The OpenGov Foundation is out with a new project designed to open up city and state statutes – AmericaDecoded.org. Through this new website, citizens, stakeholders and public servants can access, explore and use the municipal laws and legal codes of San Francisco (CA),Baltimore (MD), Chicago (IL), and Philadelphia (PA), and the state laws and legal codes of Maryland, Virginia and Florida. Right now, efforts are underway to “decode” Raleigh (NC), Washington (DC), Boston (MA), Las Vegas (NV), New York (NY) and Miami (FL), with more on the way.
“We’re still in early stages with open government as a concept, but one of the biggest things missing from the conversation right now is the law, the code you’re required to live by,” says Seamus Kraft, Executive Director, OpenGov Foundation in an interview with CivSource. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but right now it is very difficult for average citizens to look up and reference laws or be aware of all of the changes.”
Unlike many legacy legal information providers, AmericaDecoded.org provides the public laws to the American people without any copyright restrictions, paywalls or fees. “So much of the focus of open data has been on transit, or budgets. It’s one thing to put a spreadsheet online, but text is different and more difficult. Cities and states are paying thousands of dollars for open data portals without this feature. Providers will tell you it wasn’t in the requirements, but the legal code underpins all of these conversations and it should be readily available,” Kraft says.
So far, the cities included in this beta release have come from existing open government partnerships. “The cities are really the innovators here. They’re giving us a lot of the data and we’re working with some of the legal services providers to get the data. It was a long night, but we did one section of the San Francisco municipal code through google hangout over about six hours. Much of the work in Miami is happening through hackathons and people working in their spare time. The other cities came online through the work of our dedicated developers, but we’ve still got 40,000 cities and the states to do.”
According to Kraft, the project is likely to take more than a few years. The Foundation is just that, a foundation and being non-profit means much of the activity is donation driven. There are other challenges as well, getting access to statues at the state level is more difficult. “There is some entrenched resistance at the state government level that we have to work through on this issue. We don’t believe charging people to access their own laws is in the best interest of a democracy, so we have to work through that with officials.”
The second phase of this work is tracking changes to laws. Much of what legislatures do is augment or update existing codes instead of starting from scratch. To that end, a second effort Project Madison is being built that will flag those changes for users and show who is writing them. “Think of it like track changes for law,” Kraft says. “We always hear about laws being written and amended in smoke-filled rooms. With Madison we want to be able to show who is changing what, and give citizens the ability to see what their legislators are really doing, or who is doing it for them.”
The Foundation is doing both the software R&D as well as process R&D. By focusing on both they are seeking to cut down the time involved in opening up the legal code and keeping a low-cost curve for states relative to the often cumbersome and expensive data management products currently on offer to state and local governments. AmericaDecoded aims to work as a platform using the StateDecoded software which offers in-line definitions of legal terms, an easy to use design and free access. The OpenGov Foundation also put together the video below to explain how it works: