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Alfred Mahlangu Visits the LII

alfred1On a chilly day in March this year, Alfred Mahlangu arrived at the LII, having travelled from AfricanLII in Cape Town, South Africa. He came to Ithaca to work on creating the “LII in a Box.”

“The LII is the sister, brother, parent, and uncle to AfricanLII,” Mahlangu explained. “I’m here to get ideas.”

AfricanLII’s main goal is to promote free access to law in Africa. They identify potential new Legal Information Institutes on the continent, and support existing ones. To meet these goals, AfricanLII wants to provide a platform that will enable individual countries in Africa to create and maintain an LII on the Web without needing extensive technical knowledge. The “LII in a Box” is the solution to that problem.

“The LII in a Box provides a database system, to handle the laws, and a website system, to publish them,” said Mahlangu. “What lives in the database is up to each LII.”

Each country in Africa has a different set of problems to solve when developing a new LII. Founders must define the scope of law they can cover, then negotiate access to that law with a number of parties. Creating a system of hardware and software, and hiring a tech to run it, can turn a difficult job into an impossible one.

“This is not just an African problem,” explained Tom Bruce, Director of the LII. “In every public legal publishing operation we know of, whether inside government or in an independent non-profit, or in a university, software techs are spread thin and mobility is high.  The overall effect is that even the most imposing institutions are, personnel-wise, pyramids resting on a pinpoint.”

During his month in Ithaca, Mahlangu worked with the whole LII team. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to interact,” he said. “If I find anomalies with a web server, I work with Nic; if I have issues with Drupal, I work with Wayne. Sara provides the overview for each question.” For example, Mahlangu said, he found a problem that could have been anywhere in 300 pages of computer code. The LII team helped him locate and solve the problem.

“It’s a demanding environment to create software for,” said Tom Bruce. Ithaca’s environment posed challenges of its own. Of course, everyone asked Mahlangu how he coped with Ithaca’s snowy March weather. “I have experienced snow before, when I worked in KwaZulu Natal,” he said, “but it was nothing compared to this!” He added that seeing people out jogging in the cold was a surprise. He was also surprised to be carded when purchasing beer. South Africa has no underage drinking laws. “Fortunately, I had a driver’s license with me,” he said.

“I got interested in IT in grade 12, when they showed us different career paths,” Mahlangu continued. “We didn’t have computer science in school; we just used basic machines. But to the curious mind—I said to myself, I’m sure there’s more to learn here.”

He received his B.S in Information Technology from the University of Cape Town in 2005. “At the time, IT (Information Technology) was starting a boom in South Africa,” Mahlangu said. His choice of U. Cape Town was helped by the fact that Mark Shuttleworth graduated from there, and went on to develop Ubuntu, a well-known open-source operating system

In 2007, Mahlangu received his postgraduate diploma in mathematical sciences from the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences at Stellenbosch University, also in Cape Town. He chose the program because it emphasized problem solving—and it was free to those with a science degree.

Mahlangu has developed websites for the University of KwaZulu Natal,  the University of Witwatersrand, and South African National Parks. “Development of systems is one of the things I am most interested in,” he said. “As long as everything is okay with the infrastructure, you can have time to look into a lot of things.” Having gained skills in teaching, project management, and software development, Mahlangu joined AfricanLII as Information Technology Coordinator in May 2014.

The African Legal Information Institute (AfricanLII) began in 2010, supported by the Open Society Institute via its Southern African Litigation Center in Johannesburg. In 2014, AfricanLII moved to Cape Town, as a project of the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) at the Department of Public Law, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town. Co-founder Mariya Badeva-Bright serves as program manager, and Oluwatoyin Badejogbin focuses on Advocacy and Policy. Alfred Mahlangu rounds out the team. He returns to South Africa with the foundations of “LII in a Box” well established.

And, as we describe elsewhere in this newsletter,  LII has already found  its own uses for LII-in-a-box as a component of a system that could advance the cause of gender equality worldwide.


We Love it When a Plan Comes Together

synergy2vElsewhere in this newsletter, you’ll read about our month-long visit from Tswinyane Alfred Mahlangu, the principal technologist for our sister organization AfricanLII.  Alfred was here to work on LII-in-a-Box, a donor-funded AfricanLII project that will create a plug-and-play server that supports all forms of online legal publishing — judicial opinions, statutes, regulations, and other materials — in a way that combines ease of publication with sophisticated search and data-management capabilities.  The project has immense potential for use in jurisdictions that don’t yet have any form of open access to legal information, and for other projects as well.

