‘What’s your favourite piece of legislation?’ maybe isn’t the greatest chat-up line in history, but it’s a great way to start a lecture on legislation as data. This was how The National Archives’ John Sheridan kicked off his fascinating talk last week at the Open Data Institute in London. John is the driving force behind the UK Government’s legislation.gov.uk website, which aims to maintain an up-to-date, accessible and reusable record of UK legislation. An up-to-date record of legislation is a great resource to have access to and thanks to the power of the web, it’s now easier and quicker than ever before to find legislation with a few keyboard strokes and a couple of clicks of the mouse. But legislation.gov.uk is much more than a digital law library and here are three of the things that make it a bit special:
1. Reusability and Openness: Legislation is drafted, debated, enacted and enforced using public money. So, it seems only right that the public has access to copies of the legislation that we have paid for. But in an era of machine-readability, unstructured PDFs are of limited use as computers have difficulty understanding them. With legislation.gov.uk, however, users can take and freely reuse the underlying data for any piece of legislation on the site. Simply find your favourite act (mine’s the Offences Against the Person Act 1861) and add /data.xml to the end of it and you have something that a computer can easily make sense of. RSS feeds are a good, basic example of the way in which XML can be used to improve a service. So, you might not want to read all of the BBC News website every day and might only be interested in articles from the motor racing section. An RSS feed – which makes use of the structured format of XML – can trawl through the XML, identify all articles categorised as ‘motor racing’ and present them in near real-time in a way that an end-user finds helpful.
2. Linked data: In the UK, our various national parliaments and assemblies make approximately 15,000 amendments each year to legislation. But far from changing one piece of legislation, amendments frequently induce changes in completely separate pieces of legislation. Put simply, A changes B when C says so. Taking Section 56 (Child Stealing) of the Offences Against the Person Act, we can quickly see that it has been amended on several occasions by the Statute Law Revision Act 1892 and by the Criminal Justice Act 1948, before being repealed by the Child Abduction Act 1984 and, in Northern Ireland, by The Child Abduction (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. Similarly, changes in European Union legislation often have important effects upon domestic, UK legislation. For legislation.gov.uk to work properly then, legislative data needs to be linked. Even more excitingly, though, legislative data can be linked to other datasets, such as offending rates, conviction rates, school attainment. That way, it could be possible to track the impact of legislation on any number of issues.
3. Expert participation: Before legislation.gov.uk came along, only specialist, commercial providers were able to provide up-to-date copies of legislation. The legislation available in the public domain was frequently hard to find and did not reflect amendments that had been made once the legislation had been passed. In some ways, then, it would be very reasonable to assume that legislation.gov.uk harms the business model of those companies. But that’s simply not the case. In fact, John and his team have worked with experts from the private sector to improve the legislation and underlying data held on the site. The ability to then reuse this data has allowed commercial legal services to build additional services on top of legislation.gov.uk’s ‘basic’ service. This model of public-private cooperation means that John and his small team can share the burden of work, while commercial companies get access to up-to-date, structured legislative data that would not otherwise be available.
Anyway, enough of my witterings – here are the audio and slides from John’s lecture: