August is upon us. We’re taking this quiet-ish time to review the year and recharge for the final sprint. Here’s how The OpenGov Foundation will remember 2014 (so far):
Launched the Free Law Founders — a nationwide coalition to modernize American lawmaking for the Internet Age
In July, we helped launch the Free Law Founders, a nationwide coalition of local elected officials, non-profit software developers, educators, and city attorneys dedicated to upgrading how citizens can access America’s laws, legislation, and the lawmaking process itself on the Internet. Learn more about what the coalition does and how you can become involved here.
Abhi Nemani, fresh from Code for America, joins OpenGov Board of Directors
In June we were honored to have Abhi Nemani, former Co-Director of Code for America, join our board. Abhi is a writer, speaker, organizer, and technologist who helped build the national non-profit, Code for America, from the ground up.
Citizens are reforming San Francisco laws with SanFranciscoDecoded.org
In July, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted into law one of the first ordinances created in the US through online citizen input. Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced the bill after receiving a comment on SanFranciscoCode.org, one of our America Decoded sites, highlighting a law that prohibits storing bicycles in San Francisco garages.
In a ground-breaking civic engagement initiative, Supervisor Farrell also launched ReImagineSF, a competition offering scholarships to students in the city who use SanFranciscoCode.org to suggest improvements to the city’s laws. Supervisor Farrell announced the winners on July 15, and will introduce their ideas as bills to the Board of Supervisors later this year.
“Decoding” city & state laws gets easier with OpenGov-AmLegal partnership
In May, we announced a partnership with American Legal Publishing Corporation that gives us easy access to well-formatted legal code from over 2,000 American Legal client cities across the nation. Through this partnership we have built a parser that allows us to more easily make American Legal cities’ laws accessible and restriction-free online. We’re exploring a similar partnership with legal publisher Municode, too. These partnerships enable us to scale our work in ways that previously proved difficult due to the lack of legal code in workable data formats. Click here to get started “decoding” your laws and legal codes.
Madison powering online citizen-government collaboration on DC legislation
We launched a beta version of our Madison collaborative drafting platform in the District of Columbia in partnership with Councilmember David Grosso back in May. In addition, Councilmember Grosso brought comments received on Madison directly into the hearing, using citizens’ suggestions and questions in conversation with public witnesses.
Our general Madison instance continues to host key pieces of legislation from around the nation, including seven bills related to open government and open data authored by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, and Senators Leahy and Cornyn’s FOIA Improvement Act of 2014. And we have created a new instance of the platform at the request of the United Nations’s International Telecommunication Union, to support the crowdsourcing of a document concerning the use of information and communications technology in empowering youth.
Partnering with the W3C on open source legislative & legal drafting platform
We have partnered with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which governs the architecture and rules of the Web, to create an entirely new tool that combines project workflow management, collaborative document editing, and intelligent information gathering. This tool will eventually replace the current editing tool on Madison, creating a powerful new way to approach policy-creation.
Won $7,500 from Hypothes.is to bring online annotation to older web browsers
In June, we were awarded a $7,500 grant from Hypothes.is to improve the open-source project Annotator, a tool for annotating the web, and which powers Madison’s annotations. The grant goes towards ensuring that Annotator works consistently across browsers and older versions of browsers.
“Design Whisperer” Jen Yu joins OpenGov Board of Advisors
We’re thrilled that Jen Yu has joined our Board of Advisors to serve as our “Design Whisperer.” She has led wildly successful design and experience teams, from Disney to Adobe, Slide (acquired by Google), Jawbone, and Frog Design, to name a few. On top of those amazing accomplishments, Jen has led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) experience design team in building Plan X, the U.S. Defense Department’s foundational cyberwarfare program. Right now, she’s the Chief Creative Officer of a Y Combinator startup in San Francisco. And she says that if you buy her a cookie, she will gladly take it.
That’s where we’ve been. Where are we going for the rest of 2014? Just ask!
