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A day in the life: Traffic spike

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Nov 062015

trafficspikeYou were expecting only a couple of people.  And you have a couple bags of chips, some beer and a few soft drinks; that should be plenty.  Somewhere in the back there’s probably some pretzels and seltzer if things get low.  But then the door opens and people keep pouring in.  The living room fills, the kitchen, even the bedroom.  You squeeze through and look out the window, and the entire street is mobbed with people coming over.  No doubt about it: your supplies have crashed.

We know how you feel.

As our regular readers know, we’ve been working on building up the eCFR, so our systems mastermind, Nic, has been keeping a close eye on our load numbers.  But because we’re building things — hammers everywhere, and piles of plywood, and mind the cord please — when our numbers started to spike one evening a few weeks ago, Nic figured that it was some extra overhead from the feature deployment that was running.  Whatever it was, it was heavy: Nic said it was the only time he’d seen Nginx, the web server, run out of available worker processes.

But it wasn’t our deployment.  Nic looked more closely at the server logs, and it was just an enormous spike in traffic.  Not enough to actually crash the site, but enough that not everyone was able to get the information they were looking for.  Nic kept digging.  It was puzzling: the huge wave of hits came at a very specific time — between 9:20 and 9:40 at night.  They were all from different locations, so it wasn’t a crawler run amok.  What was everyone looking for?  Did someone think we had early Star Wars tickets or something?

Well, the clue was in the specific information people were looking for.  Everyone, it seemed, was suddenly interested in the 14th amendment. Cross checking that against a news twitter stream, and there was the answer.  As it turns out the Republican Presidential debate was that night.  At some point shortly after 9:20, someone mentioned the 14th amendment.  And the next thing you know, we’re out of chips and pretzels.

But of course we at the LII, being hospitable folk, don’t like to run out of munchies.  So we’ve got a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Nic is gearing up to implement demand-driven autoscaling. This will set up an automated monitor which keeps track of our load numbers, and then, if it detects a spike, adds a new machine and balances the workload between them.  Once the traffic slows down, the extra machine can quietly switch back off.

So next time the house fills up, we hope to have an extra tent ready to pitch itself automatically, and a whole tub of munchies in the garage.  Because rest assured, we’re here to welcome you, and no one likes a party without something to snack on.

Introducing LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application powered by the LII

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Nov 062015
LawLibe_Splash

LawLibe: “It’s like having a law library in your pocket.” – Fitz Collings, founder of The Law Pod

Get ready: Accessing U.S. law just got a little bit easier.

This November, we’re proud to announce our collaboration in the newest release of LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application first developed by The Law Pod back in 2010. In its newest incarnation, LawLibe harnesses the power of the LII, putting Federal and State collections into the palm of your hand for quick and easy offline access.

Started as an alternative to lugging paper versions of the Federal Rules to his law classes, Fitz Collings, founder of The Law Pod and a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Arts & Sciences, began developing legal reference web apps back in 2008. Seven years and 130 apps later, his work–combined with our legal collections–will condense into one affordable, mobile reference: LawLibe. Available for free download via the iTunes App Store, users can easily access the preloaded U.S. Constitution without an internet connection. Other legal reference materials like the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations and State Statutes can each be added for less than a dollar. Special features of the app include full-text search, in-text highlighting, visual preferences for ease of use, one-touch section navigation and Advisory Committee Notes.

Fitz came to us with this idea for collaboration this summer. His desire to make the law more accessible, coupled with his appreciation for the work we do to further that cause, sparked an effort which we hope will put the law into more hands. We recently sat down with him to discuss the app development process, his pathway through tech and law, and his perspective on the Legal Information Institute:

(Fitz Collings earned his BA in Biology from Cornell University in 2005, an ALM in Biotechnology from Harvard University in 2008 and a JD from The College of William and Mary Marshall Wythe Law School in 2011. Since 2012, he has practiced intellectual property law and related fields as an associate at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, DC.)

