Monthly Archives: December 2013

Completing the Incomplete Code of Maryland Laws

Imagine your boss hands you a 5,000-page end-of-the-year report with no organizational titles or section headings, then asks you to find the part about the first week of June– now. You start scanning line after line, page after page, scribbling notes in the margins and getting hopelessly lost. As the clock runs out and the panic sets in you raise a desperate cry: “But why are there no section summary titles???”

That’s the exactly what Maryland citizens face today.  All 31,969 sections of the Maryland law lack section summaries that organize and explain the law, help you to navigate it, and find what you need within it. Article names and section numbers remain your only guides. For example, if you’re an entrepreneur looking to open a restaurant, you might need to find the laws on liquor licensing.  You visit Marylandcode.org and click on the article called “Alcoholic Beverages”–but that will bring you here.  The Maryland State Government sticks you with more than a hundred disorganized sections with names like “g2b-1-102”, most of which you don’t want or need. You’ll have to sift through every single one just to find the one section you need to get your new business off the ground.

It seems crazy.  How can the law exist without basic navigation aids? Maryland elected officials, lawyers, entrepreneurs, pet-owners, moms– at some point, we all need to know what the state law contains.  And it turns out that those vital section summaries do exist, but they were created and copyrighted by a private sector vendor who keeps them on lockdown.  Neither everyday Marylanders nor the state government itself is allowed to reuse and republish them.  The law remains incomplete, disorganized and inaccessible.

This presents a conundrum to everyone who believes that in America, the law should be open, understandable and accessible to all.  Since creating the first modern edition of the Maryland law in May 2013, the OpenGov Foundation team has found three different ways to solve the pressing problem of section-summary-less law: copy the private-sector vendors’ section titles, and face the stiff consequences of copyright violation; post the raw, disorganized law on the Internet and wish everyone good luck; or create do-it-yourself section summaries that are restriction-free, reusable and in the public domain.  Because our mission remains to make the law more accessible and understandable for everyone – whatever it takes – we chose the third path.

Right now, we’re three months into the project of summarizing every single section of the Maryland law.  Do we have a secret army of lawyers?  Heck no.  Thanks to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, we don’t need one.  Hundreds of ordinary people have been reading individual sections of the Maryland law and creating summaries for each that everyday Marylanders can understand.  When finished, we’ll gift the complete, organized and summarized law back to its true owners – the people of Maryland – and publish all the restriction-free section summaries on MarylandCode.org and Github for anyone to reuse and improve upon.

Expect this first complete, summarized and restriction-free edition of the Maryland law by the end of January.

Questions? Comments? Want to help? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at sayhello@opengovfoundation.org or Tweet us at @FoundOpenGov.

Sharing the Power of Open Law with MIT’s Center for Civic Media

A Discussion on Innovating Democracy in America’s Cradle of Liberty

 

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has led the world into the future for 150 years with scientific innovations. Its brainwaves keep the US a superpower. But what makes the university such a fertile ground for brilliant ideas?” – The Guardian

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Nestled on Boston’s Charles River, smack dab in the middle of “America’s Cradle of Liberty,” sits the MIT Center for Civic Media.  It is a hub for democratic innovation, both applied and academic.  Here, as the Guardian notes, brilliant ideas foment, civic startups form and better ways to live, work and govern take flight.  There must be something special in that dirty water.

The amazing folks at MIT Civic Media invited our Executive Director Seamus Kraft to visit last week in order to share how OpenGov produces open law and open legislation in order to increase every citizen’s access to the law – and to the lawmaking process itself – in the Internet Age.  The questions were thoughtful and, well, MIT-tough; however, the feedback on the State Decoded and Madison was invaluable.

It is safe to say that we learned a lot more than we shared.  Plus, we connected with a team working to open the law in Boston, a few Cambridge (MA) elected officials looking to decode the laws governing the MIT community itself, and the next generation of civic hackers arming themselves to improve governments with both thought and action.

