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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.

LII Donor Profile: Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr

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Mar 122015

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

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Mar 122015

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.

 

 

Guest of the LII Warns Audience at Cornell of the Upcoming Robot Invasion (not really)

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Nov 042014

1458.jpgWe recently coordinated a very successful speaking engagement at Cornell Law School by long-time LII supporter Ed Walters.  Ed is the CEO of Fastcase, which describes itself as “the leading next-generation legal research service that puts a comprehensive national law library and smarter and more powerful searching, sorting, and visualization tools at your fingertips.”  Fastcase, among other things, pioneered citation analysis, data visualization, mobile apps, and eBooks for legal research.

But Ed wasn’t at Cornell Law to talk about Fastcase.  In his “free” time, Ed is a pioneer in the study of what he calls “robot law.”  He’s teaching the subject this semester as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The LII invited him to come speak at Cornell because, like the LII itself, this topic implicates expertise in computer science, information science, and law.  In fact, LII Director Tom Bruce was sure to invite his colleagues from IS/CS and their students, and they showed up in large numbers.

“Robotics embodies the physical transformation of the Industrial Revolution with the cultural upheaval of the Internet Revolution, and it has the potential to be bigger and faster than either,” Ed told the gathered audience.  “The challenge of the next 20 years will be to make sure our law and society are ready for self-driving cars, surgical robots, pervasive surveillance, and drone warfare.”

The lecture started with this same historical perspective–placing the increased use of robots in a continuum beginning with the Industrial Revolution and continuing through the advent of the internet into today.  Ed challenged the audience–as he challenges his students at Georgetown–not only to think of the vast applications for autonomous, sentient or quasi-sentient machines in all walks of life, but also to consider the legal and ethical ramifications of how society incorporates, regulates, and even punishes these machines.

Ed’s message was largely upbeat.  He believes that, like first machines and then computers, robots will increase human productivity without utterly replacing the human labor force.  But he was quick to emphasize the potential consequences if courts, legislatures, and society as a whole fail to make law that adequately addresses and accommodates the difference between human intelligence and the “emerging” intelligence we see in computers like IBM’s famous jeopardy-playing computer Watson.   A key component of his message was that these decisions cannot be delayed until some distant future:  “This isn’t science fiction; it’s science present.”

Feedback from around campus was entirely positive.  Eduardo Penalver, the Alan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School told us afterward that Ed “is thinking at — and working at — the cutting edge of law and technology.  We were fortunate to have him bring his insights to Cornell Law School.”

We were pleased to bring Ed to Cornell, and equally pleased to bring an audience of engineers, computer scientists, and lawyers alike to hear his thought-provoking talk.

You're changing lives. Lots of them.

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Nov 042014

https://merkosoncampus.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/ripple.jpgLast year, you made it possible for us to help nearly 27 million people from over 200 countries find and understand the law.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Many members of that enormous-but-anonymous audience — including a lot of you — use our materials to help people who have never looked at the LII website and probably never will.  And it is out there, on the ground with the helpers that we help, that your contributions are changing lives.

Elsewhere in this newsletter, you can read about Deb Fisher, who uses the LII in her work with Tax-Aide, a program of the AARP Foundation.  Tax-Aide helps 2.6 million low- and middle-income Americans, most of them elderly, file their income taxes every year. Deb is one of ten people who develop training materials for Tax-Aide volunteers.

There are many more stories like Deb’s. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day “in the numbers”, looking at what we know about how our site is used.  Here are a few of the people and organizations that are helped when you donate to the LII:

That’s only a part of it. And even so, it’s not the 3-bullet-point, telegraphic list that a clever professional would use in a newsletter like this.  The scope and diversity are important and impressive.  When you give to the LII, the impact is transmitted through those who use the site to help others.  Your contributions, directly and indirectly, help millions.

Those big numbers — the 27 million in our audience, or the 2.6 million who are helped by Tax-Aide volunteers like Deb — are impressive as hell,  but they lose detail.  They’re like an aerial photograph of a crowd.  We can see that there are a lot of people, and that they tend to cluster around particular needs and issues.  Every once in a while, with the help of some of you who are closer to the ground, we can see an individual face or two.  In Deb Fisher’s experience, it’s a face that is glowing with gratitude.