Learning from DC’s First Legislative Crowdsourcing Initiative
“[T]he Madison project . . . is going to revolutionize the way we draft legislation and policy in the District of Columbia.”
– DC Councilmember David Grosso
In early May of 2014 we launched our first municipal instance of Madison along with DC Councilmember David Grosso, in what became the District’s premier legislative crowdsourcing initiative, and one of the first in the country. We also coordinated a live online committee hearing on one of the bills, Councilmember Grosso’s Urban Farming and Food Sustainability Act of 2014, on June 12.
In approaching this initiative, we had to consider how to measure success–how to determine if Madison was “working”. We concluded that anytime a citizen reads a policy document, watches a hearing, or interacts with policy who might otherwise not have had such access to their government, it counts as a win. But real success lies in whether public input on Madison reaches a document sponsor.
Of Councilmember Grosso’s documents, the urban farming bill received the most action on MadisonDC, with over 50 comments and 304 unique pageviews. The comments proved both thoughtful and substantive, and over 100 DC residents tuned in to the public hearing via the bill page on MadisonDC in the middle of a Thursday morning. But most importantly, Councilmember Grosso’s office reviewed all Madison activity on the bills, and during the public hearing, the councilmember used comments from MadisonDC to tease out finer points of the legislation in conversation with public witnesses. It formed a quietly groundbreaking moment in DC history, and our success with this document revealed some key lessons about using new technologies to facilitate civic engagement.
First, tools like Madison don’t have to completely disrupt the way government functions in order to be disruptive. Councilmember Grosso’s office was willing to use Madison because we collaborated with them to make sure Madison fit into their existing workflow as much as possible; if it had taken too much time out of their jam-packed schedules they wouldn’t have been able to use it. And the urban farming bill gained traction because community leaders activated their engaged networks to create interest around the bill. Leveraging existing resources remains key to creating real change.
Relatedly, it’s all about timing. We released the urban farming bill just as two council committees began actively reaching out to citizens for testimony. The committees held a joint in-person hearing on the legislation a month after our launch, giving us enough time to build interest and get people familiar with the concept of Madison, and providing an effective end-point to the initiative. It’s important to ensure that citizen input won’t just sit in Internet limbo, but also that people have enough time to get involved.
We also learned that yes, opening up the legislative process with new technology is worth the initial effort of getting started. The fact that Councilmember Grosso brought questions and suggestions received on MadisonDC directly into an official public hearing speaks to the usefulness of the conversation on Madison. And the fact that DC residents took the time to engage with the bill shows that they value the opportunity to become more easily involved in their government.
Finally, it’s tempting to think of revolutions as sudden and explosive, but in reality they constitute momentous amounts of small, incremental changes that lead to something new. The fact that our revolution lives primarily online doesn’t change that. Our platform is still in beta testing. So is the process of using technology to solicit citizen input directly on legislation. So we approached the initiative as an experiment, managing the expectations both of ourselves and our community and government partners. It was important for everyone to be on the same page and to keep an open mind if things went wrong.
Madison hasn’t yet changed the world. But small victories like the MadisonDC launch move us closer to a more inclusive and collaborative democracy, and it’s exciting to be a part of that change–one citizen comment and one line of code at a time.
Citizens, technologists and public officials working together to transform
state & local lawmaking for the 21st Century
Transforming America’s laws and legislation to meet the needs of the Internet Age requires a team effort. State and local government officials, residents and civic software developers all have a role to play. So do vendors, open government advocacy groups and cutting-edge research universities. That’s the only way we can “decode” the United States, opening up online the central data in every democracy: the laws and legal codes that govern us.
Enter the Free Law Founders (FLF). As Government Executive writes, the Free Law Founders is a nationwide “partnership to create new tools, data standards and processes for state and local governments to make public information and data better accessible to the public.” Why the FLF? The problems of today’s exclusionary, inefficient and paper-based laws and legislative process are faced by every single government in America. Go to any city council or state house in the United States – as The OpenGov Foundation has done over the last year and a half – and you’ll hear the same thing: our software stinks and we hate PDFs, but we don’t have the time, tools or talent to fix it.
