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
- 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.