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Over the last several months, I have spent an awful lot of time travelling. I met with a lot of people who work in legal information, both here in the US and abroad.  And I had every intention of filling this blog with posts about interesting things I’d seen and heard — a kind of travelogue of legal informatics.  It’s been slow in coming.  Actually, I’m not convinced that a travelogue per se is what’s needed.  Event-by-event reporting is easy.  Drawing a map of everything that’s going on out there in the world of legal information is not.

It’s a big world now.  People are doing legal informatics in a lot of places.  And that phrase — “doing legal informatics” — now includes a breathtaking number of disciplines and perspectives.  It used to be that we thought of ourselves as situated at the corner of law publishing and computer science.  Now we need to add big chunks of information science (itself a composite field), legal bibliography, digital librarianship, e-government studies, political science, and sociology of the professions.  At various times during the last six months I’ve had fascinating discussions with representatives from each of those academic disciplines, and from the practical side of librarianship, government, and publishing.  Each was working in a distinct context leading to different kinds of insights and solutions. Each worked within a different legal regime.  Each had mapped a different part of the world.

We badly need communication across borders — national, disciplinary, institutional. It’s important that we do that now.  We have opportunities — and challenges — of unprecedented scale and scope.  We can act on those most effectively if we can stitch together all the little maps, overlay them, get a more complex and mutually-informed view of the world. And stop reinventing the wheel in each of its out-of-the-way corners.

It has taken well over a decade to reach this point.  Legal and government information showed up on the Web in the early 90’s — our own efforts here at the LII and Carl Malamud‘s liberation of the EDGAR database were leading examples.  Those were quickly followed by open-access projects in Canada and Australia.  Digital-government projects began in the US around 1995 or 1996, including many self-publication projects in courts and legislatures.   These efforts created significant pools of data based on open standards, and the availability of that data made it possible for information-science researchers to pay far more attention to legal data than they could when it was behind proprietary barriers.  Now we’re seeing lot more work  on legal data by computer scientists working with language technologies, database specialists, semantic-Web engineers, and others. In Europe, work on integration of government information was propelled (and, ultimately, funded) by the requirements of unification.   Everywhere, more and more courts, legislatures, and agencies are putting information on the Internet in more and better ways using improved technologies.

A condensed narrative like the preceding demands oversimplification, and I apologize if I’ve slighted anyone out of sheer middle-aged forgetfulness.  And this tale no doubt has its beginnings much earlier — you could, for example, point at the long cooperation between the statistical arms of various government agencies and academia and industry as part of the story.  But as with so many other things the rise of the Web was the start of a new wave.  That long, slow groundswell — the product of many individual efforts over a decade and a half — is now peaking.

The American press first saw fit to remark on it about a year ago, with the release of extensive caselaw datasets by — Carl Malamud’s latest effort.  A community has started to form.  Just within the last year or so, we’ve seen:

It’s time.

But … we need to be talking to each other much, much more.  We need the kind of efficiency that we can only get by learning from one another.  We need to make informed choices between inexpensive automated approaches that work by brute force and the hand-crafted, highly-accurate approaches of legal bibliography that are not always scalable or affordable.  We need to recalibrate what we mean by “authority”, and begin to think about measures of quality and reliability for legal text that avoid the creation of  unnatural monopolies in legal information.

Okay, so I admit I was having a kind of Tom-Friedman-sings-kumbaya moment there, and I’m over it now.  Really.

We do all need to be talking more, and this week the LII starts a modest effort in that direction. Our new guest blog, VoxPopuLII,  is designed to help the conversation along with biweekly posts from folks you may not have heard from before.  They’re from all different tribes in all different places on the intellectual and global map. We’ve asked for their big ideas — and if you’ve got big ideas of your own, I’d invite you to get in touch with me about writing something for us. And of course we invite your comments and suggestions about what you find there.

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4 Responses to “Big world”

  1. […] director of the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School posts an interesting piece on the big new world of legal informatics, concluding: We need to make informed choices between inexpensive automated approaches that work by […]

  2. […] –  doing work that we knew how to do five years ago but could not fund.   At a time when there is more need than ever for our expertise and for innovation in the field, this seemed like a pretty bleak prospect.  By nature, most of us here are better pioneers than […]

  3. […] Wexis, but the “lower-tier” can be much better served. The final word I will leave with Tom Bruce: We need to make informed choices between inexpensive automated approaches that work by brute force […]

  4. […] to need Wexis, but the “lower-tier” can be much better served. The final word I will leave with Tom Bruce: We need to make informed choices between inexpensive automated approaches that work by brute force […]

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