That’s a problem crying out for cross-country collaboration and low-cost open source solutions. It’s “The Ultimate in Open Government.” To get there, FLF members will be working on expanding and enhancing free tools like Madison, America Decoded and Councilmatic. We’ll be working on crafting and passing policies to foster this open law ecosystem, with an open legal data standard to match. And we’ll be sharing everything – our code, our data and our gameplans – at FreeLawFounders.org so others can benefit.
As NYC Council Member Ben Kallos, a founding FLF member, put it: “The law must be free. The government must belong to the people, and with it the source code that operates and improves legislation and laws. Millenia ago, Hammurabi codified law and displayed it publicly for the people to see. Today, public means free and online, not behind a license or paywall.”
In addition to Kallos and The OpenGov Foundation, current FLF members include: San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell, NYC Council Member Ben Kallos, Washington, D.C. Council Chief Counsel David Zvenyach, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, Boston’s Principal Data Scientist Curt Savoie, the Participatory Politics Foundation, and MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab. As FLF members, we’re sharing our time and talents to vivify these basic principles of Free Law, and contribute to securing them for the entire United States.
The Free Law Founders is open for anyone to join. Civic hackers, everyday Americans, government officials, private-sector vendors – everyone can contribute to achieving this massive modernization effort of how we make and access America’s state and city laws, legal codes and legislation. Drop me a line to get started on the path to transforming your city and state laws and legislative process for the Internet Age.
Don’t get stuck in the Dark Ages of Democracy with PDFs, copyright restrictions and chaos. Do something about it with the Free Law Founders.
Transforming US Civic Data Into a “What You See Is What You Mean” Format
City and state governments across America are adopting Open Data policies at a fantastic clip. Technology hotbed San Francisco has one, but places far from Silicon Valley – like Pittsburgh, PA – are also joining the municipal open data movement. The increasing availability of free tools and enthusiastic volunteer software developers has opened the door for a vast amount of new government data to be made publicly available in digital form. But merely putting this data out there on the Internet is only the first step.
Much of this city data is released under assumption that a government agency must publish something – anything – and fast. In this rush to demonstrate progress, little thought is given to the how. But the citizens who care about this data – and are actually building websites and applications with it – need to access it in machine-readable, accessible, and standards-compliant formats, as the Sunlight Foundation explains here. This explains why most city open data sets aren’t seen or used. There is a vast difference between merely opening data, and publishing Open Data.
By publishing data in good formats that adhere to modern, widely-accepted standards, users of the data may reuse existing software to manipulate and display the data in a variety of ways, without having to start from scratch. Moreover, it allows easy comparison between data from different sources. If every city and every organization chooses to adopt their own standard for data output, this task becomes absolutely insurmountable – the data will grow faster than anyone on the outside can possibly keep up.
Most Government “Open Data” Is A Useless Mess
Take, for example, the mess that is data.gov. Lots of data is available – but most of these datasets are windows-only self-extracting zip archives of Excel files without headings that are nearly useless. This is not what the community at large means by “Open Data” – there are lots of closed formats along the way.
Similarly, data which is released with its own schema, rather than adopting a common standard, is just as problematic. If you’re forcing your users to learn an entirely new data schema – essentially, a brand new language – and to write entirely new parsing software – a brand new translator – just to interact with your data, you’ve added a considerable barrier to entry that undercuts openness and accessibility.
A good standard lets anyone who wants to interact with the data do so easily, without having to learn anything new or build anything new. Standard programming libraries can be built, so that it’s as simple as opening a webpage for everyone. This means that in most programming languages, using a standards-based data source can be as simple as it is to interact with the web, import httplib and you’re done.
