding the need to create a universal data format and to persuade Wexis to provide their data in that format.

The magic happens after the initial data import. The State Decoded takes that raw legal text and uses it to populate a complete, fully functional website for end-users to search and browse those laws. By packaging the Solr search engine and employing some basic textual analysis, every law is cross-referenced with other laws that cite it and laws that are textually similar. If there exists a repository of legal decisions for the jurisdiction in question, that can be incorporated, too, displaying a list of the court cases that cite each section. Definitions are detected, loaded into a dictionary, and make the laws self-documenting. End users can post comments to each law. Bulk downloads are created, letting people get a copy of the entire legal code, its structural elements, or the automatically assembled dictionary. And there’s a REST-ful, JSON-based API, ready to be used by third parties. All of this is done automatically, quickly, and seamlessly. The time elapsed varies, depending on server power and the length of the legal code, but it generally takes about twenty minutes from start to finish.

The State Decoded is a free program, released under the GNU Public License. Anybody can use it to make legal codes more accessible online. There are no strings attached.

It has already been deployed in two states, Virginia and Florida, despite not actually being a finished project yet.

State Variations
The striking variations in the structures of legal codes within the U.S. required the establishment of an appropriately flexible system to store and render those codes. Some legal codes are broad and shallow (e.g., Louisiana, Oklahoma), while others are narrow and deep (e.g., Connecticut, Delaware). Some list their sections by natural sort order, some in decimal, a few arbitrarily switch between the two. Many have quirks that will require further work to accommodate.

For example, California does not provide a catch line for their laws, but just a section number. One must read through a law to know what it actually does, rather than being able to glance at the title and get the general idea. Because this is a wildly impractical approach for a state code, the private sector has picked up the slack – Westlaw and LexisNexis each write their own titles for those laws, neatly solving the problem for those with the financial resources to pay for those companies’ offerings. To handle a problem like this, The State Decoded either needs to be able to display legal codes that lack section titles, or pointedly not support this inferior approach, and instead support the incorporation of third-party sources of title. In California, this might mean mining the section titles used internally by the California Law Revision Commission, and populating the section titles with those. (And then providing a bulk download of that data, allowing it to become a common standard for California’s section titles.)

Many state codes have oddities like this. The State Decoded combines flexibility with open source code to make it possible to deal with these quirks on a case-by-case basis. The alternative approach is too convoluted and quixotic to consider.

Regulations
There is strong interest in seeing this software adapted to handle regulations, especially from cash-strapped state governments looking to modernize their regulatory delivery process. Although this process is still in an early stage, it looks like rather few modifications will be required to support the storage and display of regulations within The State Decoded.

More significant modifications would be needed to integrate registers of regulations, but the substantial public benefits that would provide make it an obvious and necessary enhancement. The present process required to identify the latest version of a regulation is the stuff of parody. To select a state at random, here are the instructions provided on Kansas’s website:

To find the latest version of a regulation online, a person should first check the table of contents in the most current Kansas Register, then the Index to Regulations in the most current Kansas Register, then the current K.A.R. Supplement, then the Kansas Administrative Regulations. If the regulation is found at any of these sequential steps, stop and consider that version the most recent.

If Kansas has electronic versions of all this data, it seems almost punitive not to put it all in one place, rather than forcing people to look in four places. It seems self-evident that the current Kansas Register, the Index to Regulations, the K.A.R. Supplement, and the Kansas Administrative Regulations should have APIs, with a common API atop all four, which would make it trivial to present somebody with the current version of a regulation with a single request. By indexing registers of regulations in the manner that The State Decoded indexes court opinions, it would at least be possible to show people all activity around a given regulation, if not simply show them the present version of it, since surely that is all that most people want.

A Tapestry of Data
In a way, what makes The State Decoded interesting is not anything that it actually does, but instead what others might do with the data that it emits. By capitalizing on the program’s API and healthy collection of bulk downloads, clever individuals will surely devise uses for state legal data that cannot presently be envisioned.

The structural value of state laws is evident when considered within the context of other open government data.

