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


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


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 “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.