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What’s Cool? Indentation is Cool!

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A small, innovative group like ours is continually forced to make difficult decisions about what projects to take on next.  We just haven’t got the time to try all the things we can think up.  As a result, we’ve had to develop our own set of notions about what’s cool — what adds value rather than glitz, what helps our users the most, what will pass twin tests of novelty and utility.  Over the years we’ve developed an aesthetic. We think that the best innovations are both fundamental and (mostly) invisible to the user.  They’re just the way things should be. Make no mistake — we like fancy, flashy tech stuff just as much as anybody– but we’re very aware that a lot of it is just geek-fashion that, however pretty it may be, doesn’t offer much to our audience.

Indentation is an interesting case in point.  Over the years, a lot of you have told us that indentation is one of the best features of our CFR edition. It makes our edition much more readable than the unindented versions in print and on the Web.  Now, indentation is hardly innovative — it’s  been around since at least 1482, when it appeared in an incunabulum of Heinrich Knoblochtzer.  It’s not like we were the first people to think of it.

However… even though indentation itself is not particularly innovative, designing computer programs that automate the process over collections the size of the CFR is really, really hard (and, to be honest, our work on it is far from perfect).  The indentations don’t appear in the text files that we get from the Government Printing Office.  The only clues we get are the placement of enumerators (text addresses like the (a), (1), (iii), and (A) in 8 CFR 103.3 (a)(1)(iii)(A)). In theory, they follow a pattern (small letter, digit, roman numeral, capital letter) as the levels become more granular, but in reality the pattern can be different in different places in the CFR, and even within a particular section.  And, as you can see in the section linked above, it repeats when there are more than 4 levels.  To make things even more interesting, the Federal agencies who write the regs in CFR occasionally make mistakes — it is not unheard-of for a small roman-numeral “(i)” to be followed by a “(j)” because someone wasn’t paying close attention when editing.  The software that sorts all of this out — and then tries to audit the results for correctness — is very difficult to design; we’re currently on our third attempt, and as you can see in the linked example, we have a ways to go.  Writing computer programs that attempt this task is a pretty good way to make your head hurt (DAMHIKT).

But here’s the thing about our donors: you’re the kind of people who think indentation is cool, too.  Recently, a bunch of you said so in your responses to one of our surveys — and we were delighted to hear it. Interestingly, many of the same people said they placed a fairly low priority on  “development of innovative features.”  We loved that, because we think innovation should be so ready-to-hand as to be invisible.  And the fact that you guys find it so is very cool.


Tax Help from the LII

IRS logo
No, we’re not talking about a tax-deductible donation to the LII (this time–but, feel free to go ahead and donate if you’d like).

We’re here instead to introduce a new feature you might not have noticed in 26 U.S.C., aka the tax code.

This is going to be a little bit interactive at first, so please play along.

Please click here to look at a section of the tax code that’s near and dear to us, Section 501: “Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc.”  Note the light blue tabs at the top of the page:

  • US Code
  • Notes
  • IRS Rulings
  • Authorities (CFR)

What’s new is the IRS Rulings tab.  Please click on it.


So, where’s the magic?  To appreciate the practicality of this feature, you should follow our link from that page to the IRS’s own collection of these letters (or by just clicking here).  What we’ve done is organize this large collection of guidance from the IRS in a way that is meant to be useful to tax lawyers, tax preparers, and others who are interested in it.  We’ve gathered together all the Written Determinations that cite to a given section of the tax code and put them with that section of the tax code.  There is no other publisher, free or commercial, who has done this.  (The IRS’s collection, by contrast, is a list sortable only by the number, the release date, the rather unhelpfully generic “subject” or the ponderous “Uniform Issue List Code.”

This is a project we undertook at the separate suggestion of two different friends of the LII–including a donor like you and Cornell University’s own, in-house tax guru.  In fact, one reason to spotlight this feature is for its value as a case study in where our projects come from.  They come from YOU.   If you see a gap in the way government or other websites or legal publishers are providing information–especially one that can be solved with the clever application of computer science–we are always happy to hear from you.  Email our Director here.

Another reason to talk about this feature is it demonstrates the overlap between data, computer science, and legal informatics.  That is the world in which operate, and we like to explain it to our friends like you whenever and however we can.  Good examples like this are a great opportunity.

Clean data from the IRS made this, frankly, relatively easy to do.  By publishing these letter rulings in xml with consistent metadata tags and uniform citations to the US Code, the IRS made it easy for us (or anyone else) to do what we did.  Compare that to the output of some other federal agencies–such as these pdfs of decisions of the Administrative Appeals Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  (We’re working on those next.)

From issues you might find familiar (such as “flat” pdfs with handwritten marginalia and other challenges for optical character recognition software) to others you likely will not (like the challenges of temporal instability at the subsection level of the CFR), most government-published collections of potentially useful data look more like the USCIS’s than the IRS’s.  In short, this is fertile ground for both helping the government to improve the way it makes its work product available and for applying advanced methods of processing and analysis to improve the usability of the existing piles (and piles and piles) of government-created data out there.  We do both.