Thanks to the entire Civic Media community for giving us the opportunity to share our work.  And special thanks to MIT’s Lorrie LeJeune, Andrew Whitacre and Nicole Freedman for making it possible!

Helpful Links

Photos

Discussion Highlights from the MIT Civic Media Live Blog

Revised and Condensed by OpenGov

Yu: How are you going to present and visualize the laws? Have you thought about the annotation framework? Or social interactions?

Seamus: Visualization is super powerful. It’s built in, in a very small sense, we have word clouds. As we get more and more legal codes up, the possibilities for visualizations and comparisons become greater. For example, what is the state next door doing? And how did that work? We’re not there yet.

Madison is going to sit on top of this and allow you to draft legislation or edit legislation on top of the legal code. Madison 2.0 is under development right now, you can check it out on out on our github. We are doing the state of Maryland in January and the Federal government in February.


Sasha Costanza-Schock: The goal is to open up the data to as many people as possible; the method is to open up data and APIs. But there are challenges as developers implement closed services on top of open data. For example, as cities open transit data, entrepreneurs develop both paid and free apps around these data. Oftentimes as data becomes more open, private, paid services emerge and therefore the process is classed. Those who already had the most access, get even more access, and those with less resources are still closed out. Are you having this debate? Are there social, technical, legal constraints we might want to place on what’s done with open gov services? For an example, see the debates over the AGPL in the free software community.

Seamus: That’s a fantastic question. Are we having that debate? I don’t think we are. [Example Disclaimer on SanFranciscoCode.org: “The municipal code, charter and all rules and regulations on this website are owned by the citizens of San Francisco and, consequently, they are not governed by copyright—so do whatever you want with it!”]. That means do whatever you want with it, paid or unpaid. That’s why there’s an application layer – a website – on top of this data. The data is useless without an application layer. How does that get better? Part of it is what we’re doing, part of it is what you’re doing — and part of it is paid services. But that’s how innovation happens in a lot of cases. I don’t think you can ensure that there’s nobody walling off access somewhere down the pipeline.


Rodrigo: One narrative for the rise of open gov is pressure from social groups, or the rise of technologies. I’ve seen another narrative — openness as the result of decline. In one UK municipal government (Barnet, in London), the government projected that they would not be able to provide services beyond basic ones by 2015. Solihull in the west midlands of England recently said it’s switching to a ‘social council’ model in part to deal with scarcity. In other words, because we have no money, and government is in decline, that’s why we should be open. Do you see this in the US?

Seamus: You are seeing this in the US. It is the world government lives in today. When I was talking about sympathy for the devil, I swear the folks who are doing this would do it better if they knew how, had more money and more expertise.  But they are having to do more with less. They don’t know what more to do with less. Governments have to take the first step of saying that they don’t know what to do, and people will be willing to sit at the table to help.


Saul: Let me tell you about a sticky issue in MA: building an ethanol train depot. MA doesn’t have a law about trains because it is superseded by federal law. For the train depot to be built, the company needed a maritime wetlands permit for ethanol trains. They weren’t just trying to pass a law, it was late in the session and they attached it as a rider to the budget bill. If you had access to the environmentalists working on it, they could walk you through it, and tell you where to look to follow it. But without that access, what do you do? You can never know to google ‘ordinances about ethanol trains and wetlands in the budget” if you’re following this issue. The second complication was the governor’s stance, regarding the veto. So there’s a discovery problem: “this is what to watch,” as well as a secondary problem, how a bill actually moves into law.

Seamus: There are lots of sticky wickets there. But, throughout what you just described, there are examples of technology and process components that can be improved. The advocacy part is the “people” side of it. But, how can we arm people, legislators, reporters like you, to talk about whether it meets the state’s needs, instead of arguing about how stupid it is that the gov can find something in a bill I can’t, or “you need an army of lawyers to even see what’s in there”?