How and when did you first hear about the Legal Information Institute [LII]? How would you describe what it is?

I first discovered LII during my first year in law school in 2008.  I was taking civil procedure and, in addition to a hefty case book, I also had to use a fairly sizeable copy of the federal rules.  After a couple days of carrying those back and forth to class, I thought there had to be a better way.  So I googled “Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” and the first link that came up was to LII.

I would describe the LII the same way now as that day I first came across it: the most efficient way to find out what the law is.  Because of LII, I never had to bring my federal rules of civil procedure book to class again.  And the experience of being able to quickly pull up and search through the rules on my computer was what got me interested in developing Law Pod.

What is Law Pod, how does it work, and how did it come about?

Law Pod is a collection of legal reference apps for iOS devices.  

It began in the fall of 2008 as a handful of web apps dedicated to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Appellate Procedure, Bankruptcy Procedure, and Evidence.  The goal was to provide a replacement for the paper copies I had to lug to class, so I tried to design the web apps to display and search the content in each of these references at least as quickly as if I were using a book, and ideally much more so.  But a 2008-era iPhone just didn’t run web apps well enough (or at all, if I didn’t have an internet connection) to make it a truly viable replacement.  Fortunately, the iTunes App Store had just opened a few months earlier, so I set out to design a native version for the iPhone that wouldn’t require an internet connection.  

The native versions of the Federal Rules apps launched in the App Store in 2009, and were a huge improvement over the web apps.  Apps for each of the titles of the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations followed, and later apps for New York and Texas state statutes, the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, and historical legal references.  All told, there are now about 130 such stand-alone Law Pod applications in the App Store.

Our newest app condenses all of that content (and even more state law content) into a single app, called LawLibe. With LawLibe, you can download any or all of the legal references in the Law Pod library directly into the app.  And you can access those references anytime, anywhere.  It’s like having a law library in your pocket, and it will be the focus of our collaboration with LII.

What motivated you to approach us with this idea for collaboration? What do you hope to achieve?

While LII sparked the idea that would become Law Pod, Cornell University has always been very near and dear to my heart. For many years, I’ve been looking for a way to give back to Cornell as a way of saying thank you for everything that it’s given me.  And when I thought back to the spark that LII provided to me at the beginning of my legal career, I saw an opportunity to engage with Cornell again in a meaningful and lasting way.  My hope is that this collaboration with LII will allow me to stay involved with the University that has given me so much and help LII fulfill its mission to make the laws that govern us readily and widely accessible to all.

As a consumer of our materials during your days as a student, and now as a practicing attorney, in what ways do you find the LII useful?

LII offers exactly the amount of information I need as a practicing attorney in a fast and efficient layout, and it’s always up to date.  As a student, or an attorney, or anyone who needs quick, reliable access to the current law, there really isn’t anything more useful.

For what purposes and how often do you primarily use the LII?

I use LII at least once a week, if not once a day.  I generally use it as a starting point for legal research or to confirm the current language of the federal rules.

In your eyes, how does the LII measure up against other legal resources in the market, and in what ways might we better serve our existing and future users?

I think LII provides the most frictionless research experience of any legal resource on the web.  I don’t have to log in or select a source.  I just google “F R Civ P 26,” and LII is there to provide the answer I’m looking for.  I would love to see LII extend that experience to state laws.

You’ve studied biology, biotechnology and law. How did your interest in each subject begin and evolve, and in what ways do you apply your varied education today?

I was interested in both biology and the law in high school, and I had two excellent teachers, Christine Breuker in biology and Jim Bunting in constitutional law, who cultivated that interest.  At the time, though, I thought I would ultimately have to choose between the two.  And I found that decision very difficult to make.  I spent my first two years at Cornell with a focus on government and economics, and then spent the next two years majoring in and ultimately graduating with a degree in biology.  As I later worked to earn my graduate degree, I wrestled with whether to pursue a career in science or to return to the law.  