Major open government efforts are confined largely to the upper-right quadrant of this diagram – those matters concerned with elections and legislation. There is also some excellent work being done in opening up access to court rulings, indexing scholarly publications, and nascent work in indexing the official opinions of attorneys general. But the latter group cannot be connected to the former group without opening up access to state laws. Courts do not make rulings about bills, of course – it is laws with which they concern themselves. Law journals cite far more laws than they do bills. To weave a seamless tapestry of data that connects court decisions to state laws to legislation to election results to campaign contributions, it is necessary to have a source of rich data about state laws. The State Decoded aims to provide that data.

Next Steps
The most important next step for The State Decoded is to complete it, releasing a version 1.0 of the software. It has dozens of outstanding issues – both bug fixes and new features – so this process will require some months. In that period, the project will continue to work with individuals and organizations in states throughout the nation who are interested in deploying The State Decoded to help them get started.

Ideally, The State Decoded will be obviated by states providing both bulk data and better websites for their codes and regulations. But in the current economic climate, neither are likely to be prioritized within state budgets, so unfortunately there’s liable to remain a need for the data provided by The State Decoded for some years to come. The day when it is rendered useless will be a good day.

Waldo Jaquith is a website developer with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is a News Challenge Fellow with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and runs Richmond Sunlight, an open legislative service for Virginia. Jaquith previously worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, for which he developed Ethics.gov, and is now a member of the White House Open Data Working Group.
[Editor’s Note: For topic-related VoxPopuLII posts please see: Ari Hershowitz & Grant Vergottini, Standardizing the World’s Legal Information – One Hackathon At a Time; Courtney Minick, Universal Citation for State Codes; John Sheridan, Legislation.gov.uk; and Robb Schecter, The Recipe for Better Legal Information Services. ]

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

In 1494, Luca Pacioli published “Particularis de Computis et Scripturis,” which is widely regarded as the first written treatise on bookkeeping. In the 600+ years since that event, we have become completely accustomed to the concepts of ledgers, journals and double-entry bookkeeping. Like all profound ideas, the concept of a transaction ledger nowadays seems to be completely natural, as if always existed as some sort of natural law.

Whenever there is a need for detailed, defensible records of how a financial state of affairs (such as a company balance sheet or a profit and loss statement) came to be, we employ Pacioli’s concepts without even thinking about them any more. Of course you need ledgers of transactions as the raw material from which to derive the financial state of affairs at whatever chosen point in time is of interest. How else could you possibly do it?

Back in Pacioli’s day, there was nothing convenient about ledgers. After all, back then, all ledger entries had to be painstakingly made by hand into paper volumes. Care was needed to pair up the debits and credits. Ledger page totals and sub-totals had to checked and re-checked. Very labor intensive stuff. But then computers came along and lo! all the benefits of ledgers in terms of the rigorous audit trail could be enjoyed without all the hard labor.

Doubtless, somewhere along the line in the early days of the computerization of financial ledgers, it occurred to somebody that ledger entries need not be immutable. That is to say, there is no technical reason to carry forward the “limitation” that pen and ink imposes on ledger writers, that an entry – once made – cannot be changed without leaving marks on the page that evidence the change. Indeed, bookkeeping has long had the concept of a “contra-entry” to handle the immutability of pen and ink. For example, if a debit of a dollar is made to a ledger by mistake, then another ledger entry is made – this time a credit – for a dollar to counter-balance the mistake while preserving the completeness of the audit-trail.

Far from being a limitation of the paper-centric world, the concept of an “append-only” ledger turns out, in my opinion, to be the key to the trustworthiness and transparency of financial statements. Accountants and auditors can take different approaches to how information from the ledgers is grouped/treated, but the ledgers are the ledgers are the ledgers. Any doubt that the various summations accurately reflect the ledgers can readily be checked.

Now let us turn to the world of law. Well, law is so much more complicated! Laws are not simple little numerical values that fit nicely into transaction rows either in paper ledgers or in database tables. True, but does it follow that the many benefits of the ledger-centric approach cannot be enjoyed in our modern day digital world where we do not have the paper-centric ledger limitations of fixed size lines to fit our information into? Is the world of legal corpus management really so different from the world of financial accounting?

