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While open and free access to American judicial opinions has progressed substantially over the last few years, very little attention has been given to the state of access to administrative legal information.  Maybe Tom Bruce did not ask kindly enough in 2013 when he wrote “Dear Federal Agencies … put your goddamned ALJ Opinions Up” in this post. In any case, three years later, the situation is still more or less the same: administrative decisions rendered by both ALJs and agencies are not systematically available online, and when they are it can be extremely difficult for third parties to automatically agglomerate them for reuse.  This situation prevails at both the federal and state levels.

This context explains my enthusiasm for the new decision search engine recently deployed by the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission (Washington PERC) with the help of Decisia by Lexum.  The Washington PERC is the Washington State agency with jurisdiction over public sector labor relations and collective bargaining in Washington.  Like many agencies it renders several types of decisions, which were previously scattered over different sections of its website – some with search capabilities and some without – making them difficult to discover.  Understanding that providing useful access to its decisions is part of its mandate, and that online access is the only thing that really counts today, the Washington PERC decided to invest some resources (a very reasonable amount in fact) in enhancing the usability of its online decisions.

The new Washington PERC decisions website complies with many of the best practices recognized for decision publishing:

  • Self-publishing of full text decisions

The staff at the Washington PERC has full control over the content of its decisions website via a web-based interface. Publishing is not relinquished to any third-party commercial publisher that could require some kind of exclusivity in exchange for its input.  It enables online publishing of the most authoritative version of the full text of decisions.

  • Timeliness

Since the agency is in complete control of the publishing process, it can make its decisions available to its stakeholders as soon as they are rendered.  Any error in the body of a decision can be fixed in a matter of minutes by the registry clerks.

  • Comprehensiveness

The Washington PERC has invested effort in making sure that all of the decisions it has rendered since the mid-‘70s are available on its website, turning it into an historical repository.  Thus, serious legal research can be undertaken from the new website without any fear of missing part of the material.

  • Accessibility

The technology used for the Washington PERC decisions website is designed to facilitate access for individuals with disabilities by being compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA of the World Wide Web organization.

  • Provision of both HTML and PDF versions

Decisions are provided in both HTML and PDF formats.  The HTML version enables the provision of advanced search functionalities and highlighting of search hits in the body of decisions.  The PDF version preserves the appearance of the original file (a scan copy of the signed version is provided whenever available) and facilitates printing.

  • Navigability

The Washington PERC decisions website can be browsed (or crawled) by decision date or decision title and its URL structure is SEO-friendly.  This makes the content “discoverable” by both human researchers and web robots operated by third parties interested in reusing the data.  On top of that Decisia also features a RSS feed of recently published material and an API providing a machine readable version of all content.

  • Full-text searchable

A powerful search engine supporting Boolean queries, proximity operators and wildcards enables users to undertake advanced searches in the complete body of all decisions.  Users also benefit from an auto-completion feature providing quick access links to exact matches and a spell-checker that proposes alternative queries in case of typos or errors.

  • Multi-criteria search tools

Advanced database search is also facilitated by the availability of eight additional fields that can be queried individually or in conjunction (decision number, date, parties, decision-maker, case type, appeal status, statute and collection).

  • Citation availability

Finally, each decision is provided with a unique medium neutral citation by the agency itself, for example “Decision 12563-A (PECB, 2016)”.  This type of citation enables the identification of individual decisions without referring to any specific publisher.

In the end, all of this should provide positive outcomes on two distinct fronts:

  • Enhanced access for those directly affected by Washington PERC decisions

Washington State union members, employers and their representatives will undoubtedly be the first to benefit from this enhanced access to decisions on public sector labor relations and collective bargaining.  Without a doubt, making it easier to find how previous conflicts were resolved significantly contributes to Washington PERC’s mandate of assisting parties in resolving labor-management disputes.

  • Consolidation of the field of law under the jurisdiction of the Washington PERC

Whether Washington PERC decisions are considered to be precedential or not, the fact remains that they are the only sources of information about past conflicts resolved in this niche area of law.  By making sure this information is available in a format useable by all, the Agency is contributing to the development of the legal field in which it operates while at the same time promoting its competence as a decision-making body.  As a consequence, the authoritative status of its decisions is bound to be enhanced over time.

Considering the overall state of online access to administrative decisions, one can only hope that this example will inspire other agencies and ALJs to follow suite and implement adequate decisions websites.  The Washington PERC is only one agency within one state, but its latest initiative at least has the merit of demonstrating how easy it can be to publish administrative decisions the right way.

Pierre-Paul Lemyre is the Director of Business Development for Lexum, Inc., a legal informatics company in Montreal.   Lexum provides the technology and publishing infrastructure for CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute.

 

[ This post was contributed by Daniel Poulin, the founding director of CanLII, the first open-access publisher of law outside the United States, and a good friend of ours for many years ].

The Origins

In the eighties and nineties, the nascent Internet was closely connected with a culture of sharing. In those times, sharing did not meant “sharing economy” in today’s sense (Airbnb, Uber, etc), but making something available for free on the Internet. The dream was that over time even more things would be available for free and that everybody would benefit from it. It is the context in which I personally became interested in making Canadian law accessible for free on the Internet.

My first models were FTP sites accepting anonymous connections. I vaguely remember one at Stanford giving access to computer fonts and executable programs. I thought that the same approach could serve legal purposes and I was not alone thinking so. Indeed, at the beginning of the nineties, several American university professors, researchers and technology specialists started to use the Gopher technology to publish legal documents, generally case law collections. These offerings were not necessarily up-to-date or coherent, to say nothing about being complete. We were nevertheless in awe to discover that legal information could be made freely accessible as simply as that. I decided to do the same at the Centre de recherche en droit public (CRDP) of the University of Montreal and I set up a Gopher server.

I was started, yet the real epiphany for me was a presentation by Peter W. Martin and Thomas R. Bruce about the Legal Information Institute in fall 1992 in Montreal. Even better than a Gopher site, they were developing a World Wide Web site and they were ambitious. This was exactly what I wanted to do. I briefly met with them after their talk. I remember that my worries about converting decisions in HTML were brushed off by Tom in the offhand manner he always had with perceived technical difficulties. I was not alone in being impressed the LII work. As a matter of fact, in the following years, Internet publishing started adding up in American law schools (see Fig. 1).

 

Fig 1: Screen shot of the CRDP Gopher server circa 1993 listing legal Gopher sites

However the general enthusiasm for legal publishing did not last long. By the end of the nineties, most of these initiatives had been abandoned, although the model set by Peter W. Martin, Thomas R. Bruce and their small team at Cornell remained, and had also found followers abroad, in Canada and Australia and, few years later, in the UK.

A web server was launched by Lexum at the U. of Montreal in summer 1994 to publish the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1995, the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) was set up in Sydney and they soon joined in with a web server as well. In retrospect, it seems that these three initial teams, which are still active today, LII, Lexum and AustLII were all characterized by a mix of research activities, technical developments and publishing. The pure play publishers in law schools probably never found a way to obtain the institutional and financial support required to keep going.

At the turn of the century there were a handful of groups in academia who were actively exploring the potential of the Internet to serve the law and were maintaining free access to law resources. This was the nucleus which was to grow and become the Free Access to Law Movement. Soon BaiLII, PacLII, HKLII and CyLAW and several others were to follow the LII model and start publishing.

The Evolution of LIIs

The approach initially developed by the LIIs, continued and further developed by several other academic groups, was apparently taking off. It was already successful in several common law countries. Colleagues in various European countries were starting to pay attention to the LII model. The older and better-established LIIs were involved in empowerment projects aiming at establishing free access in developing countries. We started to envision a constellation of LIIs covering the world. At the Law via the Internet Conference in 2002, a founding document was drafted (the Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law) and an informal organization of legal information institutes, the Free Access to Law Movement, was established to further develop the LII model and to reach out to all those interested in maximizing access to public legal information.

More than twenty years later, taking stock of progress made, we can only note spectacular changes in many countries. In Canada, the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) now constitutes the first source of legal information for legal professionals. CanLII will soon have 2 million decisions published, frequently in both French and English. All statutes and regulations enacted over the last 15 years from all fourteen Canadian jurisdictions are also available. According to a survey of legal professionals prepared for CanLII in 2012, 56% of respondents start their legal research on CanLII. Four years later, CanLII’s usage statistics doubled again.

Beyond CanLII, to understand the strength of the Canadian free access to law system today, one must consider the favorable policies adopted by the Canadian Judicial Council and subsequently implemented by all Canadian courts. First to be noted there is the adoption of a neutral citation system. The existence of an authoritative way to cite judgments outside the privately-owned sphere of commerce now constitutes a central element of the legal information system in Canada. Courts add a citation they own and control to all their distributed decisions (something like “2017 QCCA 16”). This identifying element pertains to the decision and must follow it. Furthermore, decisions distributed by courts are final. There are no rules precluding the citation of a court decision in a counsel’s authorities beyond the principles of Stare Decisis as they apply in Canada. As a result, all court decisions, taken from a court’s own website, from CanLII or of course from a law report can be cited in court when relevant. Since decisions’ paragraphs are numbered, pin-point references are available. Today, counsels mix references to law reports and to CanLII in the authorities they submit to a court, and judges do the same in preparing their reasons for judgment (See Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Use of citations to CanLII (based on neutral citation) in a decision from the Ontario of Court of Appeal, 2015 ONCA 495 (CanLII)

The outlook is similar for Australia. Today, clearly, AustLII is the main outlet for case law in Australia. It must be recognized that the principals at AustLII were the first to establish almost country-wide comprehensive free access in 1997. It took four more years to reach that stage in Canada. Cornell’s LII demonstrated how the law can be published for free, but it is AustLII’s team that showed how this model can be expanded to its full-scale.

Several other legal information institutes are now well-established and would call for a more complete description. Unfortunately, such a description goes far beyond what is possible to do in a short blog post. SafLII and AfricanLII are superb achievements in improving access to legal information in Africa, and both are developing the legal information institute approach in conditions difficult to imagine for a Canadian living in Montreal. PacLII is doing similar work to serve the needs of some twenty developing countries in the South Pacific. BaiLII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, would also merit being more fully described here, for its very small team is maintaining a good offering with very limited resources. CyLAW, established in collaboration with the Cyprus Bar Association is illustration of competence and institutional viability in a smaller state. Other extremely valuable initiatives can be found on the Free Access to Law Movement web site.

