Look how far legal informatics has come – in just a few years

Back in 2001 when I started in the legal informatics field, it seemed we were all alone. Certainly, we weren’t – there were many similar efforts underway around the country and around the world. But, we felt alone. All the efforts were working in isolation – making similar decisions and learning similar lessons. This was the state of the field, for the most part, for the next 6 to 8 years. Lots of isolated progress, but few opportunities to share what we had learned and build on what others knew.

In 2010, I visited the LEX Summer School, put on by the University of Bologna in Ravenna, Italy. What became apparent to me was just how isolated the various pockets of innovation had become around the world. There was lots of progress, especially in Europe, but legal informatics, as an industry, was still in a fledgling state – it was more of an academic field than a commercial industry. In fact, outside of academic circles, the term legal informatics was all but meaningless. When I wrote my first blog in 2011, I looked forward to the day when the might be a true Legal Informatics industry.

Now, just a few years later, it’s stunning how far we have come. Certainly, we still have far to travel, but now we’re all working together towards common goals rather than working alone towards the same, but isolated, goals. I thought I would spend this week’s blog to review just how far we have come.

  1. Working together
    We have come together in a number of important dimensions:

    • First of all, consider geography. This is a small field, but around the world we’re now all very much connected together. We routinely meet, share ideas, share lessons, and share expertise – no matter which continent we work and reside on.
    • Secondly, consider our viewpoints. There was once a real tension between the transparency camp, government, external industry, and academia. If you participated at the 2014 Legislative Data and Transparency conference a few weeks ago in Washington D.C., one of the striking things was how little tension remains between these various viewpoints. We’re all now working towards a common set of goals.
  2. Technology
    • I remember when we used to question whether XML was the right technology. The alternatives were to use Open Office or Microsoft Office, basing the legislative framework around office productivity tools. Others even proposed using relational database technology along with a forms-based interface. Those ideas have now generally faded away – XML is the clear choice. And faking XML by relying on the fact that the Open Document Format (ODF) or Office Open XML formats are based on XML, just isn’t credible anymore. XML means more than just relying on an internal file format that your tools happen to use – it means designing information models specifically to solve the challenges of legal informatics.
    • I remember when we used to debate how references should be managed. Should we use file paths? Should we use URNs? Should we use URLs? Today the answer is clear – we’re all settling around logical URLs with resolvers, sometimes federated, to stitch together a web of interconnected references. Along with this decision has been the basic assumption that web-based solutions are the future – desktop applications no longer have a place in a modern solution.
    • Consider database technology. We used to have three choices – use the file system, try and adapt mature but ill-fitting relational databases, or take a risk with emerging XML databases. Clearly XML databases were the future – but was it too early? Not anymore! XML database technology, along with XQuery, have come a long way in the past few years
  3. Standards
    Standards are what will create an industry. Without them, there is little opportunity to re-use – a necessary part of allowing cost-effective products to be built. After a few false starts over the years, we’re now on the cusp of having industry standards to work with . The OASIS LegalDocML (Akoma Ntoso) and LegalCiteM technical committees are hard at work on developing those standards. Certainly, it will be a number of years before we will see the all the benefits of these standards, but as they come to fruition, a real industry can emerge.
  4. Driving Forces
    Ten years ago, the motivation for using XML was to replace outdated drafting systems, often cobbled together on obsolete mainframes, that sorely needed replacement. The needs were all internal. Now, that has all changed. The end result is no longer a paper document which can be ordered from the “Bill Room” found in the basement of the Capitol building. It’s often not even a PDF rendition of that document. The new end result is information which needs to be shared in a timely and open way in order to achieve the modern transparency objectives, like the DATA Act, that have been mandated. This change in expectations is going to revolutionize how the public works with their representatives to ensure fair and open government.
  5. In the past dozen years, things sure have changed. Credit must be given to the Monica Palmirani (@MonicaPalmirani) and Fabio Vitali at the University of Bologna – an awful lot of the progress pivots around their initiatives. However, we’ve all played a part in creating an open, creative, and cooperative environment for Legal Informatics to thrive as more than just an academic curiosity – as a true industry with many participants working collaboratively and competitively to innovate and solve the challenges ahead.

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Look how far legal informatics has come – in just a few years

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