As governments open access to data, law lags far behind

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From municipalities to the White House, governments are launching open data projects—but the judicial branch is falling behind.

Such was the opening, frustrated message of “Public Service Legal Technology in the Data.Gov Era,” a Thursday-morning panel at ABA Techshow.

Adam Ziegler of Harvard Law School’s Library Innovation Lab hammered home the message with a quick tour of government data projects. The federal government has data.gov, a website that offers publicly available data on many topics related to executive branch agencies; 18F: a series of projects from the General Services Administration; and the U.S. Digital Service, a White House project seeking to streamline government services. The White House even has a page on GitHub, a website that allows programmers to post and collaborate on their work.

“We are in an era of amazing progress in access to government data,” said Ziegler, a programmer and former attorney. But “where are we with the law? Almost nowhere, unfortunately.” The nonprofit U.S. Open Data assessed publicly accessible legal information in every state—and found poor accessibility almost everywhere.

Ziegler’s lab is doing its best to change that with its ambitious “Free the Law” project with Ravel Law, which will scan Harvard’s entire 40,000-volume collection of U.S. case law.

Panelist David Colarusso sees the lack of data resources up close as a staff attorney and data scientist for the Massachusetts public defenders’ organization, the Committee for Public Counsel Services. He was part of a team re-examining convictions related to falsified data from convicted crime laboratory chemist Annie Dookhan.

Dookhan handled tens of thousands of cases, Colarusso said, and the documentation provided to public defenders seeking to challenge convictions in those cases was not sufficient to reliably identify all of the people directly involved. It said nothing at all about potential co-defendants. He helped cross-reference those records with other records that helped dig up more potential victims, but it wasn’t clear that he’d find all of them before the chemist finishes her three-year sentence.

“If you know what’s going on, you can start to see things,” he said. “This chemist had a throughput almost three times as much as anyone else. That’s something we should have been able to see with the data.”

Michael Robak, a “recovering lawyer” who is the chief technology officer and assistant law librarian for the University of Missouri at Kansas City, said Kansas City is aggressively adopting open data, and benefits from being a “living laboratory” for Google’s Google Fiber project that makes high-speed Internet available there.

Robak said they took advantage of that by designing a semester-long course where students looked for legal problems they could fix with technology. One project was the Parcel Assessment Tool, which allows any interested party to see information about land parcels in the city—zoning, dimensions, geolocations, school districts and more. It’s a Web application designed for mobile use.

At the end, the panelists invited audience members to submit questions through crowdqueue.org, a project of Colarusso’s. This permitted shy questioners to ask their questions and repeat questions to be consolidated. One question concerned areas where people resist open law projects. Ziegler cited time and money as barriers to his book project; he mentioned that Harvard needs the help of local bar groups and individual attorneys to make it happen. Colarusso added that in some ways, it’s a question of how the issue is framed.

“We’re not calling anything ‘open’ because that, we have found, freaks people out,” he said. Instead, they’re “talking about how our transit authority made data available.”

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