Evaluating Existing Standards
Every day at The OpenGov Foundation, I work with legal and legislative data. Laws, legal codes, legislation, regulations, and judicial opinions are a few examples. What standard do we use? Well, let’s look at the most common standards available for publishing legal data on the Internet:
- Akoma Ntoso – a well-known XML-based format that is very verbose. The level of complexity presents a high barrier to entry for most users, and has prevented its wide adoption.
- United States Legislative Markup (USLM) - another XML-based format used by the US House of Representatives. It has the advantage of being not very verbose, extensible, and easy to use.
- State Decoded XML – the format used by The State Decoded project. Currently, this only support law code data, and is not widely adopted outside of this project.
- JSON – JSON is not actually a standard, but a general format well suited to relational and tabular data, and chunks of plain text. A variant is JSON-LD which has all of the same properties, but is better for relational data. It is commonly used for transferring data on the web, but it is not practical for annotated or marked-up data.
None of these are ideal. But if I had to pick a single option to move forward, the USLM standard is the most attractive for several reasons:
- It is older, established, and has good documentation
- It is easily implemented and used
- It is extensible, but not especially verbose
- It is designed to handle inline markup and annotation, such as tables, mathematical formulas, and images
It also acts as a very good “greatest common factor” as a primary format – it can be translated easily into common formats such as HTML, Microsoft Word, plain text, and even JSON – but does not add any superfluous complexity to address most common needs (e.g., tables or annotations) that other formats require.
Setting the Standard for Open Law & Legislative Data
Moving forward, the next step beyond simply exporting USLM data from existing data sources would be to to have end-to-end solutions that speak USLM natively. Instead of editing Word or WordPerfect documents to craft legislation, lawmakers could write bills in new tools that look and feel like Word, but are actually crafting well-formatted USLM XML behind the scenes, instead of a closed-source, locked-in format. This is what we call “What You See Is What You Mean” – or WYSIWYM.
Here at The OpenGov Foundation, we believe in a rich, standards-based data economy, and we are our actively doing our part to contribute. Our open-source online policymaking platform – Madison - already consumes USLM, and we are actively working on an WYSIWYM editor to make it easier to create and modify policy documents in Madison. We are also investigating USLM support for The State Decoded - both as an input and output format. Hopefully, other software projects will actively follow suit – creating an interoperable ecosystem of legal data for everyone in the United States.
The law is the most important data set in your town, city or state. Yet it is often the hardest information to find, access and use on the Internet. Whether you are a developer, a lawyer, or a government worker, the frustrations with today’s paper-based legal information are endless. But those maddening frustrations are starting to end.
Tomorrow, June 13 at 11am, The OpenGov Foundation’s Seamus Kraft will share the secrets of decoding the law in a talk titled “Liberating Your Laws for the Internet Age”. Our team of software developers is solving these problems with open source software, liberating America’s laws from inaccessible, closed data formats into ridiculously useful “decoded” open data with user-friendly websites and powerful tools on top.
The conversation – moderated by Jonathan Askin, Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and Dazza Greenwood, of MIT Media Lab and CIVICS.com – is part of the MIT Legal Hackathon, a four day online “unhackathon,” during where participants can collaborate on projects, attend planned events, or create their own sessions. Everything is geared towards solving shared legal and technical challenges related to government and the law. The event runs June 12–June 15; session topics range from open data and crowdsourcing legislation to transitioning governments into using open source software. Anyway interested in working on these issues is welcome to participate. You can register for the event online for free.
Watch NYC Council Member Kallos’ MIT Legal Hackathon Preview Video
New York City Council Member Ben Kallos will help to lead the event, providing a keynote address on Friday at noon, and participating in sessions. The Council Member recently introduced seven bills related to open government and data in the New York City Council; you can comment on them using Madison, a collaborative online policy drafting platform. The Council Member’s bills include The Law Online Act, City Records Online Act, and eNotices Act, as well as bills on crime data and open maps.
Head on over to the MIT Legal Hackathon website to join us.