open data day versus legal codes

Yesterday was International Open Data Day, wherein people from around the world volunteer their time to help make data more accessible. My big lesson from the event was that we still have a long way to go to making the legal code accessible by modern standards.


I was mostly self-interested and used it as an excuse to get my feet wet with GIS software. I worked with Andrew Salzberg on his proposal to¬†encode and map the DC zoning laws into something useful. By the end of the day, we had a first draft of zoning-allowed floor-to-area ratio (FAR) and metro stops. It’s missing zoning overlays (like the one that limits density around Dupont Circle Metro), but it’s already pretty obvious that there is no real relationship between what sort of density (measured by FAR) the zoning code allows and where the Metro stops are.

The big lesson in putting this together is what a lousy job the authors of legal code do in producing anything with much logic to it. Here’s the original DC zoning summary that we had to parse down to make the map. Some zone designations, like C-1, give a FAR directly; others, like the HE-1 through HE-4 zone designations, list lot occupancy and the maximum number of floors. In short, it’s a document that evolved, with no serious concern for consistency or legibility.

A few episodes ago, I pointed out that there are systems that will let you query the tax law for what your taxes will be, and if the tax code gets more complex, then the laws will be adjusted accordingly. These came to be because the tax law affects a few hundred million people, and a pretty huge chunk of them will spend serious cash on tax preparation—the GAO estimated $107 billion/year spent on tax compliance, broadly defined. There’s ample margin for a staff to turn the more popular parts of the tax code into something that anybody with a PC could query and interact with.

For the DC zoning code, there’s a smaller population that’s affected, and they have less money. We’re not just talking about architects and renovators: the DC Office of Planning is putting the zoning code through a major overhaul, and has had literally dozens of public hearings on the subject [you missed `em all, but at this moment there are ten listed on the sidebar of the zoning reform project blog]. At least on the face, the DCOP wants the general public involved, both so that they can complain about their local situation and so they can give feedback on broader policy issues, like whether we need to loosen restrictions around Metro stops. As written, the zoning code itself is in no condition to help the general public say something about these questions, and it’s no surprise that a lot of people get a lot of it wrong.

It’s the same for every other part of the law: there are people who want to know how their situation is affected, and people who want to know how the big picture will change, and both are badly served by the legal code as written. Others at the Open Data Day event were also working on the same sort of data organization problem at the Federal level (e.g., Jim Harper of Cato came by), and faced the same problem: given plain text written for lawyers, how can we find out what it’s actually saying in a structured manner that allows us to ask it questions?

A system can be arbitrarily complex and still be manageable, as long as it’s organized right. But legal custom is terrible for this purpose, and even adapting a code after it is written is a slog.

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One thought on “open data day versus legal codes

  1. Pingback: Open Data Day 2013 Hackathon Recap Joshua Tauberer’s Blog

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