Just like we’ve written about the indentation in our CFR, one way to measure the quality of a feature is by measuring its “invisibility”–can users like you find it and use it without ever appreciating just how much effort might be going on behind the scenes to bring you this “simple” little bit of functionality?  While we strive to bring you innovation that looks and feels light-weight, it’s important to our mission and the future of online legal publishing that every once in a while we stop and say “Voila!”

That’s a small glimpse into the world in which we operate.  Meanwhile, in the world in which we ALL operate, Tax Day is just around the corner.



LII Staff Profile: Sylvia Kwakye

photo2She’s baaaack!  Former LII employee Sylvia Kwakye recently returned to Ithaca, and we are lucky to add her to our staff as a Text Systems Developer. “I practice the dark arts of data mining and natural language processing to transform dry legal texts into attractive, easier to relate to but accurate reflections of themselves,” she explains.

Sylvia worked for the LII years ago while studying for her PhD in Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell.

“I took Computer Science 501 as part of my Computer Science minor,” she says. “In this class we were asked to do a project, and given a list of Cornell groups that had problems to solve. I was always interested in doing something real and useful, so I chose the LII. I was interested enough to ask to continue working when the class was over.”

As LII Director Tom Bruce recalls it, “Sylvia thought it would be fun to work on the U.S. Code with us.” Since the U.S. Code project was complex and difficult to create, it’s clear that Sylvia finds her “fun” in taking on complicated problems.

Once again, she’s working with the U.S. Code–now as a full-time member of the LII staff. One of Sylvia’s noteworthy projects is adding definitions of key terms. For example, there are 47 different uses of the word “water” in the U.S. Code. Sylvia is developing a system that will display the correct definition each time the word appears.

Sylvia comes from Ghana, but spent most of her first eight years in the U.S.  Her father studied at the University of Chicago. When the family returned to Ghana, he worked for several agencies and the University of Ghana. “We moved around, but mostly lived in Accra, the capital. We spent school vacations in the villages with our grandparents.”

Stories of the University of Chicago led Sylvia to apply there. “Initially, I wanted to be a doctor, and I got into medical school in Ghana,” she recalls. “But Dad loved liberal arts education, and said, go to a liberal arts school and then do medical school afterwards if that’s what you still want.” Stories of the University of Chicago led Sylvia to apply there.  She also applied to Swarthmore, which offered her a scholarship.  Ultimately, she chose Swarthmore.

Engineering seemed like a good pre-med degree. However, computational biology was becoming better known, “and I just happened to be in a position to understand both biology and engineering,” says Sylvia.

After graduating from Swarthmore in 1998 with a BS in Engineering, she worked as a research engineer with the Computational Biology Group at the Dupont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware. There, she says, “I got interested in writing and using software to make life easier.”

“We were trying to understand what protein switches turn genes on and off as a plant grew,” she says. “A microarray is a tray with 96 wells , so you could do 96 DNA tests at a time. So, you quickly end up with thousands of data points to analyze. That’s where all the computer science courses I had taken for fun at Swarthmore College came to the rescue. I wrote software tools to reduce months of analysis work to a matter of hours. From then it’s been routine for me to learn programming to help me get work done.”

For her PhD work at Cornell, she developed a system for rapidly detecting pathogens for use in low-resource communities: that is, a small, portable box that would test for the dengue fever virus, among other things.

After receiving her PhD in 2010, Sylvia teamed up with a graduate of Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management and a professor at Case Western Reserve University to develop her detection system into a commercially viable product. Unfortunately, they ran out of resources. “Because we were such a small team, major life changing events had quite an impact on our abilities to carry on,” Sylvia says. Those events included the death of her father, which required her to spend time in Ghana settling the estate.

Meanwhile, her husband Stefan continued studying for his PhD at Cornell, while his mother came from Trinidad to help with their two children, now aged nine and eight. Stefan has since completed his degree, works in the renewable energy industry, has a consulting job, and also writes software for fun.

When Sylvia returned to Ithaca, the LII was delighted to bring her back onboard.  In addition to her primary responsibilities engineering improvements to the website, she’s also helping Sara Frug, LII’s Associate Director for Technology, to mentor Master of Engineering students who are working on projects for the LII. “I was just like them,” Sylvia recalls. “I had the same anxiety about getting it right!”

Talking with Sylvia, however, you don’t see anxiety about getting things right; only the enjoyment she takes in solving complicated problems.

LII Donor Profile: Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr

STEPHEN_YALE-LOEHRWhile gifts of money are crucial to our operating model, the vote of confidence they represent is just as important to us.   Donations to the LII come in many forms, all of them helping us realize our mission in different ways.

As we note in our story about IRS Written Determinations, some people give us great ideas to explore.  We are always interested in hearing about problems like, for example, unavailable or poorly-organized government data we can help organize into a useful tool for researchers, academics, businesses, attorneys, or just “the general public.”  Send us your ideas here.

But right now, we’d like to focus on a  third kind of donor: our donors of content.  Whether it is a retired computer scientist writing about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or a practicing attorney updating our overview of bankruptcy law, folks from many different walks of life contribute content, primarily through our Wex legal reference feature.  (You can join them by signing up here.)