To sum up, the pioneer work done at Cornell 25 years ago led to the establishment of viable, efficient free access to law resources in several countries, especially countries belonging to the common law tradition. However, the full–fledged internationale of LIIs has never materialized. Many factors can contribute to explaining that. First, in countries of the continental law tradition, case law plays a less central role as a source of law, the publication of legislative material is often taken in charge by the legislative authority (which is not a bad thing), and doctrinal comments and treaties play a much larger role. Altogether these differences have made the development of a LII more challenging. Second, most of the LIIs which reached sustainability started in universities; many are still attached to academia. One must admit that such academic ventures are more valued (or face less prejudice) in North America and Australia than, let’s say, in France. Third, Martin and Bruce were — and still are — “entrepreneurs”. They were doing whatever was needed to finance their LII (consulting for government bodies or the industry was not out of question), they were taking risks and they were persevering. The principals at AustLII, SafLII and Lexum were venturers too (even swashbucklers for some). Some deans could have been less understanding in accepting the activism required to maintain an LII. A related and final ingredient required for survival and growth was the capacity to obtain the required financial support. In this regard, all of us in developed countries were privileged. In the developing world, international development organizations supported some LIIs for a limited time but the end of their funding brought many free legal information concerns to shut down their servers.

The Future

The next question is to try to figure where all this is going: the LII at Cornell, the other LIIs, the Free Access to Law Movement. Divination is not my specialty, but I will try to single out some of the results of the last 25 years that appear to be more durable and mix them with observable trends today which may contribute to determining the future of the free access to law idea.

The very first thing to say is that governments and courts are much more present and active than before. For instance, in all Canadian jurisdictions, statutes and regulations are freely accessible on the web and most courts and tribunals publish their decisions on their web site. Commercial legal publishing has gone through a major transformation over the last twenty years: most publishers specializing in case law reports have disappeared or been acquired by bigger competitors. The survivors linked to major global publishing groups are bundling all they have, such as jurisprudence and various doctrinal writings, case law and legislation, and they offer integrated information products by practice domain. This kind of offering finds takers and business seem to be good. Finally, free access to law seems to have found its footing. CanLII’s funding is provided by the legal professions which obtain through CanLII a national common legal library serving their missions to ensure the competence of their members and to serve the public.

To conclude, let’s say that free access to law is possible and sustainable. Capture and control of official legal information by private interests is avoidable. The well-established nation-wide systems in Canada and Australia, to name only these two jurisdictions, demonstrate that trustworthy, efficient publishing of law is compatible with public domain status and that public legal information can be made accessible for free.

Technical standards are key. The adoption of neutral citation and related policies by the courts played a significant role in ensuring that country-wide free access to law publishers, such as CanLII and AustLII, achieved their potential. More standardization would help deliver even more benefits.

Funding and benefits can be linked. Canada with its communist public health system is sometimes perceived as a middle-of-the-road society; not squarely socialist like those small countries in Northern Europe, but not entirely liberal either. Then, go figure, CanLII is privately funded by the legal professions and operated under contract by a for-profit company, Lexum. The reason private interests can serve a social mission is that those who pay are those who get the most out of the benefits. The business of the for-profit company is to help make the law accessible, not only as a service provider to CanLII, but also through all the other products it sells.

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Since inception, Cornell’s LII has favored quality over quantity. LII’s siblings, Lexum (then CanLII), AustLII and BaiLII, and later on PacLII and SafLII, have gone for volume, to make a difference in access to law in their respective countries. This is not to minimize the practical significance of Cornell’s LII: it has made a difference too, but not the same way. Instead of trying to offer comprehensive access to USA law, which would have been an overwhelming objective, the principals at the LII decided to put their talent into achieving excellence within the more defined boundaries of specific collections, such as the US Supreme Court decisions, the US Code and now the Code of Federal Regulations. These are not tiny corpuses. All are significant bodies of law heavily used not only in the US but abroad as well. Even though other legal information initiatives produced innovations, none aside from Cornell’s LII put knowledge development as the central product of their activities. Even 25 years after starting, LII is still on the edge, figuring how to accelerate the development of a legal semantic web. Beyond the fact that they were the first LII, this constant contribution to knowledge may be the real reason for the ongoing influence and prestige of the institute established 25 years ago by Peter and Tom.  

Twenty years later, the model initiated at Cornell has flourished. Members of the LII family have found their own ways. Looking at the global picture, one can only be pleased to see how an idea born in academia, and in large part at Cornell Law School, has influenced many legal information systems for the better. Even more surprising, it seems that we have not yet seen the end of it. The Cornell LII remains, after all these years, a hotbed of innovation with friends all around the world.

Bon anniversaire et amitiés au LII de la part de nous tous chez Lexum,

Daniel Poulin is the founding director of CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute.  He is widely known for innovation in both legal publishing and in the business apparatus needed to sustain open-access efforts over the long term. He is now Emeritus Professor of the Law Faculty of the University of Montreal, and President of Lexum Information Juridique, a legal-information technology company spun off from his original research group at the University of Montreal.

[Note:  the second post in our “25 for 25” series is from Peter W. Martin, the LII’s founding co-director,  and former dean of the Cornell Law School.  Peter is, as well, a pioneer in the use of computers in law teaching, where he was the first to teach for-credit distance-learning courses (in copyright and Social Security law) across multiple institutions — another, less well known, LII first.  He is also the author of the immensely popular online guide, “An Introduction to Basic Legal Citation“.]

Tom Bruce has explained how he secured the Sun computer that launched our Internet escapades. I’ve been charged with adding further detail to the LII’s origin story.

Honesty compels a confession of how unclear we were at the outset about the role the Internet would play in our collaborative enterprise, but my files do contain notes on a January 1992 talk heralding the publication potential of the Internet. The venue was the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools; the presenter, Mitch Kapor, then chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Three previous years spent designing and building an electronic reference work on Social Security law had persuaded me that:

  • law publishers were not reliable partners for such novel endeavors;
  • hypertext (not present in either Westlaw or Lexis at the time) had enormous value when applied to legal materials;
  • electronic media had the potential to erode barriers that had limited law schools to the role of consumers of information products; and
  • a zone of digital innovation could be established within a U.S. law school with only modest amounts of external funding.

A New York non-profit, the National Center for Automated Information Retrieval or NCAIR, spending down funds generated by the establishment of LEXIS, had supported my Social Security project. In April 1992, with the endorsement of Dean Russell Osgood, Tom and I submitted a proposal to NCAIR seeking a handsome sum for establishment “of an institute of legal information technologies” at Cornell. At NCAIR’s request, we scaled back our multi-year proposal and asked only for start-up funds. Critically, those included salary monies to buy Tom freedom from his duties as the school’s director of educational technologies. Upon securing that funding, we declared ourselves co-directors of an institute – coining a name that has stuck for 25 years and has, as Tom notes, been taken on by many others.

The two labels proved to be startlingly important. To the external world “institute” suggested significant scale and permanence. Within the academic environment that surrounded us – where boundaries of academic discipline and status framed most activity – “co-directors” expressed a partnership that straddled both, making possible the most exhilarating and fulfilling collaboration of my career.

The agenda we sketched for NCAIR included disk publication of important U.S. statutes (electronic course supplements) and experimentation with use of the Internet as a mode of electronic publication and exchange. Unquestionably, we did not anticipate the pace, scope, or longevity of those experiments. Much of what followed was a consequence of fortuitous timing. Looking back, one can see that by 1992 several critical factors had aligned.

First, thanks to LEXIS and Westlaw, U.S. legal insiders (lawyers, judges, legislators, and participants in legal education) had grown familiar with computer-based legal information.

Second, the bodies from which legal texts emerge – courts, legislatures, administrative agencies – had begun using computers in drafting and revision. Most continued to consider the resulting word processing files simply a more efficient means of producing print, but some offered journalists, lawyers, and interested others dial-up access to the digital originals. In 1990 the US Supreme Court took a further step, distributing its judgments electronically on the morning of release to a small number of redistributors. A dozen or so media companies and law publishers subscribed. But so, too, did one university, Case Western Reserve, placing the decision files on the Internet at an ftp site. This was a far cry from effective public access. To retrieve the syllabus and opinions in a specific case one had to have a dial-up connection to the Case Western site or be part of the scientific community then connected to the Internet. One also needed to know the docket number, download multiple files, and have compatible word-processing software.

Nonetheless, the availability of primary legal texts in digital format straight from the source and unencumbered by copyright (another favorable factor) spared electronic publishers, including upstarts like us, the cost of digitizing print – a huge expense burdening early legal database research and LEXIS and Westlaw during their first decades. Together with the spread of PCs and the emergence of CD-ROM as a high-capacity distribution medium, this opened the U.S. legal information market to a disruptive wave of fresh competition.

Disk distribution offered important functionality, including hypertext and copy and paste, that the major online systems did not then deliver. Software exploiting this potential had appeared by the early 1990s. By 1992 work was underway to bring the best of them to a scrollable graphical user interface, capable of displaying and printing legal documents with all the information carried in print by font size, style, graphics, and layout. This development was in turn made possible by Microsoft’s release, only a year and a half before, of Windows 3.0.

Neither the major legal information vendors nor U.S. public bodies responded nimbly to the opportunities opened by disk distribution or the Internet. And that created space for our uninhibited, experimental non-profit.

We ventured into that space during the summer of 1992, with a handful of disk publications and the Gopher server Tom has described. Gopher could not, however, deliver important features we had been able to realize in the LII disk publications. It was a desire to bring the quality we had achieved on disk to the Internet that led us to html and the Web in early 1993. Way back then, the Web, also in its infancy, was the tool of a technical community that worked on UNIX machines that had high bandwidth connections to the Internet. Our principal audience as we then conceived it consisted of legal insiders working with PCs and dial-up connections. For them no Web browser existed nor was one in sight. So Tom set to work and created the first Windows-based Web browser, Cello.

By then the infrastructure that would allow the explosion of the World Wide Web was in place. The capacity and speed of the Internet’s backbone had just been dramatically improved. Congress had removed the ban on commercial traffic over that backbone imposed by NSF’s “acceptable use policy,” and privatization was underway.

These developments put distribution of legal information to a broader public within reach, but only those who were aware of and had access to the Net. In 1992 and 1993 that was a small population. During 1992 the word “Internet” appeared in only twenty-two New York Times articles and not once in the American Bar Association Journal. In December 1993, when the product “Internet in a box” was announced, estimates of Internet users had climbed into the 15-20 million range (a ten-fold increase over the course of only a year or two). By then the LII was an established Web destination, and Tom and I had begun to appreciate that the public that valued our growing collection of legal information was far broader than the set of legal insiders we initially had in mind.

As early as 1995 all the ingredients that enabled our initial experiment to germinate, grow, and reach a global audience had come together. Although the LII enjoyed significant first mover advantage, the period since then has been filled with repeated challenges and hard choices – as public bodies, commercial entities with business plans that incorporated public access to legal information, new search engines and other finding aids crowded into the sector the LII once shared with only a few others. Casualties furnished a steady reminder that in this rapidly changing environment, survival, let alone impact, could not be taken for granted. Long gone, for example, are the fine treaty collection hosted by the University of Tromsø, the index to federal agency material offered by Villanova, and Indiana’s law meta list. In some cases disappearance was the result of being displaced by something better, in others of having attempted too much, and still others of shifts in allegiance or priorities of key personnel or the host institution.

