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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.

Farmland outside Matatiele

My father was, as was his father before him, a country lawyer in a remote but very beautiful part of South Africa, in the foothills of the Maluti mountains on the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Prominent in his legal office near the Magistrate’s Court were shelves of leather bound volumes of South African statutes, cases, and law reports, which I found impressive, with their gold blocking on red spines. Even back then, South African lawyers were well supplied with legal publications, the production of which dated back to the mid-19th century, when a Dutch immigrant, Jan Carel Juta (who was married to Karl Marx’s sister) published the first law reports. This means that the legal profession in South Africa has access to a century and a half of legal records, something of undoubted value, given that many African countries have no legal publications at all.

If it was a court day, one could hear from my father’s office the hubbub of conversations in Sotho, Xhosa, English, and Afrikaans floating down the road from outside the Magistrate’s Court, where blanket-clad Sotho men down from the mountains had tied up their horses at a hitching post alongside police vans and farmer’s trucks.

Rural settlements

This was Wild West country in the 19th century — and cross-border cattle rustling cases continue to figure large — but when I grew up, in the wake of the Second World War, it presented itself as a quiet village, in a prosperous farming area surrounded by very large ‘trust lands’ (in colonial- and apartheid-speak) of traditional Black peasant communities, where the place names were those of the presiding chiefs. This naming was a symptom of the colonial manipulation of the legal system, described by Mahmood Mamdani, to impose an autocratic and patriarchal ‘customary’ system, a heritage that lingers on in a democratic South Africa. In a legal practice like my father’s, there was a startling dichotomy between the well-paid work done for the prosperous white community with its commercial- and property-law needs, and the customary-law and criminal cases that came from the overwhelmingly larger black communities, dependent on legal aid or paying their fees in small cash installments to a clerk in a back office.

Village traders

I was thus aware at a young age of conflicting values at the intersection between western concepts of the law, its formal and Latinate expression and punctilious enforcement, and the needs of rural black communities; the problematic role that language played in the adversarial ritual of criminal court procedure, alien to many participants; and the difficulties inherent in responding to the needs of very large and widely geographically dispersed poor and disenfranchised communities. The stories my father told about his days in court as a defending attorney were often tales of incomprehension compounded by mistranslation.

This rural setting provides a vivid and useful map of divergent needs for access to legal information in the complexity of an African context. In fact this setting throws a stark spotlight on issues of legal access that are easily obscured in the global North. In an urban setting in South Africa, the issues would be different respecting details, but generally the same: the question is how to bridge the gap between the formalities and rituals of colonially-based and imported legal discourse and the ways in which the legal system impacts on the lives of most of the population. In this context, how does one transform into action Nick Holmes’s concerns, as expressed in his VoxPopuLII blog, about making the law accessible, i.e., suited to meeting the needs of citizens and lawyers in less privileged practices, in an appropriate language and format? Or, to use Isabel Moncion’s distinction between the law and justice, how does one communicate the law in such a way as to reach the people who need the information? And lastly — of vital importance in an African setting where resources are scarce — how does one make such a publishing enterprise sustainable?

I do not come to this discussion with a legal training. I would have become a lawyer, no doubt, like the generations of my father’s family, but 1950s gender stereotypes got in the way. Instead, I became an academic publisher, and then a consultant and researcher on the potential of digital media in Africa. This trajectory gives a particular coloration to my concerns for access to legal information in Africa: my approach brings together an acknowledgement of the need for professional skills and sustainability with an awareness of the serious limitations of the current publishing regime in providing comprehensive access to legal information.

Law publishing in South Africa

The fact that South Africa has a well-established legal publishing sector sets that nation apart from the rest of Africa. The strength of the legal publishing industry is a reflection not only of South Africa’s prosperity, but also of the distinctiveness of the South African legal system, a fusion of Romano-Dutch and British legal traditions. The uniqueness of this system meant that South African law publishing could not rely on purely British sources, and gave local South African legal publishers a market not subject to competition from Britain. However, the nature of this legal system also gave it a tendency, at least in its early stages, towards a particularly impenetrable mode of expression, fueled by the Latinisms of its Roman roots.

Lawyers in practice, the legal departments of big companies, and the courts are relatively well served by the South African legal publishing industry, and the system is self-sustaining. However, there are problems. One is that the industry still clings to print-based business models. The focus is on the readership that can pay and on the topics that are of interest to this readership. The danger resides in seeing this situation as sufficient: in seeing the relatively wealthy market being served as the whole market, and the narrow range of publications produced as satisfying the totality of publication needs. With the South African legal profession still struggling to diversify out of white male dominance, this is an important issue.

As global media have consolidated in the last few decades, South African legal publishers have shown a decreasing willingness to try to find ways of addressing commercially marginal markets. This has meant that, although mainstream legal publishers in South Africa have long produced digital publications, there is reliance on a high-price market model. In other countries one might talk of a failure to address niche markets, but in South Africa it is the mass of the population who are marginalised by this business model. A smaller specialist publisher, Simon Sefton’s Siber Ink, seems more aware than the bigger players of the need for accessible language and affordable prices for legal resources, as well as active social media engagement to create debates about key community issues.

Some hope of solutions to the question of access by otherwise marginalised readers lies in the development, on the margins of the publishing industry, of innovative smaller players leveraging digital media to reach new readerships, often using open source models that combine the free and the paid for.

