The “Virtuous Pipeline” Producing Chicago’s Internet-Ready Laws

The headline says it all: “City of Chicago and Public-Spirited Hackers Unveil the Chicago City Code.” Team OpenGov recently travelled to the Windy City to deliver this MVG – “minimum viable gift” – of the laws back to its true owners, the residents of Chicago and the public servants working on their behalf.

It is safe to say that was well received. But in that crowded room, crackling with energy, something far greater than a website walkthrough took place. All of the people and organizations required to birth were there. As Carl Malamud put it, the entire end-to-end “virtuous pipeline” of modern municipal code was present and accounted for – hugging, high-fiving and hungry for more access to public data and more opportunities to open government. And everyone was fired up to accomplish these goals together – in productive partnerships that benefit both Chicago’s public servants and her residents. You can’t dream up a better environment in which truly modern, accessible and open government can succeed.

Watch and listen below to all the people in the “virtuous pipeline” that led to  The city law starts in Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza’s office, then flows out to the City Council and American Legal Publishing, then flows to Carl Malamud putting it online in bulk PDF form, then on to the OpenGov Foundation for transforming those PDFs into XML and republishing them online in Waldo Jaquith’s State Decoded format.  It’s a strong – if early – success for open government, open data, and public-private partnerships formed to deliver both.

We at OpenGov are proud to be a part of this virtuous pipeline, and look forward to “going with the flow” as grows to better serve the needs of Windy City residents seeking access to their own laws on the Internet.

Susana Mendoza, Chicago City Clerk

“Not only is the City Clerk’s Office responsible for updating and maintaining that complex, evolving [Municipal Code], but we also play a critical role in facilitating the legislative process and warehousing the outcomes from all of the hearings and hearings that City Council proceedings have every month.  That is by no means a small feat.

“My office wants to open up this trove of municipal data, and turn it into a useful tool for every Chicagoan, be it a community activist, a scholar, or even your neighbor down the block.  It shouldn’t be difficult to access information.  I want our Municipal Code to be as open, transparent and accessible as possible.”

“We can’t do it all ourselves.  We really do need to have an alliance and partners…to make government truly accessible, and useful, to its citizens.”

“When it is easier to decipher the DaVinci Code than it is to find an ordinance that you Alderman introduced, that’s a problem.  It shouldn’t be that way.  In a way, government has actually wanted it to be difficult for the public to have access to the information that affects their everyday life…You shouldn’t have to have a computer science degree to access that information.  Run with it.  Hack at it.  You’re not going to get a no from me!”

Julia Ellis, Policy Director for the Chicago City Clerk

“Chicago has made a policy decision, a sweeping policy decision, to say that we are going to pay for the work product in order to get to this very powerful, very valuable tool…and we’re going to give that tool away.  And American Legal has a similar philosophy.  They say, ‘We are experts in creating this incredibly valuable, legally relevant, tool, and what you do with it is none of our business.  We are happy to help you make this available in any way you want to, to whomever you want to.’”

Carl Malamud, Public.Resource.Org

“What Clerk Mendoza has described is a process of codification that goes on in every city, county, and state in the United States. Codification, and the periodic updates to the codes, is part of a pipeline. The end result of that pipeline has usually been a big thick document you could buy for a few hundred dollars—your municipal code.

“More recently, the codification companies have started selling CD-ROMs and most of them now have a web site where citizens can view their codes. Unfortunately, that pipeline has in the past stopped with these web sites, most of which are frankly pretty bad. Most of them are a frames-based interface. Cross links and navigation and search are sorely lacking. There are no permanent URLs. There is no bulk access facility.

“These code web sites are not valid or accessible, they have not been touched, as surely they should be, by the better angle brackets of our Internet.”

“This law is your law, not some petty profit opportunity. We can send a message to the code people that Chicago cares about code, that this country cares about code, that when it comes to the rules of our society, open source is the only way to ensure the rule of law.

“That is the only way to have equal protection under the law. That is the only way to have due process under the law. That is the only way to ensure access to justice, the right to free speech, and an informed citizenry.”

Waldo Jaquith, The State Decoded

“The State Decoded is software that you feed a bulk copy of a code into – as XML or JSON or you can write a scraper for whatever you need – and in just about 10, 20, 30 minutes it uses that to create a complete, finished website that is beautiful.  A responsive website, an API for those laws, bulk downloads, an individual page is established for each law where you can post comments, an internal tagging system to improve search.  It’s all backed by a Lucene and Solr search system to support natural language processing for anyone who wants to do real geeky, statistical analysis work .  It’s all free and open source software.”

“Laws are interesting to make available to people, but I think they’re more exciting as a platform to do really interesting, innovative things with.”

Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of the OpenGov Foundation

“We’re regifting you the law for the Internet Age.  Bookmark, because this is your open law website that builds on and extends the work of these fine public servants here tonight, and the thousands and thousands of city bureaucrats, lawyers, people who came before and helped produce and maintain the law before the Internet.  Well, the Internet happened and that’s why we’re here today.”

“We took the PDFs [of the law] and transformed those.  Now, PDF’s suck.  We all know that, as civic developers and hackers.  It’s the bane of our existence, but for a very long time, it was the best way to get paper-based laws onto the Internet.”

Opening the massive binder of the City Code, “Don’t you see structure here?  All we did was translate that into computer code.  It’s the same thing.  The source code of any community is the law itself.  All we did was update it to how people communicate today, which is digitally and on the Internet.”

“The whole point of all of this is people’s daily lives.  There are folks out there who need legal assistance, who can’t afford it.  Our first users [for sites like] are legal aid folks who work with poor people.  They spend all of their day messing with PDFs, messing with big binders of the law.  Now, that’s where it matters.  Everything we’ve talked about today has been pretty academic.  The Clerk’s Office, they’re doing alright.  We, we’re doing alright.  The people on the frontlines aren’t.  That’s why we’re doing this.”