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Seeing Like a Citizen: How Activists Are Making State Laws Legible

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, May 10 2013

The Open Government Foundation announced Friday that it had released MarylandCode.org, a web-friendly and restriction free publication of the Maryland Code of Public Laws.

Prior to the new website, state law was only available in PDF documents on the Maryland Legislature website and through Lexis Nexis. Anyone trying to access the laws through Lexis Nexis has to agree to an almost 5,000 word Terms of Service agreement, and the laws published through the service are subject to copyright restrictions, according to the press release.

The new platform makes the legal code available to developers through an API and in XML format published on GitHub. For regular users, the website, built with free, open-source software, offers the legal code in what the Open Government Foundation calls a searchable, user-friendly format. In addition, users are invited to share their ideas for projects or improvements building and expanding on the provided legal code.

Seamus Kraft, a former staffer for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and now the Open Government Foundation's executive director, explained that the inspiration for the Maryland project came from the work open government technologist Waldo Jaquith did on Virginia Decoded, which first went into public beta in March 2012, based on the foundation's "State Decoded" platform. The Maryland platform is also in beta, while a platform for Florida, Sunshine Statutes, is currently in public alpha.

The raw data for the Maryland legal code came from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, which provided it in XML format via DropBox. That means access to Maryland's laws are now free, while the Open Government Foundation, citing Maryland's open data portal, says Lexis Nexis billed the state $299,493.62 in 2012, although it's not clear how much of that was to host the legal code.

The accessibility of the legal code is an issue at every level of government across the country, Kraft said, noting that there had already been new inquiries from people based in other states. But with each iteration of such a platform, the implementation "is getting better and faster," he said.

He called the legal code platform a "foundational layer" to complement and link with other aspects of government information in the future, such as legislation, regulations, legal opinions and spending available through open data platforms. "There's some really good stuff happening in the Maryland legislature and in Governor O'Malley's administration [with regard to open government]," Kraft said. "We're trying to help support that with some open gov geek knowledge."

In Washington, D.C., the legal code had only been available in print and through the web platforms of West Law or Lexis Nexis, but not in full digital form through the government itself, Tom MacWright, a software developer for MapBox, wrote in an e-mail. The laws of the District Columbia were under copyright — problematic to MacWright and Carl Malamud, the leader of Public.resource.org, because it doesn't make much sense to them to say an American is bound by laws they have to pay to read.

MacWright published an article highlighting the issue. Open government advocate Carl Malamud scanned a physical copy of the laws and distributed USB drives with copies of the code, prompting more public attention. As the kerfuffle grew, D.C. General Counsel David Zvenyach and GovTrack founder Joshua Tauberer helped to publish an unofficial version of the Code on the D.C. Council's website in April. Since then, MapBox organized a hackathon to build tools based on the code and developers worked on two code browsers, and are working on a mobile interface, MacWright wrote.

Malamud noted that access to legal codes is important not just for people with legal or political interests, but also for businesspeople.

This also makes it difficult to compare the legal codes in different states, such as the laws for dog insurance in Maryland and Virginia. Malamud suggested that the access limitations were an artifact of the print era, when it made sense for one organization to be printing legal code books. Today, he said, many vendors continue to argue for exclusive rights to certain portions of the law, claiming that that is necessary for them to provide their service and otherwise they would be unable to do a good job, even as legal information providers have some of the highest gross revenue margins.

"Today, [access] is very difficult, usually only available through one site, licensed by the state, city or federal government, and that one site is often pretty bad, either from West or from Lexis, with no permanent URL," he said. "You can't bookmark a section ... often the sites time out after five minutes of inactivity, you can't save it or search adequately, and there's no concession to mobility or accessibility."

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