Access to legal information – The role of government

The main efforts being put into access to legal information in South Africa are quite rightly focusing on government-generated information, which, being taxpayer funded, should be in the public domain and is indeed available on the South African Government Information site. Progress is being made by the Southern African Legal Information Institute (SAFLII) in improving the accessibility of primary legal resources, and success would mean the availability of a substantial body of information that would then be available for interpretation and translation.

Beyond this, government practice in ensuring this level of access is patchy. Some departments are good at posting legislation on their Websites, others less so. Government Gazettes, although theoretically accessible to all, can be difficult to find and navigate; and the collation of legislative amendments with the original Acts is also patchy. There is — at least in theory — an acceptance of the need in government for an open government approach, but the fact that there is a publishing industry serving the profession and the courts ironically reduces the pressure to achieve this goal.

South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

There is a danger, however, when government sees the print-publication profit model as the natural and only way of producing sustainable publications. This was brought home in 1998 with a very important publication: the Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This sad and salutary story is worth telling in some detail.  But first, a disclaimer: I was working at the time for the company that distributed the Report, and I was actively involved in securing the bid from publishers, although I was not supportive of the business model that was imposed in the end.

Five volumes of testimony, analysis, and findings from the Commission were produced to high production standards. The compilers saw the archival material that lay behind these volumes as ‘the Commission’s greatest legacy’ and the published volumes as ‘a window on this incredible resource, offering a road map to those who wish to travel into our past’ (p.2).  The Department of Justice, working on the stereotypical view of how publication works, insisted that production and printing costs had to be fully recovered. The Department set a high price to be charged by the appointed distributor, Juta Law and Academic Publishers.

The second set of problems arose with the digital version of the publication that Juta had offered to develop. The digital division of the legal publisher insisted on high prices. It was this inappropriate digital business model that created a row in the press. Then, a ‘pirate’ version of the publication was produced by the developer of the TRC Website, who claimed that he had the rights to a free online product. Public opinion was firmly behind the idea that the digital version should be free and that the publisher was profiteering out of South Africa’s pain.

In the end, hardly any copies of the Report were sold. The lesson was a hard one for a publishing company: digital content that is seen as part of the national heritage cannot be subjected to high-price commercial strategies.

The full text of the TRC Report is now online on the South African Government Information Website.

The LRC Website

Leaping the divide – Law and land

What is more difficult and diffuse is the route to providing access to really useful information that could help communities engage with the impact of legislation on their lives, whether the issue be housing policy or land tenure legislation, gender rights or press freedom.

If we go back to my initial example of rural communities and their access to the law, there is a dauntingly wide range of issues at stake — questions of individual agency, gender rights, fair labour practice, property rights and access to land, food sustainability, and a number of human rights issues – including legislative process as the ANC government implements the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004. In Matatiele, the village in which my father practised, there has been a long-drawn-out dispute about provincial boundaries, with the community challenging the legislative process in the Constitutional Court.

Questions of access to this kind of information are addressed in an ecosystem broader than the conventional publishing industry. NGOs and research units based in universities and national research councils address the wider concerns of community justice; using a variety of business models, these organizations produce a range of publications and work closely with communities. In the case of the Communal Land Rights Act, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) supported a Constitutional Court challenge and published a book on the Act and its problems. The LRC, like other organisations of its kind, makes booklets, brochures, and reports freely available online. These efforts tend to be donor-funded and, increasingly, donors like the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) insist that publications be distributed under Creative Commons licenses. In the case of books published by commercial publishers, this means an open access digital version, and a print version for sale.

A major problem in providing commentary on legislative issues for the general public is that of ensuring a lack of bias. In the case of the Communal Land Rights Act — as well as for the other critical justice issues that it covers – the LRC explicitly aimed to provide a comprehensive insight into the issues for experts and the general public; the Centre accordingly placed the full text of its submissions to the hearings as well as answering affidavits on a CD-ROM and online. It also produces a range of resources, online text, and audio, targeted at communities.

Similar publication efforts are undertaken by a number of other NGOs and research centres — such as the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town — on a wide range of issues. These organizations’ publishing activities tend to be interdisciplinary and the general practice is to place reports and other publications online for free download. There is a growing wave, in scholarly publishing in particular, to seek a redefinition of what constitutes ‘proper’ publishing; this process has yielded the notion of a continuum between scholarly (and professional) work and the ‘translation’ of this work into more accessible versions.

A useful strategic exercise would be to tag and aggregate the legal publishing contributions of NGOs and research centres — as these resources are often difficult to track, or hidden deep in university Websites — preferably with social networking spaces for discussion and evaluation.

Sustainability models

These civil society publishers are generally dependent on donor funding. What is needed is to recognise them as part of the publishing ecosystem. The question is how to create publishing models that can offer longer-term sustainability that might work beyond a well-resourced country like South Africa. The most promising and sustainable future looks to be in small and innovative digital companies using open source publishing models, offering free content as well as value-added services for sale. Examples are currently mostly to be found in textbook and training models, like the Electric Book Works Health Care series, which offers free content online, with payment for print books, training, and accreditation.

What is clear is that multi-pronged solutions must be found over time to the question of how to bridge the divide in African access to reliable and relevant legal information, and that a promising site for these solutions is the intersection between research and civil society organisations and community activists.

Eve GrayEve Gray is an Honorary Research Associate in the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town and an Associate in the IP Law and Policy Research Unit. She is a specialist in scholarly communications in the digital age, working on strategies for leveraging information technologies to grow African voices in an unequal global environment.

Photos: Eve Gray CC BY

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.