It's Not Just the Law. It's

U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government Beth Noveck chaired a session at a day-long Washington workshop last week on, a national effort to make all primary U.S. legal documents available for free online. The June 18 workshop, sponsored by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and reflecting much of the progress already made through the Obama Administration’s Open Government initiative, emphasized the importance of easing access to legal documents across all three branches of government to increase transparency and accountability and to encourage innovative uses of this trove of information.

Workshop participants noted that there is great demand for primary legal records, including SEC filings and appeals court rulings, but that page charges and other “paywall” barriers limit access to these documents. Moreover, said Stanford Deputy Law Librarian Erika Wayne, efforts to inventory legal information and compile records online are often frustrated because the documents have disclaimers attached, are incomplete, or have not been updated with final text. The value of these documents could be greatly enhanced, added OMB General Counsel Preeta Bansal, if more of them were hyperlinked to one another, to show more clearly the full path of a case.

In her presentation, Noveck highlighted the Administration’s Open Government initiative and, as an example of its potential power, described last year’s successful effort to make the Federal Register available in XML, a “liberating” flexible text format that has facilitated people’s efforts to use Federal legal data in new and innovative ways. Office of the Federal Register director Ray Mosley noted that a new and even easier-to-use version of the XML Federal Register will be released in July. And the founders of several innovative websites—GovPulse.US (which makes Federal Register information more available to the public); (which allows users to annotate the Federal Register); and (which gives users easier access to Oregon legal information) all emphasized how quickly and easily they were able to set up new, innovative frameworks for customers once the relevant data were made public.

Others echoed the idea that, rather than posing a threat to private interests, the free release of data offers new economic opportunities. LexisNexis representative Mike Walsh emphasized, for example, that his company’s main source of profit was the value it added to legal information through editing and linking cases to other cases. Representatives from two other legal information concerns—Justia and Fastcase—concurred that accessible data are best seen as a resource ripe for value-added innovation.

Happily, said Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media, those who are working to make more data available to the public don’t have to devise highly complicated systems to do so. The best data platforms are fundamentally simple, he said, and encourage innovation through their open—and in many cases open-source—design. More information about can be found here, and more information about the CAP workshop, including video from the event, is here.


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