Successfully threading a path through these and other obstacles, the LII has had to address a set of critical and recurring questions, concerning:

  • the institute’s relationship with Cornell;
  • whether to work in consort with any of the increasingly numerous commercial and public players in this field, and if so on what terms;
  • how to staff, organize, and fund expansion in scale and longevity beyond the initial experiment; and
  • how to continue to innovate while maintaining the information services essential to holding and growing the LII’s audience.

As the years have gone by, these questions have not grown less difficult. In the 13 years since retirement removed me from the founding partnership, Tom and his team have addressed them with such success that I have high confidence that this venture, begun so long ago, will continue to break fresh ground, while meeting important public needs, long past this 25th anniversary.

Peter W. Martin, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Cornell, co-founded the Legal Information Institute with Thomas R. Bruce and served as its co-director until 2003.


25 logo[ Note: This year marks the LII’s 25th year of operation.  In honor of the occasion, we’re going to offer “25 for 25” — blog posts by 25 leading thinkers in the field of open access to law and legal informatics, published here in the VoxPopuLII blog.  Submissions will appear irregularly, approximately twice per month.  We’ll open with postings from the LII’s original co-directors, and conclude with posts from the LII’s future leadership. Today’s post is by Tom Bruce; Peter Martin’s will follow later in the month.
]

It all started with two gin-and-tonics, consumed by a third party.  At the time I was the Director of Educational Technologies for the Cornell Law School.  Every Friday afternoon, there was a small gathering of people like me in the bar of the Statler Hotel, maybe 8 or 10 from different holes and corners in Cornell’s computer culture.  A lot of policy issues got solved there, and more than a few technical ones.  I first heard about something called “Perl” there.

The doyen of that group was Steve Worona, then some kind of special-assistant-for-important-stuff in the office of Cornell’s VP for Computing.  Knowing that the law school had done some work with CD-ROM based hypertext, he had been trying to get me interested in a Campus-Wide Information System (CWIS) platform called Gopher and, far off into the realm of wild-eyed speculation, this thing called the World-Wide Web.  One Friday in early 1992, noting that Steve was two gin-and-tonics into a generous mood, I asked him if he might have a Sun box laying around that I might borrow to try out a couple of those things.

He did, and the Sun 4-c in question became fatty.law.cornell.edu — named after Fatty the Bookkeeper, a leading character in the Brecht-Weill opera “Mahagonny”, which tells the story of a “City of Nets”.   It was the first institutional web server that had information about something other than high-energy physics, and somewhere around the 30th web server in the world. We still get a fair amount of traffic via links to “fatty”, though the machine name has not been in use for a decade and a half (in fact, we maintain a considerable library of redirection code so that most of the links that others have constructed to us over a quarter-century still work).

What did we put there?  First, a Gopher server.  Gopher pages were either menus or full text — it was more of a menuing system than full hypertext, and did not permit internal links.  Our first effort — Peter’s idea — was Title 17 of the US Code, whose structure was an excellent fit with Gopher’s capabilities, and whose content (copyright) was an excellent fit with the obsessions of those who had Internet access in those days.  It got a lot of attention, as did Peter’s first shot at a Supreme Court opinion in HTML form, Two Pesos v. Taco Cabana.

Other things followed rapidly, and later that year we began republishing all Supreme Court opinions in electronic form.  Initially we linked to the Cleveland Freenet site; then we began republishing them from text in ATEX format; later we were to add our own Project Hermes subscription.  Not long after we began publishing, I undertook to develop the first-ever web browser for Microsoft Windows — mostly because at the time it seemed unlikely that anyone else would, anytime soon.  We were just as interested in editorial innovations.   Our first legal commentary — then called “Law About…..”, and now WEX, was put together in 1993, based on work done by Peter and by Jim Milles in constructing a topics list useful to both lawyers and the general public. A full US Code followed in 1994.  Our work with CD-ROM continued for a surprisingly long time — we offered statutory supplements and leading Supreme Court cases on CD for a number of years, and our version of Title 26 was the basis for a CD distributed by the IRS into the new millennium.  Back in the day when there was, plausibly, a book called “The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog”, we appeared in it eight times.

To talk about the early days solely in terms of technical firsts or Internet-publishing landmarks is, I think, to miss the more important parts of what we did.  First, as Peter Martin remarks in a promotional video that we made several years ago, we showed that there was tremendous potential for law schools to become creative spaces for innovation in all things related to legal information (they still have that tremendous potential, though very few are exercising it).  We used whatever creativity we could muster to break the stranglehold of commercial publishers not just on legal publishing as a product, but also on thinking about how law should be published, and where, and for whom.  In those days, it was all about caselaw, all about lawyers, and a mile wide and an inch deep. Legal academia, and the commercial publishers, were preoccupied with caselaw and with the relative prestige and authority of courts that publish it; they did not seem to imagine that there was a need for legal information outside the community of legal practitioners.  We thought, and did, differently.  

We were followed in that by others, first in Canada, and then in Australia, and later in a host of other places.  Many of those organizations — around 20 among them, I think — have chosen to use “LII” as part of their names, and “Legal Information Institute” has become a kind of brand name for open access to law.   Many of our namesakes offer comprehensive access to the laws of their countries, and some are de facto official national systems.  Despite recurring fascination with the idea of a “free Westlaw”, a centralized free-to-air system has never been a practical objective for an academically-based operation in the United States. We have, from the outset, seen our work  as a practical exploration of legal information technology, especially as it facilitates integration and aggregation of numerous providers.  The ultimate goal has been to develop new methods that will help people — all people, lawyers or not —  find and understand the law, without fees.

It was obvious to us from the start that effective work in this area would require deep, equal-status collaboration between legal experts and technologists, beginning with the two of us.  My collaboration with Peter was the center of my professional life for 20 years.  I was lucky to have the opportunity.  Legal-academic culture and institutions are often indifferent or hostile to such collaborations, and they are far rarer and much harder to maintain than they should be.  These days, it’s all the rage to talk about “teaching lawyers to code”. I think that lawyers would get better results if they would learn to communicate and collaborate with those who already know how.

Finally, we felt then – as we do now – that the best test of ideas was to implement them in practical, full-scale systems offered to the public in all its Internet-based, newfound diversity.  The resulting work, and the LII itself,  have been defined by the dynamism of opposites — technological expertise vs. legal expertise, practical publishing vs. academic research, bleeding-edge vs. when-the-audience-is-ready,  an audience of lawyers vs. an audience of non-lawyer professionals and private citizens.  That is a complicated, multidirectional balancing act — but we are still on the high-wire after 25 years, and that balancing act has been the most worthwhile thing about the organization, and one that will enable a new set of collaborators to do many more important things in the years to come.

Thomas R. Bruce is the Director of the Legal Information Institute, which he co-founded with Peter W. Martin in 1992.

VOXConstituteProject3-300x291Two years ago my collaborators and I introduced a new resource for understanding constitutions. We call it Constitute. It’s a web application that allows users to extract excerpts of constitutional text, by topic, for nearly every constitution in the world currently in force. One of our goals is to shed some of the drudgery associated with reading legal text. Unlike credit card contracts, Constitutions were meant for reading (and by non-lawyers). We have updated the site again, just in time for summer (See below). Curl up in your favorite retreat with Constitute this summer and tell us what you think.

Some background: Constitute is built primarily for those engaged in the challenge of drafting constitutions, which occurs more frequently than some think (4-5 constitutions are replaced each year and many more are revised in smaller ways). Drafters often want to view examples of text from a representative set of countries – mostly so that they can understand the multiple dimensions of a particular area of law. Of course, scholars and educators will also find many uses for the data. After all, the resource grew out of an effort to study constitutions, not write them.

How does Constitute differ from other constitutional repositories? The core advantage of Constitute is the ability to view constitutional excerpts by topic. These topics are derived from the conceptual inventory of constitutions that my collaborators and I have been developing and refining over the last ten years as part of the Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP). The intent of that project is to record the content of the world’s constitutions in order to answer questions about the origins and effects of various constitutional provisions. In order to build that dataset (CCP), we invested quite a bit of time in (1) identifying when constitutions in each country had been enacted, revised, or replaced, (2) tracking down the texts associated with each of these changes, (3) digitizing and archiving the texts, (4) building the conceptual apparatus to extract information about their content, and finally, (5) reading and interpreting the texts. We leveraged all of this information in building Constitute.

We are committed to refining and elaborating Constitute. Our recent release includes some exciting developments, some of which I describe here.

Now in Arabic! Until now, Constitute’s texts have been in English. However, we believeVOX.Constitution_Tunisienne_2014.pdf (with some evidence) that readers strongly prefer to read constitutions in their native language. Thus, with a nod to the constitutional activity borne of the Arab Spring, we have introduced a fully functioning Arabic version of the site, which includes a subset of Constitute’s texts. Thanks here to our partners at International IDEA, who provided valuable intellectual and material resources.

Form and function. One distinction of Constitute is the clarity and beauty of its reading environment. Constitutional interpretation is hard enough as it is. Constitute’s texts are presented in a clean typeset environment that facilitates and invites reading, not sleep and irritability. In the latest release, we introduce a new view of the data — a side-by-side comparison of two constitutions. While in our usual “list view,” you can designate up to eight constitutions for inclusion in the comparison set, once in “compare view,” you can choose any two from that set for side-by-side viewing. In compare view, you’ll find our familiar search bar and topic menu in the left panel to drive and refine the comparison. By default, compare view displays full constitutions with search results highlighted and navigable (if there are multiple results). Alternatively, you can strip away the content and view selected excerpts in isolation by clicking the button at the right of the texts. It is an altogether new, and perhaps better, way to compare texts.

Sharing and analyzing. Many users will want to carve off slices of data for digestion elsewhere. In that sense, scholars and drafting committees alike will appreciate that the site was built by and for researchers. Exporting is painless. Once you pin the results, you can export to a .pdf file or to Google Docs to collaborate with your colleagues. You can also export pinned results to a tabulated .csv file, which will be convenient for those of you who want to manage and analyze the excerpts using your favorite data applications. Not only that, but our “pin search” and “pin comparison” functions allow analysts to carve large slices of data and deposit them in the Pinned page for scaled-up analysis.

Raw data downloads. For those of you who build web applications or are interested in harnessing the power of Linked Data, we have exposed our linked data as a set of downloads and as a SPARQL endpoint, for people and machines to consume. Just follow the Data link on “More Info” in the left panel of the site.