It’s a remarkable act of faith on your part.  You put contributions in our hands, trusting that we’ll build something people can use to help themselves or help others in ways that neither you nor we will ever know in detail.  We try to return that trust by using your money wisely.  We describe that process in more detail elsewhere, and I would invite you to look into the details and mail me personally with any questions or comments you might have.

There are other, more dramatic stories to tell and perhaps I’ll do that in some future newsletter. But I personally prefer the story of a few people like you making a hundred little things possible that have meaning for real people — millions of them, all over the world.

Thank you.

Deb Fisher, LII Donor and Volunteer AARP Tax-Aide

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Nov 042014

Displaying Deb & Warren.jpgDeb Fisher spends a lot of time in the LII’s U.S. Code Title 26 – also known as the Internal Revenue Code. That’s because she’s a retired civil engineer who volunteers for the AARP’s Tax-Aide program.  Tax-Aide provides tax preparation for low-to-middle income people.  Most, but not all, are seniors. It serves 2.6 million taxpayers annually at more than 5,000 sites nationwide. Nationally, the organization has 35,000 volunteers, and only 12 paid staff.   It’s a great example of how the free legal information at the LII helps those who help others.

Deb and her husband Warren work for Tax-Aide because they like to solve puzzles. “I saw an article in the newspaper about the training,” Deb says. “I had just retired and was missing the numbers part of my brain. I got absolutely hooked.” She would come home and tell Warren about the intriguing puzzles she had solved, so he volunteered too.

“In some volunteer jobs, you understand how important they are, but go a long time before seeing results,” explains Deb. “With Tax-Aide, at the end of the hour you have someone just glowing with thanks—it’s almost a drug, being so appreciated.” The anti-drug happens “when you have people who unexpectedly end up owing money and have to make a monthly payment plan. That’s emotionally hard.”

Twenty years after helping with her first tax return as one of Tax-Aide’s thousands of volunteers, Deb is one of 10 who serve on the National Tax Training Committee (NTTC), working to develop the materials used for training the Tax-Aide volunteers.

The NTTC volunteers collaborate to develop Tax-Aide training in a specific area, as well as assisting the IRS to develop the official training materials. Deb explains: “The ten of us produce the AARP supplements. We also produce special programs for the instructors in case the class needs a particular problem to supplement their training.”

Her husband Warren is a district coordinator, running what is called a Super Site. “There are five tax sites in our county,” Deb explains. “The fifth one, the Super Site, is at a local mall. It’s open six days a week and two evenings, with 12 to 15 volunteer preparers. They do 4,000 tax returns each year. Warren makes sure the sites run well, and that the instructors cover everything the volunteers need to know. He also takes one day a week to do tax returns.”

Deb and Warren trained as civil engineers, then worked for the forest service. “Campgrounds need power, water, roads, bathrooms, and offices,” says Deb. “I mostly worked on roads and trails. We did trail bridges, a lot of road and trail design. Warren was a ski-lift engineer—so he had to go skiing.”

The couple lived in Anchorage, Arizona, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Quincy, CA. “When we were married, we made a list of places we wanted to live,” Deb explains. “We had wonderful careers, with good people who were all working toward the same thing.” They chose to retire early—and have had 20 years of fun!

The Fishers now live in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, “We had bought land there when we were first married, and we would come and camp on it every Labor Day,” recalls Deb. “It was 80 degrees, sunny, with wonderful lakes. We decided that had to be heaven. But when we moved up here we discovered that winter is cold and gray. The Rockies lie to the east of us, and the clouds pile up here.” On the other hand, she says, the Tax-Aide work is perfect for gray days.

Now, however, Deb helps with training during the tax season, and then spends the rest of the year working with the NTTC to create the training. Working at home, she spends three or four days a week on Tax-Aide. “We certainly take off on vacation now and then,” she notes. In their spare time, Warren likes golfing; Deb likes to line dance—and now she’s a dance instructor. She also enjoys gardening, and, like Ithaca gardeners, has a running battle with nibbling deer. “I’d like to make a deal with them,” she says. “Eat my plants in the daytime when I can see you!” Perhaps the Fishers can solve that puzzle, too.

Deb concludes,“ When someone has a volunteer job they really love and the spouse doesn’t, it can create some conflict, but when we’re both involved, it’s great.”