What do avid bicyclists and handgun owners have in common?
Probably more in common than not. Two things are a need to know the law, and a desire to discuss it.
So I conclude that the ability to find, read, and share the law online is a good thing. It might even be the beginning of a more transparent and democratic era. These screenshots show people participating in exactly this way, who were helped out by this website. (Awesome!)
This all might look easy, e.g., “So just make a website, and people can link to it … what’s the big deal?” In reality, though, it’s difficult to pull off, and so the status quo is, it doesn’t happen.
Just look around the web: most pages don’t have permalinks (“Persistent URLs”, “PURLs”) that people can use. And often, even if a web page does have a URL that seems good for linking, there are other show-stoppers: it may not stay working. Or if it does stay working, then it may not contain the same content in a few months’ time.
The U.S. Postal Service denied our FOIA request for a list of current ZIP Codes, because the information is “proprietary business information” and its release would not be considered a “good business practice”. This followed their refusal to license us their online ZIP Code API because we were not planning on using it for USPS shipping. They suggested that we purchase a $3,000 per year “data product” containing the information. This offering, however, has so many technical and licensing hurdles that it’s essentially unusable.
Our Hunt for ZIP Codes Started When We Became Interested in Mapping Restaurant Health Inspections
We create apps which increase access to laws and government info. This is mostly a labor of love, earning enough money to cover the costs of running the Internet servers.
There isn’t yet an app or website for easily browsing restaurant health inspections in Multnomah County, Oregon. The County does have a web app, but it has a lot of issues, and won’t be upgraded until late next year.
Critically, while sorting through the County’s data for each restaurant, we found that the city is missing, although the ZIP Code is there. And so to place these on a map we needed a current list of ZIP Codes and corresponding city names.
Our search for this simple information culminated in this rejected FOIA request to the U.S. Postal Service. This is because our “open source” open-government use of the data is not an acceptable reason to either 1) provide us online access to the USPS API, or 2) send us a current list of ZIP Codes and cities.
. . . if you want to cite to judicial law, you must pay to access the Reporter’s opinions.
Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
As a law student I wasn’t aware of the problem. But it frequently holds me back, now that I’m building online information systems. E.g., say some text on oregonlaws.org contains a citation to an opinion, such as
PGE v. Bureau of Labor and Industries, 317 Or 606, 859 P2d 1143 (1993)
. . . one of the most important Oregon cases; and of course law, owned by all of us.
To make the website more valuable to my visitors, I want to grab the text of that opinion and display it. Or, failing that, I’d like to simply hyperlink to it, online.
But neither of these are possible. The unique identifiers we’re provided to this public law: “317 Or 606”, “859 P2d 1143” — point to resources accessible only behind a pay-wall. If you’re skeptical, try googling for “859 P2d 1143” or “317 Or 606“. Zilch.
“The end result is that the city would focus on what only it can do best: providing raw data about itself, and, similar to the Secretary of State’s business registry, acting as a means of identification and authentication.”
“Law.Gov is a national conversation about broader access to primary legal materials in the United States across all three branches of government and across the federal, state, and local governments. . . .
“The workshops have examined copyright restrictions, privacy implications, and the technical underpinnings necessary to provide authenticated access to bulk legal materials.
“This workshop will be streamed live on the Internet, and video will be posted after the workshop on YouTube and the Internet Archive.
Last night I discovered a great source of vintage versions of the Oregon Revised Statutes: The Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine. I had a true Homer Simpson moment — “Doh! Why didn’t I think of this before?” For research-aholics, this is nothing short of nirvana.
Great but not perfect
The WayBack Machine isn’t a perfect solution, though: it can be arbitrary about what it saves as well as how it does it. Further, documents can be deleted at the request of the original site owner, even if the content is in the public domain. These drawbacks lead me to…
I knew I’d eventually integrate all these previous texts into OregonLaws.org. But until I get around to that, I realized we need a permanently accessible repository of raw source texts for a few reasons: (1) There’s no good way for people to find out that these texts even exist, because the WayBack Machine doesn’t allow search engines like Google to index its site: I had been searching in vain for these for a long time. (2) The state of Oregon takes down the old web pages when it updates the ORS. Since every document on OregonLaws.org cites its source with a link, I need to create a permanent location for these before they disappear off the web. (3) This archive will provide the raw materials for others to work with and innovate in ways that I haven’t even thought of.
I followed Carl Malamud’s excellent example and created an “archive” that’s out there for anyone to access. It’s not too beautiful and not easy to search, but the content is organized and freely available.
It takes a bit of time to archive this much material, and so the process will last a few days. Many pieces are there now, such as the 1999 ORS table of contents and its chapters like 723 Credit Unions. I’ll write another post when the collection is complete.