And then there is “deep linking,” so that you can export your pinned results and share them as documents and datafiles. But you can also share excerpts, searches, comparisons, and full constitutions very easily in your direct communications. The most direct way is to copy the URL. All URLs on the site are now deep links, which means that anything you surface on the site is preserved in that URL forever (well, “forever” by internet standards). Suppose you are interested in those constitutions that provide for secession (Scotland and Catalunya have many thinking along those lines). Here are those results to share in your blog post, email, Wikipedia entry, or publication. By the way, do you know which constitutions mention the word “internet?” Chances are you’ll be surprised.

So, please take Constitute with you to the beach this summer and tell us what you think. Any comments or suggestions to the site should be directed to our project address, constitute.project@gmail.com.

http://www.whitneyleephotography.com/
Zachary Elkins is Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include constitutional design, democracy, and Latin American politics. He co-directs the Comparative Constitutions Project.

 

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

My blog post last year about developing a legal research ontology was such an optimistic (i.e., naive), linear narrative. This was one of my final notes:

At this point, I am in the beginning stages of taking advantage of all the semantic web has to offer. The ontology’s classes now have subclasses. I am building the relationships between the classes and subclasses and using Protege to bring them all together.

I should have known better.

What I didn’t realize then was that I really didn’t understand anything about the semantic web. While I could use the term in a sentence and reference RDF and OWL and Protege, once you scratched the surface I was lost. Based on Sara Frug’s recommendation during a presentation at CALI Con 2014, I started reading Semantic Web for Dummies.

0470396792

It has been, and continues to be, slow going. I don’t have a computer science or coding background, and so much of my project feels like trying to teach myself a new language without immersion or much of a guide. But the process of this project has become just as interesting to me as the end product. How are we equipped to teach ourselves anything? At a certain point, you just have to jump in and do something, anything, to get the project moving.

I had already identified the classes:
* Type of research material;
* Type of research problem;
* Source of law;
* Area of law;
* Legal action; and
* Final product.

I knew that each class has subclasses. Yet in my readings, as I learned how ontologies are used for constructing relationships between entities, I missed the part where I had to construct relationships between the entities. They didn’t just magically appear when you enter the terms into Protege.

I’m using Web Protege, an open-source product developed by the Stanford Center for Biomedical Informatics Research, using the OWL ontology language.

Ontology engineering is a hot topic these days, and there is a growing body of papers, tutorials, and presentations on OWL and ontology engineering. That’s also part of the problem: There’s a little too much out there. I knew that anything I would do with my ontology would happen in Protege, so I decided to start there with the extensive user documentation and user support. Their user guide takes you through setting up your first ontology with step-by-step illustrations and a few short videos. I also discovered a tutorial on the web titled Pizzas in 10 minutes.

Following the tutorial, you construct a basic ontology of pizza using different toppings and sauces. While it took me longer than 10 minutes to complete, it did give me enough familiarity with constructing relationships to take a stab at it with my ontology and its classes. Here’s what I came up with:

ontology relationships

This representation doesn’t list every subclass; e.g., in Types of research material, I only listed primary source and in Area of law, I only listed contracts, torts and property. But it gives you an idea of how the classes relate to each other. Something I learned in building the sample pizza ontology in Protege is the importance of creating two properties: the relational “_property and the modifier_” property. The recommendation is to use has or is as prefixes1 for the properties. You can see how classes relate to each other in the above diagram as well as how classes are modified by subclasses and individuals.

I’m continuing to read Semantic Web for Dummies, and I’m currently focusing on Chapter 8: Speaking the Web Ontology Language. It has all kinds of nifty Venn diagrams and lines of computer code, and I’m working on understanding it all. This line keeps me going. However, if you’re looking for a system to draw inferences or to interpret the implications of your assertions (for example, to supply a dynamic view of your data), OWL is for you2.

One of my concerns is that a few of my subclasses belong to more than class. But the beauty of the Semantic web and OWL is that class and subclass are dynamic sets, and when you run the ontology individual members can change from one set to another. This means that Case Law can be both a subclass of Source of Law and an instance of Primary Source in the class Type of Research Material.

The way in which I set up my classes, subclasses, and the relationships between them are simple assertions3. Two equivalent classes would look like a enn diagram with the two sets as completely overlapping. This helps in dealing with synonyms. You can assert equivalence between individuals as well as classes, but it is better to set up each individual’s relationships with its classes, and then let the OWL reasoning system decide if the individuals are truly interchangeable. This is very helpful in a situation in which you are combining ontologies. There are more complicated assertions (equivalence, disjointness, and subsumption), and I am working on applying them and building out the ontology.

Next I need to figure out the characteristics of the properties relating the classes, subclasses, and individuals in my ontology: inverse, symmetric, transitive, intersection, union, complement, and restriction. As I continue to read (and reread) Semantic Web for Dummies, I am gaining a new appreciation for set theory and descriptive logic. Math seems to always have a way of finding you! I am also continuing to fill in the ontology with terms (using simple assertions), and I also need to figure out SPARQL so I can query the ontology. It still feels like one of those one step forward, two steps back endeavors, but it is interesting.

I hope to keep you posted, and I am grateful to the Vox PopuLII blog for having me back to write an update.

Amy_Taylor
Amy Taylor is the Access Services Librarian and Adjunct Professor at American University Washington College of Law. Her main research interests are legal ontologies, organization of legal information and the influence of online legal research on the development of precedent. You can reach her on Twitter @taylor_amy or email: amytaylor@wcl.american.edu.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.


1 Matthew Horridge, A Practical Guide to Building OWL Ontologies, 20, http://phd.jabenitez.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/A-Practical-Guide-To-Building-OWL-Ontologies-Using-Protege-4.pdf (last visited May 19, 2015.

2 Jeffrey Pollock, Semantic Web for Dummies 195 (Wiley 2009).

3  Id. at 200.

§.1.- Foreword

«If folksonomies work for pictures (Flickr), books (Goodreads), questions and answers (Quora), basically everything else (Delicious), why shouldn’t they work for law?» (Serena Manzoli)

In a post on this blog, Serena Manzoli distinguishes three uses of taxonomies in law: (1) for research of legal documents, (2) in teaching to law students, and (3) for its practical application.

In regard to her first point, she notes that (observation #1) to increase the availability of legal resources is compelling change of the whole information architecture, and – correctly, in my opinion – she exposes some objections to the heuristic efficiency of folksonomies: (objection #1) they are too “flat” to constitute something useful for legal research and (objection #2) it is likely that non-expert users could “pollute” the set of tags. Notwithstanding these issues, she states (prediction #1) that folksonomies could be helpful with non-legal users.

On the second point, she notes (observation #2) that folksonomies could be beneficial to study the law, because they could allow one to penetrate easier into its conceptual frameworks; she also formulates the hypothesis (prediction #2) that this teaching method could shape a more flexible mindset in students.

In discussing the third point, she notes (observation #3) that different taxonomies entail different ways of apply the law, and (prediction #3) she formulates the hypothesis that, in a distant perspective in which folksonomies would replace taxonomies, the result would be a whole new way to apply the law.

I appreciated Manzoli’s post and accepted with pleasure the invitation of Christine Kirchberger – to whom I am grateful – to share my views with the readers of this prestigious blog. Hereinafter I intend to focus on the theoretical profiles that aroused my curiosity. My position is partly different from that of Serena Manzoli.

 

§.2.- Introduction

In order to detect the issues stemming from folksonomies, I think it is relevant to give some preliminary clarifications.

In collective tagging systems, by tagging we can describe the content of an object – an image, a song or a document – label it using any lexical expression preceded by the “hashtag” (the symbol “#”) and share it with our friends and followers or also recommend it to an audience of strangers.

Folksonomies (blend of the words “taxonomy” and “folk”) are sets of categories resulting from the use of tags in the description of on line resources by the users, allowing a “many to many” connection between tags, users and resources.

Basic pattern of a folksonomy

Basic pattern of a folksonomy

 

Thomas Vander Wal coined the word a decade ago – ten years is really a long time in ICTs – and these technologies, as reported by Serena Manzoli, have now been adopted in most of the social networks and e-commerce systems.

The main feature of folksonomies is that tags aggregate spontaneously in a semantic core; therefore, they are often associated with taxonomies or ontologies, although in these latter cases hierarchies and categories are established before the collection of data, as “a priori”.

Simplifying, I can say that tags may describe three aspects of the resources, using particulars  (i.e. a picture of a flowerpot lit by the sun):

(1) The content of the resources (i.e. #flowers),

(2) The interaction with other specific resources and the environment in general (i.e. #sun or #summer),

(3) The effect that these resources have on users having access to them (i.e. #beautiful).

Since it seems to me that none of these aspects should be disregarded in an overall assessment of folksonomies, I will consider all of them.

Having regard to law, they end to match with these three major issues:

(1) Law as a “content”. Users select legal documents among others available and choose those that seem most relevant. As a real interest is – normally – the driving criterion of the search, and as this typically is given by the need to solve a legal problem, I designate this profile with the expression «Quid juris?».

(2) Law as a “concept”. This problem emerges because the single legal document can not be conceived separately from the context in which it appears, namely the relations it has with the legal system to which it belongs. Consequently becomes inevitable to ask what the law is, as a common feature of all legal documents. Recalling Immanuel Kant in the “Metaphysics of Morals”,  here I use the expression «Quid jus?».

(3) Law as a “sentiment”. What emerges in folksonomies is a subjective attitude that regards the meaning to be attributed to the research of resources and that affects the way in which it is performed. To this I intend to refer using the expression «Cur jus?».

 

§.3.- Folksonomies, Law, and «Quid juris?»: legal information management and collective tagging systems

In this respect, I agree definitely with Serena Manzoli. Folksonomies seem to open very interesting perspectives in the field of legal information management; we admit, however, that these technologies still have some limitations. For instance: just because the resources are tagged freely, it is difficult to use them to build taxonomies or ontologies; inexperienced users classify resources less efficiently than the other, diluting all the efforts of more skilled users and “polluting” well-established catalogs; vice versa, even experienced users can make mistakes in the allocation of tags, worsening the quality of information being shared.

Though in some cases these issues can be solved in several ways –  i.e., the use of tags can be guided with the tag’s recommendation, hence the distinction between broad and narrow folksonomies – and even if it can reasonably be expected that these tools will work even better in the future, for now we can say that folksonomies are useful just to integrate pre-existing classifications.

I may add, as an example, that an Italian law requires the creation of “user-created taxonomies (folksonomies),” “Guidelines for websites of public administrations” of 29 July 2011, page 20.  These guidelines have been issued pursuant to art. 4 of Directive 26th November 2009 n. 8, of the “Minister for Public Administration and Innovation”, according to the Legislative Decree of 7 March 2005, n. 82, “Digital Administration Code” (O.J. n. 112 of 16th May 2005, S.O. n. 93). It may be interesting to point out that in Italian law the innovation in administrative bodies is promoted by a specific institution, the Agency for Digital Italy (“Agenzia per l’Italia Digitale”), which coordinates the actions in this field and sets standards for usability and accessibility. Folksonomies indeed fall into this latter category.

