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‘Geeky’ Project Will Make Online Searches for US Laws More Productive

Posted Jan 10, 2011 6:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The co-founder of the world’s first legal information website will be heading a project to improve digital access to federal legislative information.

Thomas Bruce, an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, helped Cornell Law School put legal information online before the World Wide Web even existed. He is director of the school’s Legal Information Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to making the law available online, without charge. Now he will work with the Library of Congress to better organize and present materials such as congressional bills, presidential documents, committee reports, public laws, and the U.S. Code, according to a press release.

The project will redesign “legislative-metadata models” for the Library of Congress, the Legal Information Institute says on its website. The aim is to improve the material that can be retrieved, linked and referenced by the free THOMAS search system used by the public as well as by Congress’ own internal searching system. “This sounds like really geeky stuff (and it is), but the effects for government and for citizens should be pretty big,” the Legal Information Institute says on its LII Announce blog.

We asked Bruce to walk us through a hypothetical of how the project might improve a search for legislation dealing with in vitro fertilization. In an e-mail to the ABA Journal, Bruce said it’s difficult to be exact, but these things might happen:

1) Somewhere in the search results you might find statutes that don't use the words "in vitro fertilization," but involve medical procedures that fall under some similar classification made for statutory purposes.

2) You could more easily find legislation that is still in the pipeline.

3) Within the legislation, you would be able to click to linked information, including perhaps a complete voting record for the bill's sponsor, the path the law followed through passage, any regulations enabled by the statute, and outside data. For example, if some medication were mentioned by name, it might be possible to navigate to information from the manufacturer.

In general, Bruce says in the e-mail, the project is “about linking data to other data … as much as it is about providing new hooks for retrieving things in a search.”

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