A new State Decoded site launched today: Maryland Decoded. A project of the OpenGov Foundation, they’re doing some innovative stuff on the still-under-development platform. For instance, they’re crowd-sourcing “catch lines”—the titles that most states apply to their laws. Maryland does not have catch lines, so instead of having a law titled “Murder in the First Degree,” they simply have GCR § 2-201. Solution? Anybody can suggest a catch line, and they’ll build up their own catch lines, gradually.
Every state presents its own set of challenges and opportunities. The OpenGov Foundation is capitalizing on the opportunities to overcome the challenges and helping to improve The State Decoded for those who will follow in their path.
The Florida implementation of The State Decoded has launched as a public alpha test. Sunshine Statutes resulted from strong interest in the project from the Florida Society of News Editors and the First Amendment Foundation, especially Rick Hirsch, the Managing Editor of the Miami Herald. Within hours of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announcing the $165,000 grant that funds the State Decoded project, Rick was insisting that Florida was the perfect state to start things off, and he was right about that. Open data hacker Michael Tahani did the heavy lifting of creating the parser, which reads the XML of the Florida Statutes and turns it into a format familiar to the State Decoded’s software.
The resulting site is rather beyond a proof of concept, but surely not finished. (Hence the “alpha test” moniker.) Some statutes with particularly complex structures are missing some text, and not all statute histories are being parsed correctly, but we’ll be ticking down the list of fixes and getting everything repaired soon enough. (Every statute has a link back to its listing on the Florida legislature’s website, making it easy for folks to see the official version of the text.) Once all known content-related bugs are fixed, it’ll enter “beta” status, and the dire warnings can be stripped away.
In the few days since we announced Sunshine Statutes, there’s been an outpouring of offerings of help from Floridians. Putting together a site like this—and keeping it going—is more like a barn-raising than a monolithic construction project. Any other folks who are so moved to get involved are welcome to contact us—the folks at the FSNE and the FAF would surely love the assistance, and there’s certainly a lot of work to be done.
Since the State Decoded project tracks every mention of every section of a code throughout that code, I thought it might be interesting to look at what the most-cited sections of the Code of Virginia are. The numbers turn out to reveal a bit about the nature of the laws that govern us.
The #1 position is held, by no small margin, by the statement of purpose of the Administrative Process Act, which is precisely as boring as it sounds. (With the important caveat that boring does not equate to unimportant!) In fact, the first seven are all government regulating itself, with the only really interesting one being § 2.2-3700, the first section of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The #8 position is a list of definitions that are used throughout the Motor Vehicles title of the code, the #9 law makes rape illegal, and at the #10 spot on our list is the law that prohibits drunken driving.
Of the 30,826 laws in the Code of Virginia, 5,490 (or 17.8%) are cited elsewhere in the code. Just 454 (or 1.5%) are cited 10 or more times.
Why is this interesting? Well, it provides a look at the interconnectedness within the Code of Virginia. Or, really, the lack thereof. One of the goals of this project is to provide a more logical interface for browsing legal codes, instead of the usual, rigid, hierarchical system that divides up most of them. The lack of interconnectedness of Virginia’s code is an indicator that we’ll need metrics other than cross references to establish new groupings of laws, whether internal to the code (such as the shared use of defined terms) or external to the code (shared citations in legal decisions or legislation).
It might be illuminating to compare these data about Virginia to other states as the State Decoded project is implemented elsewhere. Perhaps Virginia is an outlier in its internal cross-pollination, or perhaps it’s perfectly normal.
The very first State Decoded site went into public beta this morning: Virginia Decoded. This site was the initial one that snowballed into the State Decoded project, and proved to be a good testing ground for the software and, indeed, the concept. Virginia Decoded isn’t so much done as it’s done enough. There’s so very much more to be done, but the site has reached a point where it will benefit strongly from having actual people use it, and where actual people will—hopefully—benefit strongly from using it.
Virginia provides its code as SGML (which they, in turn, are provided by LexisNexis), making it relatively easy to extract the laws and store them in the State Decoded. Many states do not provide bulk downloads at all, so extracting their laws requires the laborious work of screen-scraping. Virginia is ahead in that regard.
More helpful than anything else was the Virginia Code Commission. That’s the official body that oversees the laws of the commonwealth, and they proved to be hugely helpful in testing the site. They provided invaluable information about how bills really become laws (it’s not as simple as you might think), and obsess about the details of the code the same way a great programmer obsesses about the details of…er…code. Without their input, Virginia Decoded would be a very convincing-looking but ultimately inaccurate website.
The process by which this website was put together is one that will be replicated in other states. We’ll find partners in states throughout the nation and, whenever possible, work with the state agency that oversees the state’s laws to craft a site that is the best fit for that state and its code. It will be a laborious process, but that’s what it takes to create a good, long-lasting network of state-level open government websites.