Nationwide Coalition of City Officials and Civic Technologists Announce the “Free Law Founders” to Reinvent U.S. Lawmaking

Officials from NYC, DC, San Francisco, Chicago & Boston join leaders in civic tech to develop tools that improve every citizen’s ability to access America’s laws, legislation and the legislative process itself on the Internet

(NEW YORK, SAN FRANCISCO, BOSTON, CHICAGO, WASHINGTON D.C.) -  U.S. open government leaders today announced the formation of The Free Law Founders (FLF), a nation-wide partnership of local elected officials, non-profit software developers, educators, and city attorneys dedicated to upgrading how citizens can access America’s laws, legislation and the lawmaking process itself on the Internet.  Spearheaded by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell and Seamus Kraft of The OpenGov Foundation, the Free Law Founders have accepted the challenge of creating the modern tools, data standards and processes our state and local governments need to meet the growing challenges of democracy in the Internet Age.  Open to anyone willing to help accomplish these goals across the country, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, Washington, D.C. Council Chief Counsel David Zvenyach, Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology, and more have already signed up to contribute.

“I have been leader here at the Board of Supervisors in advancing open data policies and open government initiatives, and I’m proud to serve as a founding member of the Free Law Founders to advance the goals of open legislation, so that we can continue to modernize our democracy and find better ways to build and maintain civic engagement with our residents” said Supervisor Mark Farrell. “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. As legislators we should do everything in our power to ensure laws, codes, and policies are free and easily accessible to our residents.”

“The law must be free. The government must belong to the people, and with it the source code that operates and improves legislation and laws,” said Council Member Ben Kallos. “Millenia ago, Hammurabi codified law and displayed it publicly for the people to see. Today, public means free and online, not behind a license or paywall.”

The goal is to create and share these technologies as free open source software and open data formats that any American legislature can easily adopt to serve citizens better, while spending less on the expensive and out-dated tools currently in use.   This is the Free Law Founders Challenge, which Council Member Kallos and Supervisor Farrell launched last month.  The desired result is a free and open source digital platform where government officials and residents can log onto the Internet to:

·        Draft legislation;

·        Comment on legislation;

·        Access laws and legislative information as authenticated open data,   with an open API;

The goal is to deliver a minimum viable product in the Fall of 2014.  Sign up to join the FLF to contribute to these efforts, and access the results.

“Open and accessible government can’t wait,” said Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza. “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.”

“Every day, we hear the same frustrations from citizens job creators: it’s ridiculously hard to find, access and use state and local laws and legislative information,” said Seamus Kraft, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation.  “And every day, we hear those same frustrations from the government employees who create and maintain those laws and legislation, and the technologists trying to work with this vital civic information.  The Free Law Founders exists to bring all those frustrated users of democratic data together, so that we can partner to solve these universal challenges with free open source software and the best open data formats possible.  We’re thrilled to help, and invite every civic technologist, elected official and government employee in America to pitch in.”

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.

The Free Law Founders have already begun to build upon and implement these goals with Supervisor Farrell’s legislation to make San Francisco the first “open legislation” city in the country, his change in city law that stemmed from direct constituent feedback, and his ReimagineSF initiative.

Councilmember Kallos has introduced landmark open information legislation, including eNotices Act, Public Online Information Act, Free and Open Source Software Preferences Act, Civic Commons Legislation Act, and his City Record Online Act of 2014.

"The Free Law Founders aim to put all law online is at once eliminating a massive source of waste, confusion and obstacles to the digital economy while at the same time providing a major source of new value for novel business and organizational models and profoundly important ways to enable the American form of self-governance," said Dazza Greenwood of the MIT Civic Media Lab’s Human Dynamics group.  "Law that is online can be openly enumerated, tracked, measured, analyzed and evaluated so policy makers and those governed alike can test and deliberate about the effectiveness and results of those laws.  The goal of having the authoritative official version of all laws of the country at all level of government published as open data and available through public, common web-accessible interfaces is of profound value and importance.  Business, government and all organizations require this type and level of access to the law.  Moreover, individuals who are held to know and comply with the law must also have direct, simple and swift means to discover and access law."

They have advanced the principles of open legislation through an open letter, with the City Clerk of Chicago Susana Mendoza, calling on Granicus to develop an open API and conversion tool which will help each City host and publish their legislative information in machine-readable formats so developers can create apps with city legislative information.

The Free Law Founders are an essential step in the growing international movement of open government,” said Curt Savoie, Principal Data Scientist for Boston’s Department of Innovation & Technology.  “Through open data, open source, and now open legislation; we are putting the tools and artifacts of government into the hands of the people. To quote the Declaration of Independence, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." For governments to act justly they must have the informed consent of those within their jurisdiction. Information in an open and accessible form is therefore essential to a creating thriving and empowering democratic society. Opening up the laws that govern each of us to the public in order to facilitate a better understanding and dialogue is vital, and the Free Law Founders movement is the much needed catalyst. The work is just beginning.”

The Free Law Founders will continue to work with elected officials, government workers, and civic technologists across the country to continue to advance the principles of open legislation, and will not stop until all cities and states across the country can enjoy the benefits of living in more informed, engaged, Free Law communities.

“Cities are where the open government movement can have the most leverage, but right now, the vast majority of data about municipal legislation isn’t fully open to the public,” said David Moore, Executive Director of the Participatory Politics Foundation.  “Many people touch on the political process through local laws - for example, zoning or public safety regulations. Open data for city council resolutions will create a level playing field for developers of civic apps and community activists.”

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