What happens if we look at, say, legal corpus management in a prototypical U.S. legislature, from the perspective of an accountant? What would an accountant see? Well, there is this asset called the statute. That is the “opening balance” inventory of the business in accounting parlance. There is a time concept called a Biennium which is an “accounting period”. All changes to the statute that happen in the accounting period are recorded in the form of bills. bills are basically accounting transactions. The bills are accumulated into a form of ledger typically known as Session Laws. At the end of the accounting period – the Biennium – changes to the statute are rolled forward from the Session Laws into the statute. In accounting parlance, this is the period-end accounting culminating in a new set of opening balances (statute), for the start of the next Biennium. At the start of the Biennium, all the ledger transactions are archived off and a fresh set of ledgers is created; that is, bill numbers/session law numbers are reset, the active Biennium name changes etc.

I could go on and on extending the analogy (chamber journals are analogous to board of directors meeting minutes; bill status reporting is analogous to management accounting, etc.) but you get the idea. Legal corpus management in a legislature can be conceptualized in accounting terms. Is it useful to do so? I would argue that it is incredibly useful to do so. Thanks to computerization, we do not have to limit the application of Luca Pacioli’s brilliant insight to things that fit neatly into little rows of boxes in paper ledgers. We can treat bills as transactions and record them architecturally as 21st century digital ledger transactions. We can manage statute as a “balance” to be carried forward to the next Biennium. We can treat engrossments of bills and statute alike as forms of trail balance generation and so on.

Now I am not for a moment suggesting that a digital legislative architecture be based on any existing accounting system. What I am saying is that the concepts that make up an accounting system can – and I would argue should – be used. A range of compelling benefits accrue from this. A tremendous amount of the back-office work that goes on in many legislatures can be traced back to work-in-progress (WIP) reporting and period-end accounting of what is happening with the legal corpus. Everything from tracking bill status to the engrossment of committee reports becomes significantly easier once all the transactions are recorded in legislative ledgers. The ledgers then becomes the master repository from which all reports are generated. The reduction in overall IT moving parts, reduction in human effort, reduction in latency and the increase in information consistency that can be achieved by doing this is striking.

For many hundreds of years we have had ledger-based accounting. For hundreds of years the courts have taken the view that, for example, a company cannot simply announce a Gross Revenue figure to tax officials or to investors, without having the transaction ledgers to back it up. Isn’t in interesting that we do not do the same for the legal corpus? We have all sorts of publishers in the legal world, from public bodies to private sector, who produce legislative outputs that we have to trust because we do not have any convenient form of access to the transaction ledgers. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have convinced ourselves that the level of rigorous audit trail routinely applied in financial accounting cannot be applied to law. This is simply not true.

We can and should fix that. The prize is great, the need is great and the time is now. The reason the time is now is that all around us, I see institutions that are ceasing to produce paper copies of critical legal materials in the interests of saving costs and streamlining workflows. I am all in favour of both of these goals, but I am concerned that many of the legal institutions going fully paperless today are doing so without implementing a ledger-based approach to legal corpus management. Without that, the paper versions of everything from registers to regulations to session laws to chamber journals to statute books – for all their flaws – are the nearest thing to an immutable set of ledgers that exist. Take away what little audit trail we have and replace it will a rolling corpus of born digital documents without a comprehensive audit trail of who changed what and when?…Not good.

Once an enterprise-level ledger-based approach is utilised, another great prize can be readily won; namely, the creation of a fully digital yet fully authenticated and authoritative corpus of law. To see why, let us step back into the shoes of the accountant for a moment. When computers came along and the financial paper ledgers were replaced with digital ledgers, the world of accounting did not find itself in a crisis concerning authenticity in the way the legal world has. Why so?

I would argue that the reason for this is that ledgers – Luca Pacioli’s great gift to the world – are the true source of authenticity for any artifact derived from the ledgers. Digital authenticity of balance sheets or Statute sections does not come from digital signatures or thumb-print readers or any of the modern high tech gadgetry of the IT security landscape. Authenticity come from knowing that what you are looking at was mechanically and deterministically derived from a set of ledgers and that those ledgers are available for inspection. What do financial auditors do for living? They check authenticity of financial statements. How do they do it? They do it by inspecting the ledgers. Why is authenticity of legal materials such a tough nut to crack? Because there are typically no ledgers!