Following this path, a municipality (Turin) has recently set up a system of “social bookmarking” for the benefit of citizens called TaggaTO.

 

§.4.- Folksonomies, Law, and «Quid jus?»: the difference between the “map” and the “territory”

In this regard, my theoretical approach is different from that of Serena Manzoli. Here is the reason our findings are opposite.

Human beings are “tagging animals”, since labelling things is a natural habit. We can note it in common life: each of us, indeed, organizes his environment at home (we have jars with “salt” or “pepper” written on the caps) and at work (we use folders with “invoices” or “bank account” printed on the cover). The significance of tags is obvious if we consider using it with other people: it allows us to establish and share a common information framework. For the same reasons of convenience, tags have been included in most of the software applications we use (documents, e-mail, calendars) and, as said above, in many online services. To sum up, labels help us to build a representation of reality: they are tools for our knowledge.

In regard to reality and knowledge, it may be recalled that in the twentieth century there were two philosophical perspectives: the “continental tradition”, focused on the first (reality) and pretty much common in Europe, and the “analytic philosophy”, centered on the second (knowledge and widespread among USA, UK and Scandinavia. More recently, this distinction has lost much of its heuristic value and we have seen rising a different approach, the “philosophy of information”, which proposes, developing some theoretical aspects of cybernetics, a synthesis of reality and knowledge in an unifying vision that originates from a naturalistic notion of “information”.

I will try to simplify, saying that if reality is a kind of “territory”, and if taxonomies (and in general ontologies) can be considered as a sort of representation of knowledge, then they can be considered as “maps”.

In light of these premises, I should explain what to me “sharing resources” and “shared knowledge” mean in folksonomies. Folksonomies are a kind of “map”, indeed, but different than ontologies. In a metaphor: ontologies could be seen as “maps” created by a single geographer overlapping the reliefs of many “territories”, and sold indiscriminately to travelers; folksonomies could be seen as “maps” that inhabitants of different territories help each other to draw by telephone or by texting a message. Both solutions have advantages and disadvantages: the former may be detailed but more difficult to consult, while the latter may be always updated but affected by inaccuracies. In this sense, folksonomies could be said “antifragile” – according to the brilliant metaphor of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – because their value improves with increased use, while ontologies could be seen as “fragile”, because of the linearity of the process of production and distribution.

Therefore, as the “map” is not the “territory”, reality does not change depending on the representation. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the “maps” are not helpful to travel to unknown “territories”, or to reach faster the destination even in “territories” that are well known (just like when driving in the car with the aid of GPS).

On the application of folksonomies to the field of law, I shall say that, after all, legal science has always been a kind of “natural folksonomy”. Indeed, it has always been a widespread knowledge, ready to be practiced, open to discussion, and above all perfectly “antifragile”: new legal issues to be solved determine a further use of the systems, thus causing an increase in knowledge and therefore a greater accuracy in the description of the legal domain. In this regard, Serena Manzoli in her post also mentioned the Corpus Juris Civilis, which for centuries has been crucial in the Western legal culture. Scholars went to Italy from all over Europe to study it, at the beginning by noting few elucidations in the margins of the text (glossatores), then commenting on what they had learned (commentatores), and using their legal competences to decide cases that were submitted to them as judges or to argue in trials as lawyers.

Modern tradition has refused all of this, imposing a rationalistic and rigorous view of law. This approach – “fragile”, continuing with the paradigm of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – has spread in different directions, which simplifying I can lower to three:

(1) Legal imperativism: law as embodied in the words of the sovereign.

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

(2) Legal realism: law as embodied in the words of the judge.

 

Gavel

Gavel

(3) Legal formalism: law as embodied in administrative procedures.

 

The Castle (Franz Kafka)

The Castle (Franz Kafka)

For too long we have been led to pretending to see only the “map” and to ignore the “territory”. In my opinion, the application of folksonomies to law can be very useful to overcome these prejudices emerging from the traditional legal positivism, and to revisit a concept of law that is a step closer to its origin and its nature. I wrote “a step closer”; I’d like to clarify, to emphasize that the “map”, even if obtained through a participatory process, remains a representation of the “territory”, and to suggest that the vision known as the “philosophy of information” seems an attempt to overlay or replace the two terms – hence its “naturalism” – rather than to draw a “map” as similar as possible to the “territory”.

 

§.5- Folksonomies, Law and «Cur jus?»: the user in folksonomies: from “anybody” to “somebody”

This profile does not fall within the topics covered in Manzoli’s post, but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss it because it is the most intriguing to me.

Each of us arranges his resources according to the meaning that he intends to give his world. Think of how each of us arrays the resources containing information that he needs in his work: the books on the desk of a scholar, the files on the bench of a lawyer or a judge, the documents in the archive of a company. We place things around us depending on the problem we have to address: we use the surrounding space to help us find the solution.

With folksonomies, in general, we simply do the same in a context in which the concept of “space” is just a matter of abstraction.

What does it mean? We organize things, then we create “information”. Gregory Bateson in a very famous book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind – in which he wrote on “maps” and “territories”, too – stated that “information” is “the difference that makes the difference”. This definition, brilliant in its simplicity, raises the tremendous problem of the meaning of our existence and the freedom of will. This issue can be explained through an example given by a very interesting app called “Somebody”, recently released by the contemporary artist Miranda July.

The app works as follows: a message addressed to a given person is written and transmitted to another, who delivers it verbally. In other words, the actual recipient receives the message from an individual who is unknown to him. The point that fascinates me is this: someone suddenly comes out to tell that you “make a difference,” that you are not “anybody” because you are “somebody” for “somebody.” Moreover, at the same time this same person, since he is addressing you, becomes “somebody,” because the sender of the message chose him  among others, since he  “meant something” to him.

For me, the meaning of this amazing app can be summed up in this simple equation:

 

“Being somebody” = “Mean something” = “Make a difference”
 

This formula means that each of us believes he is worth something (“being somebody”), that his life has a meaning (“mean something”), that his choices or actions can change something – even if slightly – in this world (“make a difference”).

Returning to Bateson, if it is important to each of us to “make a difference”, if we all want to be “somebody”, then how could we settle down for recognize ourselves as just an “organizing agent”? Self-consciousness is related to semantics and to the freedom of choice: who is not free at all, does not create any “difference” in the world. Poetically, Miranda July makes people talk to each other, giving a meaning to humanity and a purpose to freedom: this is what “making a difference” means for humans.

In applying folksonomies to law, we should consider all this. It is true that folksonomies record the way in which each user arrays available legal documents, but it should be emphasized the purpose for which this activity is carried out. Therefore, it should be clear that an efficient cataloguing of resources depends on several conditions: certainly that the user shall know the law and remember its ontologies, but also that he shall be focused on what he is doing. This means that the user needs to be well-motivated, in order to recognize the value of what he is doing, so that to give meaning to his activity.

 

§.6- Conclusion

I believe that folksonomies can teach us a lot. In them we can find not only an extraordinary technical tool, but also – and most importantly – a reason to overcome the traditional legal positivism – which is “ontological” and therefore “fragile” – and thus rediscover the cooperation not only among experts, but also with non-experts, in the name of an “antifragile” shared legacy of knowledge that is called “law”.

All this will work – or at least, it will work better – if we remember that we are human beings.

 

Federico Costantini

Federico Costantini.

I hold a Master’s degree in Law and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Law from the University of Padua (Italy).
Currently I am Researcher in Philosophy of Law (Legal informatics) in the Department of Legal sciences at the University of Udine (Italy).
My study aims to bridge philosophy, computer science and law, focusing on the strife between human nature and new technologies. Recently I am investigating the theoretical implications of ICTs on «social ontology», the concept of law as an instrument of social control as emerging from the «peer to peer economy», the use of folksonomies in legal information management and the theoretical aspects of Digital evidence.
I teach Legal Informatics in the Faculty of Law of Udine. In my lectures on cyberlaw, which I study since 2000, I bring out the critical profiles of the “Information Society” from the discussion of the most recent jurisprudence.
I am also a Lawyer. I am registered in the Bar Association of Udine (Italy) in a special section (full time academic researchers and professors).
My full profile can be visited on www.linkedin.com .
My complete list of publications can be found on https://air.uniud.it.

 

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Lessons Gained from Parliamentary Information Visualization (PIV)

The emerging topic of Parliamentary Informatics (PI) has opened up new terrain in the research of the scope, usefulness and contribution of Informatics to parliamentary openness and legislative transparency. This is pretty interesting when visualizations are used as the preferred method in order to present and interpret parliamentary activity that seems complicated or incomprehensible to the public. In fact, this is one of the core issues discussed, not only on PI scientific conferences but also on parliamentary fora and meetings.

The issue of Parliamentary Information Visualization (PIV) is an interesting topic; not only because visualizations are, in most cases, inviting and impressive to the human eye and brain. The main reason is that visual representations reveal different aspects of an issue in a systematic way, ranging from simple parliamentary information (such as voting records) to profound socio-political issues that lie behind shapes and colors. This article aims to explore some of the aspects related to the visualization of parliamentary information and activity.

Untangling the mystery behind visualized parliamentary information
Recent research on 19 PIV initiatives, presented in CeDEM 2014, has proven that visualizing parliamentary information is a complicated task. Its success depends on several factors: the availability of data and information, the choice of the visualization method, the intention behind the visualizations, and their effectiveness when these technologies are tied to a citizen engagement project.

To begin with, what has impressed us most during our research is the kind of information that was visualized. Characteristics, personal data and performance of Members of Parliament (MPs)/Members of European Parliament (MEPs), as well as political groups and member-states, are the elements most commonly visualized. On the other hand, particular legislative proposals, actions of MPs/MEPs through parliamentary control procedures and texts of legislation are less often visualized, which is, to some extent, understandable due to the complexity of visually depicting long legislative documents and the changes that accompany them.

Gregor Aisch – The Making of a Law visualization

Gregor Aisch – The Making of a Law visualization

However, visually representing a legislative text and its amendments might possibly reveal important aspects of a bill, such as time of submission, specific modifications that have been performed, and additions or deleted articles and paragraphs in the text.

Another interesting aspect is the visualization method used. There is a variety of methods deployed even for the visualization of the same category of Parliamentary Informatics. Robert Kosara notes characteristically: “The seemingly simple choice between a bar and a line chart has implications on how we perceive the data”.

