Governments Making It Easier for Citizens to Know the Law

Once tightly controlled by commercial publishers, legal codes are becoming more accessible online, thanks to the open data movement.

FlickrCC/MoDOT Photos
In 2012, Dave Zvenyach, chief counsel for the District of Columbia City Council, received a phone call from a software developer who wanted a copy of the D.C. Code, which contains all the laws enacted by the D.C. Council.

“I told him he could find the official code at the city’s library, where it’s stored in books,” said Zvenyach. But the developer wanted a digital copy and all the underlying data (the special language that allows text files to be used in different ways) that it contained. The problem was Zvenyach didn’t have a digital copy, nor could he obtain one because of restrictions imposed by the code’s publisher.

MORE: This appears in the Technology e-newsletter. Click to subscribe.

D.C.’s government -- like many other cities and states -- outsources the publication of its code, including how it's organized and updated, to private firms like WestLaw and Lexis-Nexis. While lawyers, judges and law schools pay to get access to the codes, citations and powerful search tools built into the proprietary computer platforms, the public can only view what’s in print or what appears on the District government’s website. The software developer who contacted Zvenyach, though, wanted to manipulate an electronic version of the code to add links to other documents 
and open up the information for broader use on the Internet. But thanks to copyright restrictions, the publisher (Westlaw) controlled the data and wouldn’t allow any alterations. 

“He wanted access to the underlying data in the code for the work he was doing,” said Zvenyach. “It never dawned on us that we ought to control the data, not West[law].”

By a stroke of luck, the District’s contract with Westlaw was expiring, which meant the publisher was obligated to turn over a digital copy of the legal code to the city (the official D.C. code is now published by rival Lexis-Nexis). Zvenyach received a copy on a CD-ROM and in 2013 held a hackathon in which computer programmers competed to create a suitable public domain version that would allow anyone to manipulate the underlying data (known as extensible markup language) in the code to create permanent links, internal citations and visual depictions of the code that had been changed. Those first efforts resulted in a website containing an unofficial version of the legal code called DCcode, billed as “the law of D.C. for non-lawyers.” To keep the public website current, Zvenyach uploads semi-annual updates to the code, which he receives from Lexis.

Until recently, Zvenyach knew little about the open data movement that's swept through state and local governments and led to the online publication of numerous government datasets that can be reused in different ways by computer programmers. But he's now become a staunch advocate, especially in the legal field. He's even taught himself how to write basic software programs and has created some online tools to make his job easier.

Users of DCcode include District council members and staff, members of the media, small businesses and the general public. By opening up the city’s code, people may find it much easier to get answers to legal questions like where their children can attend school and what the rules are on parking and workplace safety compliance. The D.C. developer who contacted Zvenyach and triggered the unlocking of the city’s code was researching regulations pertaining to restaurant valet stations.

The District is part of a small group of cities and open data advocates who are trying to make it easier to access and search legal codes and legislation using software tools that are freely available in the public domain. The movement, dubbed America Decoded, is run by the OpenGov Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for open government by making its data free and easily accessible using common standards. 

According to Bill Hunt, a lead developer for America Decoded, much of the data released by government isn’t really open at all but is locked in file formats that make them hard to access or in standards that can be compared to using a foreign language. If you force users to learn a new language and to find a software to translate that language, “then you’ve added a considerable barrier to entry that undercuts openness and accessibility,” said Hunt.

Besides D.C., other cities that have opened up their legal codes include Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco. Several states have also launched open data versions of their codes, including Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia. 

Will the open data movement put legal publishers like Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw out of business? Not likely, according to Zvenyach.

“The uses of the code for an average consumer are very different from a practicing attorney, who needs more granular detail, which they are willing to pay for. And judges will always want to see the code in print, as I do." For example, the version from Lexis includes case information about how courts have interpreted the statutes. These annotations can include law review articles that cite statutes and other relevant information -- all of which is of significant value to practicing lawyers.

But as more jurisdictions jump on board the open data movement for law codes, the costs for creating legal tools that can be easily used by non-lawyers should drop, making the laws of government more accessible and easier to understand. 

Advocates for open codes say the goal is to make a government’s legal foundation less complex for citizens, making it easier for them to protect their rights.  For Zvenyach, “the ultimate goal would be to make government laws more useful for everyone."

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.