From time to time we hear an outburst of emotion about the state of the legal corpus. From time to time we hear how some off-the-shelf widget will fix the problem. Technology absolutely holds the solutions, but it can only work, in my opinion, when the problem of legal corpus management is conceptualized as ledger-centric problem where we put manic focus on the audit trail. Then, and only then, can we put the legal corpus on a rigorous digital footing and move forward to a fully paperless world with confidence.

From time to time, we hear an outburst of enthusiasm to create standards for legal materials and solve our problems that way. I am all in favour of standards but we need to be smart about what we standardize. Finding common ground in the industry for representing legislative ledgers would be an excellent place to start, in my opinion.

Is this something that some standards body such as OASIS or NIEM might take on? I would hope so and hopeful that it will happen at some point. Part of why I am hopeful is that I see an increasing recognition of the value of ledger-based approaches in the broader world of GRC (Governance, Risk and Compliance). For too long now, the world of law has existed on the periphery of the information sciences. It can, and should be, an exemplar of how a critical piece of societal infrastructure has fully embraced what it means to be “born digital”. We have known conceptually how to do it since 1494. The technology all exists today to make it happen. A number of examples already exist in production use in legislatures in Europe and in the USA. What is needed now, is for the idea to spread like wildfire the same way that Pacioli’s ideas spread like wildfire into the world of finance all those years ago.

Perhaps some day, when the ledger-centric approach to legal corpus management had removed doubts about authenticity/reliability, we will look back and think digital law was always done with ledgers, just as today we think that accounting was always done that way.

Sean McGrath is co-founder and CTO of Propylon, based in Lawrence, Kansas. He has 30 years of experience in the IT industry, most of it in the legal and regulatory publishing space. He holds a first class honors degree in Computer Science from Trinity College Dublin and served as an invited expert to the W3C special interest group that created the XML standard in 1996. He is the author of three books on markup languages published by Prentice Hall in the Dr Charles F. Goldfarb Series on Open Information Management. He is a regular speaker at industry conferences and runs a technology-oriented blog at http://seanmcgrath.blogspot.com.

 

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

Voting BoothsIn this post, I’d like to connect a specific area of my expertise—electronic voting (e-voting)—to issues of interest to the legal information community. Namely, I’ll talk about how new computerized methods of voting might affect elements of direct democracy: that is, ballot questions, including referenda and recall. Since some readers may be unfamiliar with issues related to electronic voting, I’ll spend the first two parts of this post giving some background on electronic voting and internet voting. I’ll then discuss how ballot questions change the calculus of e-voting in subtle ways.

Background on E-voting

The images of officials from 2000 closely scrutinizing punchcard ballots during the U.S. presidential election tend to give theofficial scrutiny mistaken impression that if we could just fix the outdated technology we used to cast ballots, a similar dispute wouldn’t happen again. However, elections are about “people, processes, and technology”; focusing on just one of those elements disregards the fact that elections are complex systems. Since 2000, the system of election administration in the United States has seen massive reform, with a lot of attention paid to issues of voting technology.

In the years after 2000, this system that had mostly “just worked” in previous decades was now seen as having endemic, fundamental problems. During the turn ofTammany Vote the 20th century, frauds involving ballot box-stuffing, vote-buying, and coercion were the major policy concern and the principal focus of reform. In contrast, at the turn of the 21st century, the prevalence of close, contentious contests—e.g., see this example of an analysis of New Jersey elections—often put the winning margin well within the “error” or “noise” level associated with ballot casting methods.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which provided the first federal funding for election administration, created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and established the first federal requirements for voting systems, provisional balloting, and statewide voter registration databases. As my colleague Aaron Burstein and I argue in an article currently in preparation, in terms of advancing the state-of-the-art in voting  technology, HAVA conspicuously focused on providing funds that had to be spent quickly on types of voting systems that were then available on the market or soon would be available. The systems on the market at the time were invariably of a specific type: “Direct Recording Electronic” (DRE) voting machines, in which the record of a voter’s vote is kept entirely in digital form.

