As governments open access to data, law lags far behind

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, 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.

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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.;

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