About a week after Alfred left, we were invited to collaborate with the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice here at the Law School. The Avon Center was responding to a request for proposals from UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.  They are eager to establish a worldwide database of judicial opinions and commentary centering around gender-equality issues.  It appears that LII-in-a-box is exactly what’s needed to support the project — and that it will substantially reduce the cost and difficulty of establishing and maintaining a database of legal information that will be used by judges, lawyers, and gender-equality advocates worldwide to advance gender equality within the context of constitutional provisions in areas such as violence against women, citizenship and nationality, marriage, harmful practices and property rights.

That’s the sort of synergy that happens when software based on open standards is shared by like-minded communities, and it makes us very happy to contribute our expertise to it.

Frank Wagner Prize Announced

East_Frieze_Above_JusticesOur Supreme Court Bulletin staff recently wrapped up its work on the 2014 – 2015 docket and celebrated by announcing the winners of the annual Frank Wagner Prize.  The award is funded by an anonymous donor in admiration and recognition of Frank Wagner, the longest-tenured Reporter of Decisions in the history of the United States Supreme Court.  Since his retirement, Frank has graciously donated his time to the LII, mentoring the Bulletin staff and choosing the winners of the prize bearing his name.

Each Bulletin Preview is a collaborative effort of two authors and an editor, and so the entire team shares the Prize (and splits the cash).  Frank selects a winner and a runner-up each year.

First place this year went to the writing team of Michael Duke and Edward Flores, along with editor Jacob Brandler, for their work on King v Burwell–the case challenging the tax credit structure of the Affordable Care Act. Frank praised their work: “Michael and Ed’s preview does an extremely fine job of explaining the issues that will affect the decision.  They have written it in a prose style that is succinct, lucid, and easily understood by even those few citizens who are otherwise completely unfamiliar with the subject matter.”  He went on to call King v. Burwell “possibly the best preview I’ve seen during my years with the LII.”

Authors Matthew Valenti and Christa Maiorano, along with editor Dan Rosales, earned the runner-up prize for their work on Wellness Int’l Network v. Sharif.   Frank described their work as “a careful and artful job of explaining the myriad bankruptcy issues and sub-issues that will influence the Court’s decision.”  Noting that this case “will probably not garner the amount of publicity that King will,” Frank added that our preview should be “of vital interest to district and bankruptcy courts and the attorneys and litigants who appear in them.”

We are lucky to have such wonderful students creating top-shelf analysis for our Bulletin subscribers, and we are especially lucky to have Frank Wagner helping them along the way.  Please take a minute and follow the links to the winning pieces; and, if you aren’t already a subscriber, click here to sign up for this free service, which brings straight to your email inbox both a preview of every case and then the Court’s decision as soon as it is handed down.

Moroccan Citizen-Participation Advocate in Residence at the LII

tarikLast time, we mentioned a Cornell visit by Tarik Nesh-Nash, a prominent advocate for citizen participation in governmental process who has done important work in Morocco, Libya, and Egypt.  Tarik’s past projects include a platform for citizen participation in the drafting of the new Moroccan constitution, and websites that promote transparency in government spending and offer citizens opportunities to report and combat official corruption.  We first met Tarik at the Law via the Internet conference in Hong Kong in 2011, and have followed his work with great interest ever since.

Tarik and developer Heath Morrison will join us for a two month residency in June and July.  While they’re here, they’ll be working on a web platform that promotes citizen participation in the drafting of legislation and of policy documents.  The software is to be used initially in Morocco, Chile, and Kurdistan; you can read more about it on the project website.  We’re also working with Tarik to develop a series of articles about some aspects of the American system of government that are hard for outsiders to understand, with the aim of building a series of such things within our WEX legal encyclopedia.  It’s a great opportunity for mutual learning, and we’re looking forward to it.