It wasn’t until I began talking to friends in the legal profession that I learned that patent litigation might allow me to make a career out of the two subjects that I love.  So I followed [my now wife] Nicole to law school to give it a try.  I joined the law firm Sidley Austin in 2012, and I have used both my science and legal education every day since.

Do you identify yourself as primarily a tech guy or as someone working in the field of law?

Fitz Collings, The Law Pod founder and practicing associate at Sidley Austin LLP, first released LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application, in 2010.

Fitz Collings, The Law Pod founder and practicing associate at Sidley Austin LLP, first released LawLibe, a legal reference iOS application, in 2010.

I’m a practicing attorney first and foremost.  What I realized early in my career, though, is that the legal profession can be slow to adopt new tech and, when it eventually does, it doesn’t always improve productivity or efficiency because there can be a gap in understanding between the companies providing the tech and the people consuming it.  I try to use the insights I’ve gained from my own practice to develop applications that are truly useful to people both inside and outside the legal profession.

Are you working on any other technical projects right now?

My entire focus is on LawLibe at the moment.  As we collaborate with LII to pull additional federal content into the app, we will look to expand the library further with more state law references and secondary legal content.  In addition, we will be steadily adding features to the app to make it as useful as possible to the broadest possible audience.

How has the landscape of the legal profession changed since you considered attending law school? Where do you think it is headed, and how well is the industry incorporating innovative technology?

Since 2008, the legal profession seems to have become more streamlined, particularly with regard to use of technology.  Discovery tools like predictive coding and analytics, for example, have vastly improved the process of combing through documents.  And in highly technical fields like patent litigation, in particular, where whole cases can hinge on understanding complex technologies, I tend to see to the most early adopters.  Not all recent technological advances dovetail well with the security and confidentiality demands of the profession, however, so I think it’s generally a good thing that the profession progresses methodically at a safe distance from the bleeding edge of innovation.

How has entrepreneurship played a role in your career, and to whom or which organization(s) would you credit for your development.

I think the hallmark of entrepreneurship is an innovative approach to problem solving.  In my career, I’m often faced with projects that have immoveable deadlines and impossible scale.  A one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work in those situations.  The ability to separate what matters from what doesn’t, formulate a plan, and execute it with complete ownership of the outcome is a skill worth developing in any profession, and the law is no different in that regard.  

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where that developed for me, but I would certainly credit my family.  Nicole has supported my endeavors from the very beginning and has been an indispensible sounding board for new ideas.  My parents always encouraged me to think on my feet and gave me the tools to exercise independent judgment.  And I have long looked to my grandparents, Charles and Marilyn, as role models.  As fruit growers, they are perhaps the quintessential form of entrepreneur.  Anyone who has worked on a farm knows that no day is ever the same—success in that environment depends on a combination of careful planning and the ability to adapt quickly to circumstances beyond control.  Over the seasons I spent working with them at our family orchard in Ohio, they didn’t just teach me how to operate a business, they trusted me to solve problems I’d never encountered before.  Their example and the lessons I learned alongside them have always served me well.

Until our recent connection, how involved have you been with the LII? Why do you think it’s a cause worth supporting?

Although I’ve stayed connected to Cornell since I graduated, this is my first involvement with LII.  The worth of its cause—open access to the law—is so self-evident that it’s easy to overlook.  As an undergraduate, I took a class simply named “Prisons” that was taught by Professor Mary Katzenstein and covered issues that are only now at the forefront of the news, such as mass incarceration and access to representation.  One overarching point that the course taught me was that most people don’t know what the law is, or where to find it, or what to do with it once they’ve found it.  LII does more than just about anyone to make the law instantly available, accessible, and understandable to anyone, and that is a public service whose value cannot be overestimated.

Alfred Mahlangu Visits the LII

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May 282015

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

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May 282015

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

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May 282015

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

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May 282015

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

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May 282015

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.

What's Cool? Indentation is Cool!

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Mar 122015


innovation-2 (1)

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

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Mar 122015

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.

Voila!

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

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Mar 122015

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.