In the same line of thought, in a recent design camp of the Law Factory project, two designer groups independently combined data for law-making processes with an array of visualization methods, in order to bring forward different points of view of the same phenomenon. Indeed, one-method-fits-all approaches cannot be applied when it comes to parliamentary information visualization. A phenomenon can be visualized both quantitatively and qualitatively, and each method can bring different results. Therefore, visualizations can facilitate plain information or further explorations, depending on the aspirations of the designer. Enabling user information and exploration are, to some extent, the primary challenges set by PIV designers. However, not all visualization methods permit the same degree of exploration. Or sometimes, the ability of in-depth exploration is facilitated by providing further background information in order to help end users navigate, comprehend and interpret the visualization.

Beyond information and exploration
Surely, a visualization of MPs’ votes, characteristics, particular legislative proposals or texts of legislation can better inform citizens. But is it enough to make them empowered? The key to this question is interaction. Interaction whether in the sense of human-computer interaction or human-to-human interaction in a physical or digital context, always refers to a two-way procedure and effect. Schrage notes succinctly: “Don’t view visualization as a medium that substitutes pictures for words but as interfaces to human interactions that create new opportunities for new value creation.”

When it comes to knowledge gained through this exploration, it is understandable that knowledge is useless if it is not shared. This is a crucial challenge faced by visualization designers, because the creation of platforms that host visualizations and enable further exchange of views and dialogue between users can facilitate citizen engagement. Additionally, information sharing or information provision through an array of contemporary and traditional means (open data, social media, printing, e-mail etc.) can render PIV initiatives more complete and inclusive.

An issue of information representation, or information trustworthiness?
Beyond the technological and functional aspects of parliamentary information visualization, it is interesting to have a look into information management and the relationship between parliaments and Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations (PMOs). As also presented by a relevant survey, PMOs serve as a hub for presenting or monitoring the work of elected representatives, and seem to cover a wide range of activities concerning parliamentary development. This, however, might not always be easily acceptable by parliaments or MPs, since it may give to elected representatives a feeling of being surveilled by these organizations.

To further explain this, questions such as who owns vs. who holds parliamentary information, where and when is this information published, and to what ends, raise deeper issues of information originality, liability of information sources and trustworthiness of both the information and its owners. For parliaments and politicians, in particular, parliamentary information monitoring and visualization initiatives may be seen as a way to surveil their work and performance, whereas for PMOs themselves these initiatives can be seen as tools for pushing towards transparency of parliamentary work and accountability of elected representatives. This discussion is quite multi-faceted, and goes beyond the scope of this post. What should be kept in mind, however, is that establishing collaboration between politicians/parliaments and civil society surely requires time, effort, trust and common understanding from all the parties involved. Under these conditions, PIV and PMO initiatives can serve as hubs that bring parliaments and citizens closer, with a view to forming a more trusted relationship.

Towards transparency?

Most PIV initiatives provide information in a way compliant with the principles of the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness. Openness is a necessary condition for transparency. But, then, what is transparency? Is it possible to come up with a definition that accommodates the whole essence of this concept?

Transparent labyrinth by Robert Morris, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Dezeen)

Transparent labyrinth by Robert Morris, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Dezeen)

In this quest, it is important to consider that neither openness nor transparency can exist without access to information (ATI). Consequently, availability and accessibility of parliamentary information are fundamental prerequisites in order to apply any technology that will hopefully contribute to inform, empower and help citizens participate in public decision-making.
Apart from that, it is important to look back in the definition, essence and legal nature of Freedom of Information (FOI) and Right to Information (RTI) provisions, as these are stated in the constitution of each country. A closer consideration of the similarities and differences between the terms “Freedom” and “Right”, whose meanings we usually take for granted, can provide important insight for the dependencies between them. Clarifying the meaning and function of these terms in a socio-political system can be a helpful start towards unraveling the notion of transparency.

Still, one thing is for sure: being informed and educated on our rights as citizens, as well as on how to exercise them, is a necessity nowadays. Educated citizens are able not only to comprehend the information available, but also search further, participate and have their say in decision-making. The example of the Right to Know initiative in Australia, based on the Alaveteli open-source platform, is an example of such an effort. The PIV initiatives researched thus far have shown that citizen engagement is a hard-to-reach task, which requires constant commitment and strive through a variety of tools and actions. In the long run, the full potential and effectiveness of these constantly evolving initiatives remains to be seen. In this context, legislative transparency remains in itself an open issue with many interesting aspects yet to be explored.

 

The links provided in the post are indicative examples and do not intend to promote initiatives or written materials for commercial or advertising purposes.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAspasia Papaloi is a civil servant in the IT and New Technologies Directorate of the Hellenic Parliament, a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens and a research fellow of the Laboratory of New Technologies in Communication, Education and the Mass Media, contributing as a Teaching Assistant. She holds an MA with specialization in ICT Management from the University of the Aegean in Rhodes and a Bachelor of Arts in German Language and Literature (Germanistik) from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her research area involves e-Parliaments with a special focus on visualization for the achievement of transparency.

gouscosDimitris Gouscos is Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens and a research fellow of the Laboratory of New Technologies in Communication, Education and the Mass Media, where he contributes to co-ordination of two research groups on Digital Media for Learning and Digital Media for Participation. His research interests evolve around applications of digital communication in open governance, participatory media, interactive storytelling and playful learning. More information available on http://www.media.uoa.gr/~gouscos.

 

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

US Law Code

c.c. BY-SA 3.0. wikipedia.org

If you think that law isn’t written for lawyers, try reading some.  It can even start looking normal after a while (say about the length of time it takes to get through law degree).  But research on the main street impact of legal language suggests that for most people, the law is likely to be either incomprehensible or very hard to read.

This problem is a focus of a research project which a team of us at ANU and Cornell LII have been addressing over the past months (Eric McCreath (Australian National University, Research School of Computer Science), Wayne Weibel (Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Insitute), Nic Ceynowa (LII), Sara Frug (LII), Tom Bruce (LII) and myself (ANU)).  With the generous help of thousands of LII users, as part of a citizen science project, we’ve been collecting data on the readability of law as well as demographic data about the users of law.

If you are concerned about access to law, and many are, the current situation is not really good enough.  Whether you tend to ‘human rights’, ‘democratic values’, ‘economic efficiency’, ‘rule of law’ or are just wanting to make sure your hapless minions follow your every command, you’ll be able to think of a good reason why the law should be more accessible (readable) than it is.

Of course the problem has been around for a very long time, and plain language is a standing goal of many legislative drafting offices.  Reform efforts have been underway since the middle ages.  Certainly legal language has improved considerably, particularly as a result of 19th and 20th century reforms with that goal in mind.  Still, the law can’t be said to be readily accessible to the general public, in the sense of its readability.

What has changed that makes the problem more urgent today is that the general public can now at least get to the law.  That’s the revolution that’s been achieved by online publishers of the law, including the Free Access to Law Movement and official and commercial law publishers.  As the UK’s First Parliamentary Counsel observed last year:

Legislation affects us all. And increasingly, legislation is being searched for, read and used by a broad range of people. It is no longer confined to professional libraries; websites like legislation.gov.uk have made it accessible to everyone. So the digital age has made it easier for people to find the law of the land; but once they have found it, they may be baffled. The law is regarded by its users as intricate and intimidating.

In 2010, the Plain Writing Act was adopted by the US Congress with the aim of improving government writing. Sad to say, the Act itself is no model of plain language. Section, sub-section and paragraph roll on, line after line, provision after convoluted provision. In substance they say not much more than: write clearly so that the public can understand and use what you write.  Didn’t anyone see the irony?  Then again, reality check, most legislation is never read by the people who vote to make it law. Just to make sure the drawbridge was well and truly up, if you read through to the fine print at the end there is an important rider.  What happens if no one can understand what the law is supposed to mean? Well, nothing a judge can do about it.  Great aspiration, but …

A sea change could be on the way, though. The Good Law initiative is one great example of efforts to address the complexity and readability of legislation. What is significant is that how we are thinking about legal rules is changing.  Official publishers of the law are beginning to talk about the law as if it’s data.  The UK National Archives Office has even published an API — Application Programmers Interface (basically a ‘how to’ for developers who want to use the “data”).So now we’re thinking of law as data.  And we’re going to unleash computer scientists on it, to do whatever their imaginations can come up with. Bommarito and Katz‘ work on the legal code as a mathematical network is a great example of the virtually infinite possibilities.

Our own research uses the potential of computational technologies in another way. Online legal sites are not just ‘documents’.  They are places where people are actively interacting with the law. We used crowd-sourcing to engage with this audience, asking them to rate law on readability characteristics as well as exploring the demographics of who uses the law. Our aim was to develop a labelled dataset that could be used as input to machine learning. “Labelled data” is machine learning gold — hard to get, but if you can you get it, you can use it to make predictions about what human judges would say. In our case we are trying to predict whether a legal sentence will be readable or not.

In the process we learned quite a bit about the audience using the law, and about which law they use. Scouring the Google Analytics data, it became obvious that the law is not equally read. We may all be equal before the law, but the law is not equal before us. Just 37 sections of the US Code account for almost 10% of the page visits to US code pages (there are about 65,000). So a tiny fraction of the Code is being read all the time.  On the other hand there are huge swathes of the Code that hardly ever see the light of a back illuminated screen. This is not trivial news. Computer scientists love lists. Prioritised lists get their own special lectures for first year CS students — and here we have a prioritized list. You want to know what law is at the top of your priority list — the users will tell you. If you’re concerned with cleaning up the law code or making it easier to understand, there’s useful stuff here.

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

It will be no surprise that we found that law is harder for just about every part of the community than legal professionals.  What was surprising was that legal professionals (including law students), turn out to be a minority of those interested enough to respond, on the LII site at least.

These were just a few of the demographic insights we were able to draw.

On the machine learning front, we were able to show that machine learning can improve on traditional readability metrics  in predicting language difficulty (they’ve long been regarded as suspect in application to legal texts anyway). That said, it’s early days and we would like to extend the research we have done so far. There is a lot of potential for future research applying computational techniques to the readability of law.  A co-authored publication further describing the research introduced in this article will be presented at this year’s Law Via the Internet Conference being held at the end of September.

But while we’re thinking about it, there are other ways to think about `access’ to law.  What if instead of writing the law, it was visualized?  You know — like in pictures.  Before you storm off in contempt, note this: research is validating that pictures can improve user experience — for example in the contract space, where what your clients think of your contract can impact on your bottom line.

It’s radical enough unleashing computer scientists on legal rules. What might the law look like if we try thinking like designers?   ‘User experience’ of legal rules? That one didn’t come up in law school.  We’re in some surreally different world at this point. Designers create artefacts for people to use which are optimised for functionality, beauty and other characteristics –- not things that are meant to tell people what to do. ‘User experience’ is their kind of thinking.