Win-Win: LII’s Collaborations with Students

BOOM_cropped_2015One afternoon in late March, nine Masters of Engineering students crowded around a table in the atrium of Duffield Hall, Cornell’s nanoscale science and engineering building. They were about to show their work at  BOOM (Bits On Our Minds), the University’s annual “science fair” for computer science and engineering students.This semester they had been working on a complicated set of inter-related software engineering projects with LII, applying their training in information retrieval, machine learning, and natural language processing to automate the process of producing a topic model for federal regulations. Topic models are an advanced application of machine learning, used to discover, automatically, the subject matter contained in large, undifferentiated collections of text.

Right now,  though, they urgently need to address a more mundane set of engineering challenges: finding an electrical outlet that would minimize the chances of tripping an interested professor, correcting a perversely twitchy virtual machine display, and, most importantly, affixing a 24″x36″ poster to a 22″x28″ display board.

For the next two hours, the students presented their work and fielded questions from computer scientists, engineers from other fields, and members of the general public (who had come to BOOM mostly to see the robots). Also presenting at BOOM were LII student collaborators Geoffrey Goh (presenting his work on the “Visualizing the Law of Fracking” project), and Jai Bhatt .

We’ve talked a lot in the past about what LII gets out of working with students, but what do students get out of working with LII?

Topic-modeling team member Eva Sharma, who came to Cornell from SAP Labs India (where she had worked after undergraduate study at SRM University and MIT) says about the project: “The project and the opportunity that we got to present in BOOM was really exciting. I learnt a lot about topic modeling and the problems that you face when handling big data. I also learnt experimenting with different methods and comparing their results. Normally a course project doesn’t give this much flexibility.” Eva’s CFR topic modeling teammates Shreya Chowdhury and Lisha Murthy both noted the application of – and extension beyond – their coursework. Says Lisha: “I learned that many of the tools and techniques we use for CS domain problems are applicable to Law corpora, so some things were not entirely new.”

The topic modeling project also provided an opportunity for M.Eng. students and law students to work collaboratively. Law student Jonathan LaPlante (JD ’15) served as a domain expert on the topic modeling project, helping the visualization team to understand his process for labeling topic models and providing insight into tasks they might be able to use statistical software to help streamline. Building from the needs unearthed by talking to Jonathan, the students customized a topic model visualizer, adding supplementary visualizations and highlighting proposed “stop-words” (terms that were too general, like “CFR”) from each topic, as well as attempting to align pre-existing labels with generated topics. Josh Campbell, now at LinkedIn, who built the stop-word recommender and topic-label-mapper, remarked “after manually labeling a 500 topic model (for another class), I realized how time consuming this process actually is!”

Jonathan, meanwhile, continued his long streak of LII project contributions. During his time working with the LII, he has analyzed government data on regulatory violations, labeled legislative topic models, brought to bear knowledge he gained during a summer associate job for the fracking visualization information science student project, and consulted on other projects. Jonathan told us: “the most gratifying part of working on LII projects has been the ability to apply concepts from law school in creative ways that may potentially assist practitioners and others in their interactions with law. In particular, my work this year with machine learning tools presented several practical and currently unavailable uses that can now be realized through the application of technology. For example, categorizing vast swaths of the law, such as a sample of 25,000 cases or all of the statutes of ten states, is something that is impractical using traditional methods of legal inquiry. It was satisfying to apply technological tools to do this, knowing that the team I was working with was one of the first in the field to do so as well as the opportunities it presents. This work also broadened my perspective on the law, especially seeing the repeating patterns in law and the similarities and contrasts in the ways different states and forums approached law.”

Law students also tell us what they learn from writing for the general public on the LII Supreme Court Bulletin.  Executive Editor Dan Rosales found working with a retired US Supreme Court Reporter of Decisions to be a highlight of his legal education: “Working and editing material with Frank Wagner undoubtedly made me a better writer.”  Dan intends to further hone his craft after sitting for the New York Bar this summer by working as a judicial law clerk for the New Mexico Supreme Court for 2015-2016 term.

Projects like these form the scaffolding for features that help others find and understand the law. It can take as much as two years of such work to make something that our audience will find really cool — but the work the students do ultimately carries a huge payoff for us and our audience.

We’re looking forward to more such collaborative endeavors in the coming year, particularly where we can bring law students together with engineering students on projects that make the best use of their respective training. The LII creates are one-of-a-kind opportunities for students across the University. They’re not only “win-win” for us and the students, but the content they generate is a “win” for everyone who uses open access legal resources.