In the years since the passage of HAVA, computer science, usability, and information systems researchers have highlighted a number of shortcomings with this species of voting equipment. Three principal critiques voiced by this community are:

  • There is no proper way to do a recount on these systems. That is, if a race is close and a candidate calls for a recount, in most cases this will mean simply rerunning the software that added up all the digital votes; the exact same number would result. DREs do not keep a record that captures the voter’s intent; rather, these systems “collapse” voter intent into a digital  representation kept in digital memory. In other types of systems, such as optical scan systems—where voters fill in bubbles on paper ballots which are then scanned in for counting—the voter’s marks are directly preserved with the ballot. In a traditional recount with non-DRE systems, election staffers interpret these marks made by voters and come up with a count based on how a trained human would interpret ballots. This is not possible with DRE voting systems and lever machines, which do not preserve individual records of voter intent.
  • There is no way to know if the software that runs DREs is correctly recording votes, and we’ve seen numerous cases of software errors, including errors that have resulted in lost ballots. However, the addition of a “voter-verified paper record” (VVPR)—that is, an independent record that the voter can verify before casting his or her vote—alleviates not only this problem of recounting records that show voter intent, but also the myriad of problems associated with software flaws and “malware” (malicious software) in these machines. If voters check these records and agree that the records reflect how they want to vote, this renders the paper records “independent” of the system’s software, and the records can safely be audited and/or recounted if there do turn out to be software-based problems.
  • In a number of state-level technical reviews of voting systems, of which I have been a part in California and Ohio, we have found serious vulnerabilities in each voting system we examined. These findings leave little confidence in the equipment that was purchased by election officials in the wake of the 2000 election. Moreover, this was a clear indication that the systems for certifying this equipment at the state and federal level had serious shortcomings that have allowed sub-standard systems into the field.

Now, in 2010, many states have passed laws requiring auditable voting systems, and increasing numbers of election officials are moving from DRE-based systems to optical scan systems. Despite these reforms which have, in my opinion, moved e-voting in the right direction, the specter of internet voting looms large.

Internet VotingInternet Voting

During public talks I am often asked, “When will we vote over the internet?” People have an intuitive feeling that since they’re doing so much online, it makes sense to vote online, too. However, we need to recognize what kinds of activities the internet is good for, and voting is perhaps the last thing we want to happen online.

Things that we do online now that require high security, such as banking, are not anonymous processes; there is a named record associated with each transaction. Yet the secret ballot is a very important part of removing coercion and vote-buying from possibly corrupting influences on the vote. (See this superb article by Allison Hayward: “Bentham & Ballots: Tradeoffs between Secrecy and Accountability in How We  Vote”.)

Moreover, banks and other online establishments can purchase insurance to contain the risk of losses due to online fraud (although there are some indications that even this is becoming more difficult due to the increased sophistication and magnitude of online banking fraud). But there is still no firm that offers insurance for computer intrusions and attacks, or simply just errors, because it is very difficult to estimate the magnitude and likelihood of such losses. The “value” of a vote is very different from the value of currency: the value of your vote doesn’t just matter to you as a voter; it also matters to other voters. (“Vote dilution,” for example, is when processes conspire to render one voter’s vote more or less effective than another’s.) Also, it can be very hard to estimate the fitness of a given piece of software; said another way, we haven’t yet figured out how to write impervious or bug-free software.

Finally, as I mention above, the voting systems that the market has responded with in recent years leave a lot to be desired in terms of security, usability, and reliability. Internet voting essentially takes systems like those and adds the complications of sending voted electronic ballots over the public internet from users’ personal computers—neither of which are reliable or secure—with no VVPR.

We are far from the day in which highly secure processes can happen over the public internet from users’ computing devices. We will have to make significant technical advances in the security of personal computing devices and in network security before we can be sure that internet votes can be cast in a manner that approaches the privacy and security afforded by polling place voting.

Unfortunately, most designs for internet voting systems are un-auditable. Since these systems lack a paper trail, it is impossible to tell whether the voted ballot contents received at election headquarters correspond with what the voter intended to vote. The answer here would seem to be cryptographic voting systems, where the role of a paper trail is played by cryptographically secure records that can be transmitted over the network. Systems of this type have become increasingly more sophisticated, easy to use, and easy to understand, and have even been used in a binding municipal election here in the U.S.

E-voting and Direct Democracy

Elections don’t just elect people in the U.S.; in many states, voters vote on elements of direct democracy, specifically ballot referenda and recall questions. However, we should be even more concerned about opportunities to game these kinds of contests — and, equivalently, about how errors introduced by ballot casting methods for ballot questions could affect how we govern — than we are about the risks of voting fraud in candidate races.