As readers of Vox Pop will know, the idea of legal design is starting to get traction. Helena Haapio and Stefania Passera’s great article on legal design covers some of the field. An article they jointly published last year points out some of the benefits of visualization. Earlier this year, we worked on a joint paper exploring the feasibility of automating legal visualization. We were able to demonstrate the automation of visualization of clauses, such as a contract term clause, a liquidated damages clause or a payment clause. Visit our proof of concept site, where you can play with visualizing different options.

OK. So perhaps some of the above reads like we’re on the up-slope of the hype curve. But that of course is the fun. For those of us who’ve spent many years in the law, looking at the law from a different professional paradigm can help us see things that didn’t stand out before. It certainly enjoyable and brings a breath of fresh air to the law.

Michael CurtottiMichael Curtotti is undertaking a PhD in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.  His co-authored publications on legal informatics include: A Right to Access Implies a Right to Know:  An Open Online Platform for Readability ResearchEnhancing the Visualization of Law and A corpus of Australian contract language: description, profiling and analysis.  He holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of New South Wales, and a Masters of International Law from the Australian National University.  He works part-time as a legal adviser to the ANU Students Association and the ANU Post-graduate & research students Association, providing free legal services to ANU students.

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Other related posts on VoxPopuLII on this topic include Law in the Last-Mile: The Potential of Mobile Integration into Legal Services by Sean Martin McDonald, Incomprehension Compounded by Mistranslation – The Imperatives of Access to Legal Information in South Africa by Eve Gray and Accessible Law by Nick Holmes

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

By Margaret Hagan, Alex Gavis and Kursat Ozenc
Margaret Hagan, Kursat Ozenc, and Alex Gavis kick off the class Get Smart on legal communication design. (c) Fred Leichter, 2014.

(c) Fred Leichter, 2014.

1. Bringing communication design to law

In May 2014, we ran a Legal Communication Design class at Stanford’s Institute of Design, or the d.school. Though legal communications have a reputation as dense, opaque & heavy, we wanted to open up some space for experimenting with what legal communication could be. The d.school proposes that professionals solve problems through collaborative, interdisciplinary experimentation, all while focused on building solutions that are user-friendly & engaging for specific end-users.

We decided to take this approach and apply it to legal communications. Our goals were twofold:

  1. to train students in how to communicate complex information to lay audiences, and
  2. to scope new patterns and models for more resonant communication design of information that conveys legal terms & conditions, rights and warnings.

We formed a three-person teaching team: Margaret Hagan, a legal designer based at Stanford’s d.school; Alex Gavis, in-house counsel at Fidelity Investments with expertise in consumer and financial regulations and product design; and Kursat Ozenc, an interaction designer trained at Carnegie Mellon’s Design School and working at Autodesk.

Get Smart - poster-for-the-class

We developed a two-day intensive “Pop Up” class at the d.school entitled, “Get Smart: Marking Complicated Information Simple.” We intended for the class to be mostly populated by law students, but most of our applicants came from students studying in other fields: engineering, management science, business, political science, and anthropology. The class was oversubscribed, and ultimately limited to about 45 students.

 

 

2. Our approach to complex communication design

The pop-up class was an experiment to see what ideas would emerge from interdisciplinary groups of students using design to make complex legal information more comprehensible. As we prepared for the class, we began to form a Framework of Complex Communication Design. Our central insight is that complex information design can be categorized into two basic branches: (1) that for analysis and understanding, and (2) that for decision-making and action.

Types of Complex Communication Design

Communication Design for Insight and Understanding

The first categorization can be described as making complex sets of information more understandable. There is considerable buzz around this type of complex communication design right now, especially around “data visualizations”. This type of design draws on data sets underlying complex sets of facts, and it attempts to present the data sets in a lively and engaging matter.

In this branch of complex communication design, the goal is to educate. It is to shape data that is otherwise overwhelming into information that is digestible and attractive, and it helps the user understand the data and information. Ideally, the design will allow its author to convey large data sets for better comprehension by individuals — helping them to see patterns, trends, and meaning in an otherwise opaque set of information. The design might also be interactive and flexible enough to allow its end-user to find new insights and inspirations about the data topic, which the design’s author was not aware of.

This type of communication design is commonly employed by scientists, journalists, and others who want to help people make connections between large data sets and the broader world.

Communication Design for Decision-Making

The second stream of communication design is about making complex rules and systems both comprehensible and actionable. It applies to legal communications of notices, rights and warnings. Done well, this type of complex design has the author presenting the rules of a system in their complexity, but empowers the end-user to navigate this complexity — giving them an understanding of the rules and the ability to apply them to the user’s specific situation and decisions.

The goal here is not so much about analysis, like in the first branch, but rather in as helping people make better decisions for themselves. It is about helping people understand the situation that they are in, what rules apply to them, what the consequences of these rules will be, and what kind of behavior to take in response to these rules.

Ideal Legal Communication Design Flow

This type of communication design is a legal design challenge. It is focuses on helping people understand the rules of the world and applying the rules to their own life. It is not education for education’s sake. It is practical, but also quite challenging.

In practice, though legal communication design should apply directly to people’s lives, it does not. The standard for this branch of design is currently low, if we look at the way terms and conditions are presented in consumer contracts, or the legal fine print at the bottom of television advertisements, or the privacy policies on websites. Most often the communications as presented are dense, jargon-laden, and pedantic. They do not provide the user with greater comprehension of the rules, nor do they empower better decision-making.

Our Focus

Accordingly, our goal for the class was to focus on this second category of communication design. We intended to apply user-centered, experimental design process to explore what types of communication could lead to more user engagement, comprehension, and better decision-making.

3. The Class

The d.school class was held over two days: the first day was an evening boot-camp in visual and communication design, followed by a second day “design sprint” to create and test complex legal communication designs in response to specific use-cases we created.

We created the boot-camp to be a staged training. We first taught the basics of good information design. Then, we scaled this knowledge to review complex information design techniques. After this two-staged boot-camp, the next day was an eight-hour session, during which students were challenged to apply what they learned in the first day to legal use-cases.

The Design Bootcamp

Our challenge in the bootcamp was to to cover the basics of quality communication design to a student audience relatively un-versed in design, within a very restricted time. We decided to do a mixture of learning-by-doing and learning-by-exposure. We also created and distributed “cheat-sheets” covering the basic principles of communication design, blended with tips, templates, and suggestions.

We introduced the fundamental Gestalt principles of visual design (i.e., hierarchy, proximity, asymmetry), and then we showed examples of effective and ineffective design.

Kursat Ozenc explains visual design principles through examples.

Kursat Ozenc explains visual design principles through examples. (c) Fred Leichter 2014.

Prior to the class, we had asked students to post examples of complex communication design to our class website. We drew on these student-sourced images for in-class discussion, and our teaching team also scouted images that could demonstrate the fundamental principles. The examples of visual design ranged from those intended to educate, to those meant to delight or intrigue. We mixed in very practical graphics with those with innovative visual cues and illustrations.

Immersing students in many forms of communication design helped to demonstrate design principles in a way that verbal descriptions could not. The examples also provided good inspiration material for the teams to use, when trying to decide how to convey a message, or to synthesize data points into meaningful relationships. Our teaching strategy was to provide the students with a broad portfolio of types of design, so they could see for themselves why certain designs work or do not, and that they could borrow from the designs that engaged them as a user.

We next took the class through a series of short, 20-minute design exercises, to help them build their design muscles for use the next day. First, we asked students to design a flyer invitation to their next birthday – keeping them focused on how to make a convincing communication within space constraints. This was to practice their understanding of basic principles of good composition, messaging, color choice, and imagery.

Next, we ran a more legal design exercise, in which the students had to represent the complex text instructions for using a transit card in a usable way. The goal was to make these terms and conditions into a user-friendly, contextual communication that a user could actually use during their commute to avoid fines.

A quick design to convey a Transit Card's rules to a commuter.

A quick design to convey a Transit Card’s rules to a commuter.

With each of these exercises, students worked by themselves for a short period, and then presented their work to the group. The design reviews provided some critical feedback, as well as encouragement for good design work. These short exercises were warm-ups and team building for the next day’s design sprint.

The Legal Communication Problem and Use Cases

On the second day, the class shifted focus from good communication design practices to the challenges of legal design. Alex began the day with a discussion of why good legal communications design matters. While the law does not require that contracting parties read an agreement, there must be a meeting of the minds. Reasonable processes for obtaining consumer acknowledgement or consent in online agreements are upheld by courts. It takes a lot of bad facts to unwind a contract as unenforceable.

Legal Communication Design - Alex Gavis

Alex Gavis presents the challenges lawyers face when trying to design legal communications to customers. (c) Fred Leichter 2014.

Some laws are proscriptive to protect the public (e.g., the securities laws on full and fair disclosure) others are principles based (e.g., consumer protection laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive acts), and some are structured to validate legitimacy of actions (e.g., the federal and state electronic signature laws).

All this leads to legal dissonance on how consumers may be treated when in transacting online for goods or obtaining services. They generally make purchase decisions not based on any awareness of terms or conditions or the “fine print.” They are confronted with contracts, terms-of-use, consents, and disclosures all over the place, but they typically do not take action on them (click, acknowledge, accept) until after making a decision — usually only upon checkout.

The requirements to make these legitimate in the law can vary by law, regulation, and jurisdiction. Many transactions or interactions wind up in the category of “agree now, worry later” for consumers.

Communications in which the message is well-crafted and the visual is well-rendered can help understanding and mitigate later problems. If there is understanding at the beginning of the consumer-commercial relationship, then there may be less at risk for both parties. Good design and communications may lead to better outcomes as both parties understand what is being asked and required of them and later disputes may be mitigated or dampened.

We assembled four use cases to demonstrate the importance of good communications design.

Use Case 1: “And Where Do I Sign?”

And Where Do I Sign?The first use case mentions a fictitious consumer, Susan, who spends a lot of time researching and connecting with friends about where to put her money. She makes a decision and is eager to open an account quickly at the financial institution she has chosen.

This is where the road gets bumpy for her as she must suddenly navigate disclosures, notices, consents, agreements and the providing of personal information. This mishmash of activity occurs before she can successfully open an account, and she thinks that somewhere in all that language is something that she may wish she had known and understood.

Students were assigned to consider these facts and determine how to design a different experience that would engage and inform (and perhaps delight) Susan.

Use Case #2: “I am on the Run, Just Tell Me What to Do.”

I'm on the Run Just Tell Me What To DoThe second use case involved a similar fact scenario to the first one, but asked students to imagine that Susan is a busy executive who travels all over the U.S. She has a small window of time in which to open an account one day and must do so at the airport between flights.

The students’ assignment was to design a successful (and delightful) experience for Susan that can work with her mobility.