Recently, law professor and long-time friend of the LII Stephen Yale-Loehr upped the ante by getting his students involved.  He made writing for Wex part of the coursework in his immigration law seminar.   We caught up with Steve to talk about why he’s donating effort–both his own and his students’–to the LII.

You are both a law professor and a practitioner of immigration and asylum law. How do those two roles complement each other?

I think the two help each other. Practicing law allows me to bring real world stories to my immigration law classes, which my students always find interesting.  And having to keep up on the latest immigration law developments for my classes helps my immigration clients.

You’ve been on the Law School faculty since 1991.  Has the advent of the Internet had a bigger impact on teaching law or practicing it?  Why?

The Internet has had a big impact on both.  For example, most of my assignments for my immigration classes now are links to articles or cases on the Internet, rather than a hard copy.  I also use YouTube video clips to illustrate certain points.  That was not possible before the Internet.

The Internet has dramatically changed immigration practice.  I do almost all of my research online now rather than through books.  With the advent of the Internet we can represent clients anywhere in the world.  For example, over half of our immigration clients at Miller Mayer live overseas.  We never may never meet them, but we communicate effectively with them via email and receive and send them documents electronically.

This year, you asked your students to publish summaries of important Supreme Court immigration decisions in Wex.  Did you have a particular pedagogical goal in mind, or did you just want to see the content added to Wex?

Both.  I wanted to see if my students could summarize Supreme Court immigration opinions, which can be pretty dense and complicated, in a way that would be accessible to lay people.  Also, some of the Supreme Court’s key immigration decisions were decided 50 or 100 years ago, but remain important today.  While Wex has started summarizing major Supreme Court decisions, a lot of older opinions have not been summarized yet.  People should know about key immigration decisions, no matter when they were decided.

Do you think your students approached that particular assignment differently because their work was going to be (and is now) viewable by the general public?

Like any teacher, he called on one of his students to answer this question.  Jessica Flores, a member of the Class of 2015, replied:

“I approached the writing to the immigration case summary differently to some extent.  Since I knew my audience was going to be the general public, as opposed to other law students or lawyers, I wanted to make sure I carefully explained the case and the legal concepts of the case in a simplified way.  I wanted to make sure that anyone without any legal or immigration knowledge/background would be able to understand the case.  I know that legal cases can sometimes be difficult even for law students to understand so I tried to explain the case as clearly as possible.  I liked that I could hyperlink legal concepts in my case summary to other LII posts because I knew that other summaries would assist the general public in understanding my case summary.  For example, I hyperlinked the Fourth Amendment in my case summary.”

How much editing did you do of the student pieces before LII published them in Wex?

Very little.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well the students did.  This is in part because of the excellent template and instructions that LII developed.

This seems like a fairly simple model that could be replicated in other classrooms–and not just law classrooms–around the country.  Do you see any potential pitfalls to LII expanding it into other seminars writing on other areas?

None at all.  LII has developed a good template and instructions to make it easy for any professor to give this assignment to his or her students.  It is also a good way to see if students really understand key cases!

To see the finished summaries from Steve’s students, click here.


December 2014 Fundraising Report

thank-you-newsletter (1)Friends:

Because of you, our year-end fundraising campaign was quite successful, raising well over $70,000.  That’s a 6% increase from the previous year — an impressive number when you consider that the average for nonprofits nationally is only 4%. Thanks to all of you, both for your generous contributions and for the vote of confidence that they represent.  As part of the community that recognizes that open access to law helps all sorts of people solve important problems, you’re helping 28 million people around the world find and understand the law — and to use that understanding to solve problems, either for themselves or for others.  Thank you.  We’re immensely grateful for your belief in the LII’s mission, and for your investment in our work.

Your contributions buy time and talent — the two things that we never have enough of.  One of the advantages of being affiliated with a large university is that the students are unbelievably smart and skilled; your contributions allow us to employ people who will, in a year or two, be working for the likes of Google, Facebook, Oracle, and for an array of high-end law firms.  They turn out amazing work in developing new features, in writing new material for the site, and — most importantly — in undertaking collaborative work that needs both legal and technical expertise.  Because they’re students, your dollars go a very long way (and, incidentally, you’re helping them buy groceries).

This year, we’re planning significant improvements to our US Code collection, primarily in the form of linkage to interpretive information like the IRS written determinations we added to the tax code last year.  Right now, we’re working on the interpretive letters that the USCIS issues in response to questions about immigration law, on finishing our grand project of linking all of the words in the CFR and US Code that are defined by statute to their respective statutory definitions, and on making the interpretive material in our 5,000-article WEX legal encyclopedia directly accessible from the laws they explain.  We expect that WEX itself is going to expand significantly during the next year — we are actively recruiting volunteers to help us create more expert commentary and explanation, and many of you are already helping out.  Contributions of effort are really important, too — and I’m hoping that many of you in our community will join us in making WEX the best place for people who want to understand the law.

Once again, thanks for helping us out.  LII donors are a unique bunch, and all of us are delighted to have your support.  As always, I’m eager to hear from you — so don’t hesitate to drop me a line with your comments, suggestions, and criticisms.