Waldo Jaquith has a great phrase about his State Decoded platform: It’s got all the niceties of web design, with the powerful tools that lawyers use. The Madison side of it is gathering all the feedback in a useful format. It’s super useful if groups can point to something specific in the bill: “we like this, we don’t want this in here.”  What you are describing there, I would have liked to have on Obamacare. About 70% of it both parties could agree on. But there was no way to break that out and pass it as a bipartisan bill.


Q: What has the reception of this been like on both sides of the spectrum? On one end, you have lefties who say “now underprivileged people can access the law and take action!” On the other hand hardcore libertarian software engineers say ‘now that we have the data we can refactor the law and eliminate the IRS!” What happens when you put these people in the same conversation?

Seamus: Seamus: It’s all over the place. There is a lot of opposition. There a little bit of: “I don’t know what this does.” But for us, the ‘dog laws’ get hundreds or thousands of references, compared to just a few you can find with the search in a Lexis Nexis, or even fewer when you run into PDFs.

There are entrenched people who are against this in principle — they don’t want to make it easy for you to discover the law.  They make a lot of money from you not being able to access the law. That isn’t stopping us though. We do get opposition all the time.


Nadeem Mazen, Cambridge City Councilor-Elect: Maybe we could talk about using this locally. I can see how this could be a collaborative document, like etherpad, or google docs, although the code for those is messy. Two questions:

1. I spend lots of time parsing Large XML text documents for textbook manufacturers. I’m not convinced XML can be the solution. Is there something at the nexus of what you’re doing, google does, and Wolfram Alpha is doing – CouchDB comes to mind – alternatives to XML. APIs are fine but at the lowest level the way the data is stored makes a difference to how APIs are made and how the programmer thinks.

2. How do you get a new city in?

Seamus: XML is not the answer, you’re right. No one has sat down and said “we actually have the ability to have the laws all on the same database in the same data format — how do we do this?”

To your second question, sometimes we go to them and say “hey, look what we did.” Sometimes a city comes to us. Sometimes we just do it and hope no one gets upset — like in Chicago for example. There are many ways to skin the open law cat.

 

December 5 OpenGov & MIT Center for Civic Media Discussion On Producing Open Data Laws & Crowdsourced Legislation [MEDIA ADVISORY]

BOSTON, MA (12/3/13) – On Wednesday December 5 at 12 PM EST, OpenGov Foundation Executive Director Seamus Kraft will lead a discussion at the MIT Center for Civic Media on how the OpenGov team is transforming America’s laws and legislative processes from inaccessible, inefficient, and paper-based into Internet-ready, user-friendly and open-to-all formats with the State Decoded and Madison projects.  Click here to watch the webcast and join in the conversation.

Background

The law is the most important data set in every democracy, and making law is the most important civic process. Yet the law is often the hardest information to find, use and build with, while the lawmaking process is often the most opaque and inaccessible to everyday Americans.  For example, click here to see the current state of Boston’s laws.

By harnessing the power of open data and open source software, OpenGov has found cost-effective, straightforward ways to break open and modernize both the laws and the way that they are made.  In 2013 alone, OpenGov has upgraded access to the law in BaltimoreMarylandSan Francisco and Chicago, with many more on the way in 2014.  On the lawmaking side, OpenGov’s Madison platform is powering crowdsourced legislating in the US House of Representatives and the Maryland General Assembly.

Who: OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft

What: “Producing Open Law & Crowdsourced Legislation”

When: Thursday, December 5, 2013 – 12:00pm to 1:30pm EST

Where: MIT Center for Civic Media, Building E15, Room 344.

Watch: The event will be webcast at http://media.mit.edu/events/cfcm/

About the MIT Center for Civic Media

The MIT Center for Civic Media works hand in hand with diverse communities to collaboratively create, design, deploy, and assess civic media tools and practices.

We are inventors of new technologies that support and foster civic media and political action, we are a hub for the study of these technologies, and we coordinate community-based design processes locally in the Boston area, across the United States, and around the world.

Bridging two established programs at MIT—one known for inventing alternate technical futures, the other for identifying the cultural and social potential of media change—the Center for Civic Media is a joint effort between the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. It is made possible by funding from the Knight Foundation.