It’s difficult to compare the importance of candidate elections to that of ballot questions. Certainly, ballot questions can be as simple as asking the voters to approve of city ordinances, such as increasing the amount of square footage for single-family homes. And, of course, on even-numbered years divisible by four, we elect the President of the United States, which unequivocally changes how our entire country is governed and operates. In between these two extremes are elections that many people don’t vote on, from judicial elections to highly contentious ballot propositions (like Proposition 8 in California), or transportation tax bonds that can result in hundreds of millions of dollars for local firms.

Can we compare the risks involved with candidate elections and ballot questions? In some sense, being able to bound the risk of fraud or error causing the election of the wrong candidate is similar to that resulting in “electing” the wrong decision in a ballot question; it’s equally difficult to compare the relative importance of elected contests and to decide on some level of likelihood that a contest runs a high risk of being targeted for attack or Voter Pollmight be especially sensitive to errors in the count. Polling may help, but it’s far from perfect. However, ballot questions have one aspect that should make this process a bit easier: rather than having the considerable uncertainty of what policies a potential candidate may institute once elected, ballot measures are concrete policy proposals or actions where we know very well what will happen if they are passed. This would seem to make ballot questions more attractive to attack; the uncertainty involved with what candidates may do is not present, so the net benefit of a successful attack, all other things being equal, should be larger.

Are there special risks involved with ballot questions that we should be concerned about in the face of electronic voting methods? Certainly. First, ballot propositions are invariably at the end of the ballot; hence, they’re referred to as “down-ticket” contests. Post-election auditing, where a subset of ballot records are hand-counted as a check against the electronic results, often doesn’t include ballot questions. To be certain, states like California require post-election auditing of all contests on the ballot. But there are many states that do not do comprehensive election auditing; they either don’t do any auditing at all or focus their auditing attention on top-ticket contests on the ballot (for more, see Sections 1 and 2 of: “Implementing Risk-Limiting Post-Election Audits in California”).

While we have seen little evidence of fraud using newer computerized voting systems compared to the massive record of paper ballot fraud in our country’s past, this should serve as little comfort. Just as in finance, where “past results are no indication of future performance,” adversarial security is similar. That we haven’t seen much evidence of computer fraud involving voting systems doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Multi-million dollar ballot questions and constitutional amendments are exactly the kinds of law-making activities in which I expect to see the first evidence of outright computerized election hacking. This rings especially true if we start using the public internet for casting ballots. While foreign interests or hackers out of the reach of US law enforcement might certainly be interested in top-ticket candidate contests, the opportunities to affect state and local law as well as economic interests embodied in ballot questions would seem to be especially attractive.

Where Should We Go From Here?

To be sure, there is a lot of momentum behind moving parts of our elections processes online. In some cases, such as online voter registration, the security and reliability risks are small and the net benefits are particularly high. However, I can’t say the same about internet voting, especially in the sense that elements of direct democracy may be particularly attractive to powerful foreign interests and parties outside our collective jurisdiction. The recently passed Military and Overseas Voter  soldier voteEmpowerment (MOVE) Act has been interpreted to allow states to experiment with  online ballot casting, and the relevant agencies charged with implementing the  law—the Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), the EAC, and the National Institute of Standards and Testing (NIST)—have collectively interpreted the MOVE Act as requiring them to institute standards and pilot programs for internet voting for military and overseas voters. I’m on record as disagreeing with this interpretation, but I can understand that they feel limited-scale pilot projects are appropriate. I predict that the first incontrovertible evidence of computerized vote manipulation will be associated with military and overseas internet voting efforts, and it’s not hard to imagine a down-ticket ballot question as being the focus of such an attack.

Should we re-think our forays into computerized voting? Definitely not. In my opinion, this is more a question of responsible uses of technology in elections than a black or white decision about using computerized voting systems or not. There is much good that stems from the use of computerized voting systems, including improved accessibility for the disabled and voters who don’t speak English, improved usability of ballots on-screen versus what can be accomplished on paper, and the speed and accuracy of computerized vote counts on election night. However, these voting systems must be recountable and auditable, and those audits must be conducted after each election in such a way that we limit the risk of an incorrect candidate or ballot measure being certified as the winner.

