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bigdog.gifAlong with LII Editorial Boss Sara Frug, I spent yesterday morning with the folks at the Sunlight Foundation — an organization with a compelling mission and a growing set of activities that reflect it. Founded with the idea of using Web 2.0 techniques to bring transparency to Congress, Sunlight is now becoming a rallying point for a diverse community of folks who share the idea of making government better by making the information it generates and consumes more accessible.

That’s an idea we find really attractive. We’ve been amazed — shocked, really — at how little access government has to its own work product (never mind the public). We recently learned that some branches of the Federal courts limit access to the commercial legal information services based on seniority; we understand that the same is true of Federal agencies, where junior people don’t have access to Lexis and Westlaw [note to legal research teachers: “junior” would pretty much describe our recent graduates, wouldn’t it? Think we should be teaching them more about free online sources? ] Our e-mail is chock-full of questions and testimonials from government attorneys who rely on our edition of the US Code and our Federal rules collections. Our most successful projects over the last fifteen years have involved improving or re-mixing the presentation of Federal data to make it more easily used and understood by a broad audience.

So our question for John Wonderlich at Sunlight was “how can we help?”.

Turns out there are a number of ways. We have a lot of expertise in the arcana of Federal data online, experience with data standards, software tools that have remained in-house because we didn’t think anyone else had any use for them, and so on. There are a lot of ways that the LII can and will participate in the growing community of technologists who want to “hack government”. One of the best ways we thought of involves some help from you… particularly if you are a law librarian, legal scholar, or anyone else with experience working with government documents.

We know from experience that some online documents are especially useful to people building new services on top of government information. Here are some examples of these “linchpin” documents:

These are documents that provide important information about the context and structure of government, or that link isolated pools of legal information together. For example, the classification tables form the basis of our US Code updating features; we parse them into a database that is then used to power both clickable update links and RSS feeds. As published by the government, they are difficult to use; they would be near the top of our list of documents the government should be publishing in easily processed XML form. Put another way, they are the documents that are most useful in building online services that make legal information more transparent. They would be a good focus for our efforts here at the LII, for the growing community of government-transparency hackers, and for lobbying of (and cooperation with) the GPO’s FDSys effort.

We think that it should be possible to build a list of (let’s say) 100 such documents — the Big Docs that those who develop these kinds of services would most like to see placed online in a form that is both easily processed by machines (ie. XML) and continuously updated by the official body that creates them. What would your suggestions be? Put ’em in the comments, please.

[editorial note: this week’s post is a bit later than usual because of my stay at the 2008 CALI conference, about which more next time. The posting schedule will no doubt continue to be spotty throughout the summer — I’m travelling and talking more than usual — Tb.]

2 Responses to “Running with the Big Docs”

  1. To whom it may concern,

    Accessibility is fine, but the first question should be, “Access to what?” It seems to me that the first question needs to be, “Must not authentication and version control first be perfected by the GPO and National Archives before we represent to the public and private vendors that online has replicated the authentic tangible sources?”

    Having attended Federal Depository Library Conferences for some years, I am constantly amazed that the nation that put men on the moon can not perfect solutions to those problems.

    The Federal Government does not have a monopoly of ignorance and/or indifference to the situation as even a cursory review of State and Local Government online offerings practically always begin with a disclaimer as to the authenticity of the information they contain.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment,

    Schuyler M. Cook
    Head, Technical Services/Government Information Librarian
    Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Library
    Cleveland State University
    2121 Euclid Ave., LL214A
    Cleveland, OH 44115-2214
    (216) 523-7388

  2. Tom’s description of the challenges faced when protecting our technology and preventing the almost inevitable “transfer” was spot on. Developing an understanding of what is legally possible or defensible is difficult if you are not a lawyer. It is equally challenging to describe the desired parameters to lawyers who do not have any understanding of my business. Use of a resource such as the LII can provide some understanding of the law, but it is still information written by and for lawyers, framed in legal terms. For those of you who are wood workers, it is a lot like trying to plane a small hollow out of a large panel with that jointer plane I am looking for – you will have to go through a lot of material to get there. Count my vote in favor of improved transparency.

    As Tom points out, the use of non-disclosure agreements has a beneficial effect: it provides a good preliminary understanding between parties. However, the effectiveness of the agreement goes only as far as the ethics of the larger party. The resources required to enforce the agreement in today’s legal industry is prohibitive for a small business. Not to mention the collateral costs associated with being the plaintiff (read: aggressor) in such an action.

    I would say that leading folks to believe that I “introduced the use of the non-disclosure agreement to [my] industry” would be giving me just a little too much credit. It would be accurate to say that I introduced it to my business and would love to see others do the same – if only the small manufacturing masses would follow that siren’s call. While it can get you dashed on the proverbial rocks with a prospective customer, the net effect of using the NDA as a business tool will ultimately provide safer waters for all of us. It will also raise awareness that the specialized knowledge gained as a manufacturer is hard won, has value and is worth protecting. Not to mention compensation.

    By the way, I am still looking for that Stanley #8 jointer plane with the frog adjusting screw if anyone is interested in an “old technology” transfer.

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