?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Trevor Stone's Journal
Those who can, do. The rest hyperlink.
Make the Law Machine Readable and Freely Accessible 
1st-Feb-2013 01:02 am
transparent ribbon for government accoun
At the Aaron Swartz memorial in San Francisco (video), some interesting themes emerged.

The first is Aaron's passion for machine-readable public information. This principle is at the core of much that Aaron did, from enabling search engines to find public domain and CC-licensed content to downloading swaths of paywall-guarded documents so that the public can have access to its own information.

The second is the unbalanced power wielded by prosecutors. Aaron killed himself in part because he felt helpless when faced with a multimillion dollar federal trial featuring 13 felony counts. If Aaron couldn't face this, what hope have ordinary folks who aren't close friends of Harvard law professors, rights advocacy organizations, and expert witnesses, not to mention a chunk of cash from selling an Internet startup. Faced with expensive defense lawyers and the fearsome specter of the government's prosecutors, only 3% of cases make it to the trial which we're constitutionally promised.

The third, expressed by his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman and fellow document liberator Carl Malamud was a call to the technologists and scholars and activists to become radicalized. Aaron did big things because he thought they mattered. Like Peter Singer, he stressed about the opportunity cost of not doing the most important thing in the world. His death has become, in part, a call for people in the free culture movement to step up and do more.

So here's an interesting challenge that combines all three: write a program that interprets and presents law. Though they predate computers by a few thousand years, laws are meant to be something like human-runnable source code. They're detailed, they're written explicitly, and they apply to everyone. And yet in many cases it takes someone with a graduate degree to understand what they say. People with graduate degrees are expensive and unevenly distributed.

Imagine we had a program which could turn laws and judicial opinions into machine-readable format. We could then write programs that took those laws and presented them in various ways, helping lay people understand both core details and subtle interactions. We could write other programs to organize this legal information into arguments given the evidence about a case.

Compared to people with graduate degrees doing stuff, running computer programs is free. Someone without a lot of resources could understand what they're charged with, explore similar cases, and collaborate with friends on a defense. There'd still be a role for lawyers to conduct the defense at trial and advise on the best way to convince a jury, but the time spent at trial is today dwarfed by the time and expense preparing for it. Let the humans do what they're good at&endash;convince humans of things&endash;and let the computers do what they do best&endash;tirelessly and cheaply examine lots of data and find useful patterns.

Like a patient who comes to a doctor after reading the medical literature and closely observing his body, a defendant who comes to a lawyer with a solid understanding of the relevant laws is in a much better position to face the plaintiffs and prosecutors who have the deck stacked in their favor. If we can make computers understand law, we can empower all citizens, regardless of income, to make fair use of the due process granted them by the constitution.

Building such a system wouldn't be easy. Human language is still hard for computers to understand. And legalese is even hard for humans to understand. There are all sorts of powerful people and organizations, private and governmental, with interests vested in law and courts being expensive and difficult to access. It's not easy, and that's why it should be done. A hard, ambitious, and meaningful project like this would capture the spirit that's been raised in Aaron Swartz's wake.
Comments 
1st-Feb-2013 12:08 pm (UTC) - NOOOOOOOOO
Like a patient who comes to a doctor after reading the medical literature and closely observing his body, a defendant who comes to a lawyer with a solid understanding of the relevant laws is in a much better position to face the plaintiffs and prosecutors who have the deck stacked in their favor. If we can make computers understand law, we can empower all citizens, regardless of income, to make fair use of the due process granted them by the constitution.

That patient is a terrible terrible patient, and this is terrible idea. What that patient comes away with is what is the most popular cause of a subset of symptoms not realizing that he or she has other symptoms. I have a friend who keeps googling and coming up with gluten allergies and sensitivities as a problem for her child, and she has had every test done on her poor child, and nothing allergy related seems to be going on.

Of course there is a special subset of allergies that the tests do not work for. Aieee.

Also, DIY medicine is why anti-vaccers are horrible people. If you attempt to tell them they are wrong, they will bury you in literature that they themselves do not understand.
2nd-Feb-2013 06:37 am (UTC) - Re: NOOOOOOOOO
I was talking about a well-informed patient, not a well-informed overanxious mother. It would be much more useful to a doctor if you came with "On days I eat gluten, I have the following problems. On days I don't eat gluten, the problems go away." That provides a more useful starting point than "My stomach hurts most of the time" which leads to a bunch of expensive exploratory tests.
There's a disturbing tendency to assume that doctors are psychic superhumans and that ordinary citizens aren't their own first line of defense in health matters.

The analog of my proposal isn't anti-vaccine crusaders wielding binders full of medical literature. It's machine readable medical literature that someone uses to create a visualization demonstrating the lack of a link between vaccination rates and autism.
4th-Feb-2013 04:52 am (UTC) - Re: NOOOOOOOOO
And where are you a medical professional? I respect a nurse or doctor who appreciates a patient who understands what is going on with her own body and is compliant and observant. I'd like to be sure you aren't my carer.
4th-Feb-2013 11:38 am (UTC) - Re: NOOOOOOOOO
That is pretty presumptuous of you. I am just saying 1) most people do not have access to the medical literature so they use Google which leads them to the most popular answer for symptoms that apply to a lot of things 2) most people do not understand the medical literature even if they have access and 3) there are unknown unknowns. Most people cannot judge their lack of knowledge because they can't see their own blindspots.

Complaining to flwyd about the first problem is legitimate.

Doctors and nurses themselves are terrible patients. Sometimes they will assume that nothing is wrong. Sometimes they are distrustful of other doctors and nurses because they know that other doctors and nurses are human and fallible.
This page was loaded May 20th 2018, 12:14 pm GMT.