In contrast to the beginning of the past decade, when election officials were swimming in federal money for the purchase of equipment and trying to spend these funds before a looming deadline, what we really need is regular commitments of federal funding to improve local election administration. With a sustained source of federal funds to budget and plan for technology upgrades, the market will be stable, rather than going through the upheaval of mergers and dissolutions we have recently seen. Elections are perhaps the most poorly funded of all of the critical elements of democracy in the U.S., and we get what we pay for.

joe-hallJoseph Lorenzo Hall is a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Information and a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. His Ph.D. thesis examined electronic voting as a critical case study in the transparency of digital government systems.

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

The Problem: URLs and Internal Links for Legislative Documents

LegisLink LogoLegislative documents reside at various government Websites in various formats (TXT, HTML, XML, PDF, WordPerfect). URLs for these documents are often too long or difficult to construct. For example, here is the URL for the HTML format version of bill H.R. 3200 of the 111th U.S. Congress:

http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111hr3200IH/html/BILLS-111hr3200IH.htm

More importantly, “deep” links to internal locations (often called “subdivisions” or “segments”) within a legislative document (the citations within the law, such as section 246 of bill H.R. 3200) are often not supported, or are non-intuitive for users to create or use. For most legislative Websites, users must click through or fill out forms and then scroll or search for the specific location in the text of legislation. This makes it difficult if not impossible to create and share links to official citations. Enabling internal links to subdivisions of legislative documents is crucial, because in most situations, users of legal information need access only to a subdivision of a legal document, not to the entire document.

A Solution: LegisLink

LegisLink.org is a URL Redirection Service with the goal of enabling Internet access to legislative material using citation-based URLs rather than requiring users to repeatedly click and scroll through documents to arrive at a destination.  Let’s say you’re reading an article at CNN.com and the article references section 246 in H.R. 3200.  If you want to read the section, you can search for H.R. 3200 and more than likely you will find the bill and then scroll to find the desired section.  On the other hand, you can use something like LegisLink by typing the correct URL.  For example: http://legislink.org/us/hr-3200-ih-246.

LegisLink Screen Shot

 

Benefits

There are several advantages of having a Web service that resolves legislative and legal citations.

(1)   LegisLink provides links to citations that are otherwise not easy for users to create.  In order to create a hyperlink to a location in an HTML or XML file, the publisher must include unique anchor or id attributes within their files.  Even if these attributes are included, they are often not exposed as links for Internet users to re-use.   On the other hand, Web-based software can easily scan a file’s text to find a requested citation and then redirect the user to the requested location.  For PDF files, it is possible to create hyperlinks to specific pages and locations when using the Acrobat plug-in from Adobe.  In these cases, hyperlinks can direct the user to the document location at the official Website.

For example, here is the LegisLink URL that links directly to section 246 within the PDF version of H.R. 3200: http://legislink.org/us/hr-3200-ih-246-pdf

In cases where governments have not included ids in HTML, XML or TXT files, LegisLink can replicate a government document on the LegisLink site, insert an anchor, and then redirect the user to the requested location.

(2)   LegisLink makes it easy to get to a specific location in a document, which saves time.  Law students and presumably all law professionals are relying on online resources to a greater extent than ever before.  In 2004, Stanford Law School published the results of their survey that found that 93% of first year law students used online resources for legal research at least 80% of the time.

hanoicyclers.png(3)   Creating and maintaining a .org site that acts as an umbrella for all jurisdictions makes it easier to locate documents and citations, especially when they have been issued by a jurisdiction with which one is unfamiliar.  Legislation and other legal documents tend to reside at multiple Websites within a jurisdiction.  For example, while U.S. federal legislation (i.e., bills and slip laws) is stored at thomas.loc.gov (HTML and XML) and gpo.gov (at FDsys and GPO Access) (TXT and PDF), the United States Code is available at uscode.house.gov and at gpo.gov (FDsys and GPO Access), while roll call votes are at clerk.house.gov and www.senate.gov.   Governments tend to compartmentalize activities, and their Websites reflect much of that compartmentalization.  LegisLink.org or something like it could, at a minimum, provide a resource that helps casual and new users find where official documents are stored at various locations or among various jurisdictions.