 

 

 

 

Use Case #3: “When Can I Play?”

When Can I Play?The third use case involved a father–son interaction. Carlos wants to help his young son download an online game. The gaming company has agreements, notices, and terms and conditions that it needs Carlos to agree to before it will allow for the downloading of the game. Some of the conditions are required by law; some are required by the company to protect its intellectual property; and some may be required by the credit card company that is handling the billing.

The students’ assignment was to consider how Carlos, in the process of obtaining information and accepting a free trial, can understand the various rights and responsibilities that he (and his son) will be taking on, including license and intellectual property rights, the conditions and responsibilities for payments and the policies and regulations regarding his and his son’s privacy preferences. They were to design an experience that would allow Carlos to understand better what is involved, and from the standpoint of Carlos completing it online through a mobile device with limited print and storage capabilities.

Use Case #4: “You Want Me to Say What?”

Communication Design use case 4 - you want me to say what?The final use case involved an example of advertising for financial services. Advertising provides a source of information to prospective customers about the products and services offered by financial services firms. Advertisers desire to keep the messaging in advertisements streamlined and straightforward, while at the same time making compelling messaging that will be understood by consumers and complying with regulatory standards.

The students were tasked with conjuring advertising across print, web, mobile and television that can meet the twin goals of being innovative in messaging while adhering to specific regulatory disclosure requirements. The students were provided with examples of the disclosure requirements and were asked to find ways to innovate with the display and positioning of required disclosures. They were challenged to discover new concepts in advertising design to meet the goals of understandability, simplicity and investor understanding.

The Design Sprint

We formed the students into teams, mixing their disciplines to get a balance of law students, engineers, social scientists, and humanities students in each group. Then each group was able to choose which use case they wanted to work on.

With their use case chosen, the teams first worked to flesh out a persona in each case, around which to design and build their models. Next, the teams evaluated the type of information that the use-case required to be presented to the persona-audience. After that, they brainstormed design ideas, about what kinds of communications may engage their persona.

Once they developed ideas, the teams discussed their practicality and, in some cases, the groups voted on which one (or ones) to pursue. With this focus, they then spent an hour designing a prototype of the communication design to test in the field. Some created visuals by hand, others used digital tools to mock-up storyboards, app interfaces, or graphics.

After lunch, they went out onto the Stanford campus to find user testers. They asked members of the public for feedback on their ideas and design. Finally, in the last hour of the workshop, each team presented their final designs and user feedback to the class.

4. Models that Emerged

We found that the students generated ideas that suggest several different models for how to provide notice in a legal situation.

Model 1: Embedded Notice

This model involves embedding information concerning warnings into the context of the content that the user desires to consume.

For a television advertisement, for example, one team proposed that, instead of presenting images and voice together and then the legal disclosures (in “fine print” text) in a separate overlay, the message(s) from the legal disclosures could be woven into the images and the voiceover. This would allow a customer to comprehend the “fine print” information within the visual and aural content experience, without having to strain to read the disclosure text on screen.

For Use Case #3, one team suggested that the privacy disclosures and other legal warnings be incorporated into the game environment. The same avatars, background, points system and interfaces would exist for the game and for the disclosures. They suggested an approach where a game user goes through the disclosures and wins points, advancing in the game universe.

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

This allows the user to become educated on privacy and legal issues in the context of what he or she wants to do – play the game. It cleverly embeds the disclosures and warnings directly into the game flow.

The overall model has the legal and financial notice woven together with the juicy and non-legal content.

1a: Interactive Games

One popular type of an embedded notice was game-based. Several teams built models around games, putting the information into a highly interactive and rewarding type of situation.

As discussed with the class, a drawback with this model is that it is very intensive, requiring an investment of time from the user as well as from the notice giver. A benefit is that it has a narrative that can be quite engaging. It has stages and incentives to keep exploring the information being communicated.

This model might work very well when the user is already within a digital environment, like a game on a computer or on an app. The notice-game can be woven seamlessly into the experience that the user is trying to enjoy. It should be considered for “entertainment experiences,” when the user is already in an entertainment mode — for example, when he or she is about to play a game, watch a movie, read a magazine, or start a video game.

Model 2: Roadmap with Zoom

This model involves a large map of the notice and message, which the user can then zoom in and out of. The user chooses where to focus, and can see both the complexity all at once from a distance, or zoomed into a particular part of it.

This type of design allows the user to engage with the material selectively and in a staged way. The omniscient user sets the terms.

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

Two different teams presented designs along this model, but with slight variations. In one model, the designer of the communication sets a sequential path through the communication, and the user goes step by step through it.

The second model is non-sequential and non-linear. The user browses through the communication, zooming in and out of particular topics and choices. The design tracks the progress they have made, but it does not strictly guide the user along a certain path.

Model 3: Divide & Conquer

The divide and conquer model is a modular series of communications that add up to a complete, complex delivery of notice. It involves a modular, staged set of discrete “communication tasks,” that the user proceeds through at their own pace.

The user receives a short communication and then must respond in some way to show that she has registered the information. Each communication is a task, with a two-way channel, of the designer presenting information to the user and the user having to respond in some way. The user goes through the communication tasks one by one, completing the stages and eventually getting the entire communication.

This model takes inspiration from a checklist, but it gives a focused experience for each task. It also lets the user do things in a short way, knowing how much time each of these modules should take and then conquering what they want depending on their situation at the time.

3a: The efficient, clean click-through

One example of this model was more for a professional user, who values efficiency and practicality. The design’s goal was to provide an interactive app that would efficiently let the professional target and flag important information. It was an even more streamlined version of Divide & Conquer, for people who don’t want to dive into any details.

This model allowed for having the details sent later through email or reminders, for when the user may want to refer to the full text. It generally prioritized quick understanding over deep comprehension, but tried to give enough understanding to alert a user to anything she may be concerned about or may want to explore at a later time.

Model 4: Personalized, Conversational, Growing Agreement

In this design, the user responds to prompts, asking him for his information and preferences. As he responds to each prompt, a customized communication is generated for him. It is presented alongside his responses, so he can see how the contract, notice, or other type of legal communication will change depending on his answers.

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

The legal notice is not a given, but rather is progressively generated by the user. The motive behind this model is to give the user a sense of authorship and control. The user is able to see how his choices affect the length and complexity of provisions of the agreement that he must accept at the end of the process. There is a dynamic nature to this process as paragraphs build or collapse depending upon actions. It is also to show flexibility from the designer and legal communicator — to let them show they are willing to defer to the preferences of the user. The experience becomes one that is constructive.

Model 5: Proximate, Contextual Notification

In the proximate notice design, the legal communication is divided up into stages and then presented to the user as it relates to the topic at hand.

It was designed with the idea of presenting terms and conditions selectively, as it relates to the user’s specific data disclosures. As the user enters data into a field, the design immediately prompts her with what the rules, restrictions and notices are for that piece of information. The user sees the conditions as applied to each data point individually.

The design intends to make the large, complex set of terms and conditions more understandable by contextualizing them, and by presenting them bit by bit. The model ideally helps the user understand concretely how each piece of information she discloses relates to the terms and conditions.

Model 6: Protector Relationship

In the protector model, the design attempts to put the user in the mindset of protecting another person, or a future version of themselves. It may do this through the use of an avatar, who will be affected by the content of the communication. Or it could be through a design that shows the user a future version of herself, and encouraging her to think of the communication as applied to this future version.

The goal is to encourage more engagement with a legal communication by putting the user in the position of protecting someone else. Rather than passing over legal information, the user will invest attention into it because something is at stake for someone else. It taps into a sense of duty to protect, especially for someone who seems vulnerable.

This model of design attempts to facilitate more thoughtfulness about the legal communication — helping the user think about how it will play out over a long term. It may also encourage users to think of cause and effect.

5. Ways Forward

The ideas that emerged were bounded by the limited one-day timing for the class. With more time, we are confident that additional ideas would be born. It was helpful to have a mixture of law, business, engineering, and students in other disciplines participating in the class, as they brought varied ideas to the table.

Now we are planning a follow-up workshop with a more specific group of participants: lawyers who work on legal communication challenges like those in our use cases, and designers who have an interest in engaging, resonant communications. Our plan is to take the models and prototypes that emerged out of the class, and to work with the lawyers and designers to validate or upend these initial drafts. We hope to hone a more definite set of good legal communication design patterns, which can be useful to those making complex information design.

After this next-stage workshop, we are considering a controlled test of several of the most promising concepts to determine whether they have the desired effect of making contracting more understandable and simpler. We could imagine these ideas being tested in any number of different contexts where a business would like its users to agree to specific conditions or agreements. This also could be the subject of psychology research and studies on the propensity for individuals to understand information that is designed for their consumption.

The class confirmed for us that there are design approaches — some of which our class developed and others yet to be found — that can directly address complexity in legal interactions and that may well resonate.

 

About the Authors

Alex Gavis headshot 150Alex Gavis is a member of the Corporate Legal Department of FMR LLC, the parent company of Fidelity Investments, one of the largest brokerage and mutual fund companies in the United States and the leading provider of workplace retirement savings plans. He manages a team of attorneys and professionals and is responsible for providing legal services to the firm’s retail brokerage, college savings, stock plan and workplace retirement businesses. He also oversees and manages legal services for Fidelity’s businesses involved in electronic and mobile commerce, start-up innovation, and social media. Mr. Gavis also oversees legal advice on all of Fidelity’s national advertising and marketing initiatives. He is frequent speaker and lecturer on securities law and e-commerce issues.

Margaret Hagan headshot 150 x 150Margaret Hagan is a fellow at Stanford Law’s Center on the Legal Profession and a lecturer at Stanford Institute of Design (the d.school). She was a fellow at the d.school from 2013-2014, where she launched the Program for Legal Tech & Design, experimenting in how design can make legal services more usable, useful and engaging. She taught a series of project-based classes, with interdisciplinary student groups tackling legal challenges through user-focused research and design of new legal products and services. She also leads workshops to train legal professionals in the design process, to produce client-focused innovation. Her blog on legal design is Open Law Lab, and her portfolio of design projects and illustrations are available here.

Kursat Ozenc headshot squareKursat Ozenc is a Senior User Experience Designer at Autodesk in San Francisco, building the next generation design tools for infrastructure professionals. He conducts user research, turns research insights into concept designs, & transforms designs into launch-ready systems, interactions, and interfaces. He completed his Ph.D. studies (2011) in design at Carnegie Mellon University. He holds an M.F.A. degree (2004) in Visual Communication Design from Sabanci University in Istanbul, and a bachelors degree (2002) in Industrial Product design from Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkiye.
Other posts on visualization and law on this blog include Visual Law: What Lawyers Need to Learn from Information Designers by Helena Haapio and  Stefania Passera.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.