Open Gov Backers Launch ‘Free Law’ Group

New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos BenKallos.com

Open-government advocates and local officials in five major U.S. cities announced the formation of a new coalition, the Free Law Founders, on Wednesday, launching a partnership to create new tools, data standards and processes for state and local governments to make public information and data better accessible to the public.

The FLF, led by New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos, San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell and OpenGov Foundation Executive Director Seamus Kraft, also includes officials in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston.

“Laws and legislative information are often overlooked as open data, and I believe laws and legislative information are one of, if not the, most important data sets government keep,” Farrell, who led the charge to make San Francisco the nation’s first “open legislation” city, said in a statement. “As legislators we should do everything in our power to ensure laws, codes, and policies are free and easily accessible to our residents.”

Kallos, who chairs his city’s Governmental Operations Committee, said it’s important for local governments to make their respective law and regulatory codes plus legislation more accessible to the public. “Millennia ago, Hammurabi codified law and displayed it publicly for the people to see,” Kallos said in the FLF’s announcement. “Today, public means free and online, not behind a license or paywall.”

As GovExec State & Local documented earlier this month, the law codes of many state and local jurisdictions sit on outdated and often inflexible proprietary digital platforms. A handful of jurisdictions, including members of the Free Law Founders, have been working proactively with open-government advocates, civic-minded coders and other interested individuals on open-source projects to “unlock” their local law and regulatory codes.

“The agility of code is pushing government to be more responsive,” Kallos told GovExec State & Local in an interview earlier this month. “It’s easier to put it on the Internet and let other people do the heavy lifting to make government information more accessible and usable.”

FLF members have been engaged in weekly conference calls for the past few months where they have discussed common open-data challenges and compared notes on their respective local efforts.

The FLF coalition, according to its announcement, hopes to release a free open-source “minimum viable product” this fall and hope other states, cities and local jurisdictions participate in their ongoing free-law and open-data efforts.

“Open and accessible government can’t wait,” Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza said in the FLF announcement. “While the digital world long ago eclipsed the analog world, the way we practice civics is stuck in the 20th century. It’s time for policies that help the public use technologies to access government. I’m proud to join with elected officials and open government advocates to set a new agenda for major cities like Chicago to meet that goal.”

District of Columbia Council General Counsel V. David Zvenyach, featured in GovExec State & Local’s recent examination of unlocking law codes, is involved in the FLF’s efforts as is the city of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology.

From the FLF’s announcement:

The Free Law Founders takes the country’s open data movement into city government, where it can have a direct impact on millions of Americans. The goals of the Free Law Founders are to build cities and states across the country where citizens can:

1.     Access Complete, Timely, Machine-Processable and Primary Laws, Legal Codes and Legislation on the Internet without facing restrictions, paywalls, fees, or burdensome user agreements;  

2.     Download, share, annotate, and reuse that legal data in non-proprietary, open formats that are both license-free and copyright-free;

3.     See and participate in the lawmaking process on the Internet utilizing the latest open-source software, on their own time and on their own terms;

4.     Freely engage with the law, and connect with their elected officials, other citizens and community stakeholders to collaboratively create and modify the laws when they want and how they want; and

5.     Expect that all those involved in lawmaking are committed to injecting innovation, iteration and improvement into their work.

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