Connecting state and local government leaders

The Movement to Make Legal Codes More Accessible Expands in Miami

Miami-Dade County Courthouse

Miami-Dade County Courthouse trekandshoot / Shutterstock.com

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Decoding legal jargon is catching on in state and local jurisdictions.

Miami-Dade County in South Florida released the beta version of its interactive, online legal code to the public Wednesday, with the goal of making jurisdictional laws understandable to non-lawyers and accessible to digital developers.

Florida’s state government and Baltimore’s city government are among those having joined the America Decoded network by opening their codes with scroll-over translations of legal jargon, but Miami-Dade is the first county-level government.

Aside from its user-friendly inline definitions explaining legal jargon, Miami-Dade Decoded is searchable and allows for the bulk download of laws in multiple formats.

“The challenge is almost every city, state and county is a special snowflake, and so is their data,” Seamus Kraft, the OpenGov Foundation’s executive director, told Route Fifty in an interview. “You have to figure out what the embedded structure is and then do legwork because there are inconsistencies between legal codes.”

In fall 2014, the OpenGov Foundation introduced the idea to Code for Miami and county Mayor Carlos Giménez’s team, providing support as the local Code for America brigade completed the project.

Realizing the value of textual data if it could be made understandable and interoperable with other datasets was the county’s “aha moment,” Kraft said, the process costing taxpayers nothing.

The State Decoded open source software platform being used was developed in 2010 in Virginia with funding from a Knight Foundation grant and has a downloadable API.

Most open data programs have experience with structured financial or geospatial data, but “textual data is a whole different beast” in terms of the work involved, Kraft said.

“Textual data, by a certain nature, is way messier than numerical information,” he said. “On top of that, there’s a culture with economics, the tech community and government of consuming numerical data in a semi-structured format, which is far easier to conceptually and technically open up—think of a spreadsheet.”

Added structure is need with textual data, as legal codes’ article headings and subheadings don’t suffice.

Code for Miami broke the county’s code down by topic, and the initial reviews are generally positive.

“We are delighted at the potential for this tool to empower citizens to get more engaged with local government,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava in the OpenGov Foundation’s announcement. “Broadening the conversation to include more ears, eyes and voices strengthens our democracy. The increased accessibility this tool will provide helps build upon the County’s efforts to promote government transparency and public trust.”

Correction: This story has been updated replacing the name of the city of Miami's mayor with that of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez, the government partner on the project.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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