(4) LegisLinks won’t break over time. Governments sometimes change the URL locations for their documents. This often breaks previously relied-upon URLs (a result that is sometimes called “link rot”). A URL Redirection Service lessens these eventual annoyances to users because the syntax for the LegisLink-type service remains the same. To “fix” the broken links, the LegisLink software is simply updated to link to the government’s new URLs. This means that previously published LegisLinks won’t break over time.

(5)   A LegisLink-type service does not require governments to expend resources.  The goal of LegisLink is to point to government or government-designated resources.  If those resources contain anchors or id attributes, they can be used to link to the official government site.  If the documents are in PDF (non-scanned), they can also be used to link to the official government site.  In other cases, the files can be replicated temporarily and slightly manipulated (e.g., the tag <a name=SEC-#> can be added at the appropriate location) in order to achieve the desired results.

RocksAlternatives

While some Websites have implemented Permalinks and handle systems (e.g., the Library of Congress’s THOMAS system), these systems tend to link users to the document level only. They also generally only work within a single Internet domain, and casual users tend not to be aware of their existence.

Other technologies at the forefront of this space include recent efforts to create a URN-based syntax for legal documents (URN:LEX). To quote from the draft specification, “In an on-line environment with resources distributed among different Web publishers, uniform resource names allow simplified global interconnection of legal documents by means of automated hypertext linking.”

The syntax for URN:LEX is a bit lengthy, but because of its specificity, it needs to be included in any universal legal citation redirection service. The inclusion of URN:LEX syntax does not, however, mitigate the need for additional simpler syntaxes.  This distinction is important for the users who just want to quickly access a particular legislative document, such as a bill that is mentioned in a news article.  For example, if LegisLink were widely adopted, users would come to know that the URL http://legislink.org/us/hr-3200 will link to the current Congress’s H.R. 3200; the LegisLink URL is therefore readily usable by humans. And use of LegisLink for a particular piece of legislation is to some extent consistent with the use of URN:LEX for the same legislation: for example, a URN:LEX-based address such as http://legislink.org/urn:lex/us/federal:legislation:2009;
111.hr.3200@official;thomas.loc.gov:en$text-html
could also lead to the current Congress’s H.R. 3200. A LegisLink-type service can include the URN:LEX syntax, but the URN:LEX syntax cannot subsume the simplified syntax being proposed for LegisLink.org.

The goals of Citability.org, another effort to address these issues, calls for the replication of all government documents for point-in-time access. In addition, Citability.org envisions including date and time information as part of the URL syntax in order to provide access to the citable content that was available at the specified date and time. LegisLink has more modest goals: it focuses on linking to currently provided government documents and locations within those documents. Since legislation is typically stored as separate, un-revisable documents for a given legislative term (lasting 2 years in many U.S. jurisdictions), the use of date and time information is redundant with legislative session information.

The primary goal of a legislative URL Redirection Service such as LegisLink.org is to expedite the delivery of needed information to the Internet user. In addition, the LegisLink tools used to link to legislative citations in one jurisdiction can be re-used for other jurisdictions; this reduces developers’ labor as more jurisdictions are added.

PathwayNext Steps

The LegisLink.org site is organized by jurisdiction: each jurisdiction has its own script, and all scripts can re-use common functions. The prototype is currently being built to handle the United States (us), Colorado (us-co), and New Zealand (nz). The LegisLink source code is available as text files at http://legislink.org/code.html.

The challenges of a service like LegisLink.org are: (1) determining whether the legal community is interested in this sort of solution, (2) finding legislative experts to define the needed syntax and results for jurisdictions of interest, and (3) finding software developers interested in helping to work on the project.

This project cannot be accomplished by one or two people. Your help is needed, whether you are an interested user or a software developer. At this point, the code for LegisLink is written in Perl. Please join the LegisLink wiki site at http://legislink.wikispaces.org to add your ideas, to discuss related information, or just to stay informed about what’s going on with LegisLink.

Joe_CarmelJoe Carmel is a part-time consultant and software developer hobbyist. He was previously Chief of the Legislative Computer Systems at the U.S. House of Representatives (2001-2005) and spearheaded the use of XML for the drafting of legislation, the publication of roll call votes, and the creation and maintenance of the U.S. Congressional Biographical Directory.

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