Legal academics are in the business of coming up with new ideas and research results, but it’s not often that a research project in law produces a new technology. That rare brand of lightning has struck the Law School’s Public Health Law Research Program, producing Temple Law’s first technology transfer spin-off and, we hope, changing the face of legal research.
LawAtlas is the world’s first and only software system designed specifically for scientifically coding and publishing legal data. If it has never occurred to you that the world needed a software system for scientifically coding and publishing legal data, you’re in good company. We didn’t either. Like many innovations, this one emerged by accident, while meeting a need the scope of which the innovators themselves didn’t entirely comprehend.
The Public Health Law Research Program was established at Temple Law by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2009. Its five year mission was to fund and support scientific research documenting the impact of law on public health. Supporting strong scientific research meant, in part, defining and spreading reliable research methods suited to legal questions. When law is being evaluated, the very first methods question is how to capture the attributes of law—the dependent variable—in a way that will be accepted as reliable and scientifically sound by the scientific community. That means using transparent and consistent methods to transform the text of laws into numbers.
We defined these methods of collecting and coding legal data, but when we set out to demonstrate them we could not find any software that was right for the task. We wanted something that would store the text of the laws we were coding, and let us create coding forms to make the coding faster and more accurate. So we built it ourselves. Our aim was to promote wider availability of scientific legal datasets for use by researchers, but one day we realized that we had a trove of digitized legal information that we could easily share with the public. So we created an interactive public portal where we could publish our data.
Now, two years on, the whole thing is much clearer. By developing reliable routines for research, and building custom software for coding and publishing, we have cut the cost of doing surveys of laws across states—and counties, and the world for that matter. In health research, we call this “policy surveillance,” and we use it to create data for evaluation, to track the progress of important legal initiatives, to spread innovative policy ideas, and to engage the public in health law. Beyond health, we have stumbled upon the key to getting law into the world of big data.
Ever notice that big data websites and mashups rarely if ever include law? That’s because the huge heaps of law out on the web constitute information, but are not usable data for most purposes.
By coding (and geocoding), we create data that are mashable and mergeable with most other kinds of data on most other kinds of platforms.
The LawAtlas technology has been transferred to a new “hi-tech start up,”Legal Science Partners. Like other (usually younger) tech entrepreneurs, my partners and I are now thinking about marketing and venture capital and making the product better. We see ourselves as social innovators, and our aim is to engage and inform the public about the important role of law in public health. This spring, we join other start-ups in a social innovation incubator program sponsored by the City and the Bloomberg Foundation. Who knows what we will stumble into next, but it sure isn’t the usual law prof gig.