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    How Hackers Simplified San Francisco's Legal Code

    Written by

    DJ Pangburn


    Photo courtesy of Operation Decode San Francisco

    A month ago, I reported on Operation Decode San Francisco, a hackathon aimed at simplifying the city's labyrinthine legal code. Well, San Francisco's now been decoded. The team has a website up and running allowing Bay Area citizens to navigate the city's most important civic information in a streamlined way.

    One of the organizers, Seamus Kraft, noted via email today, the path to a "user-friendly, accessible and restriction-free law for San Francisco" started with the opening up of two of the 16 data sets—specifically, the Administrative Code and Business/Tax Regulations. Since the hackathon, the Operation Decode San Francisco team engaged the other 14 data sets by "unlawyering the text" (putting it in layman's terms), then determining structural relationships, and organizing the data.

    They then built a San Francisco parser to evolve the text files into open data. "These open data files—JSON and XML—are what citizens are accessing on SanFranciscoCode.org today," said Kraft. "Now that we have a starting point and a powerful parser, keeping the laws current is a one-click affair."

    The biggest surprise, according to Kraft, was the moment when the parser worked. "It's like fashioning a key to a lock you can only look at from the outside," he said. "But when the lock turns, that's the moment you know you now have open data that will work anywhere—on SanFranciscoCode.org, in cool apps citizens are already using, in search engines, and more."

    "The law is the most important data set in any community... yet it's often impossible for citizens, businesses, and even government employees to find and use."

    The final parse, which is very technical and "geeky," was a magical moment for the team of hackers and organizers. Kraft likened the effort to standing on the shoulders of the thousands of dedicated city workers who have preserved the law from the founding of San Francisco up to the present day. 

    "It's incredible to be able to run that script and bring that immense amount of work accomplished over centuries into modernity and onto the Internet for all to use," said Kraft, who praised San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's team, particularly Innovation Fellow Jason Lalley and Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath. He also singled out OpenGov Foundation developers Chris Birk and Bill Hunt for their work on San Francisco Decoded. 

    While there weren't any major hiccups, each of the 16 legal data sets had to be tackled separately and in different ways. The new site presents this data with modern website architecture and design, including readable fonts, direct links to relevant laws, and open data that is searchable on Google. Kraft also noted that all restrictions have been removed so that now anyone can access and "re-use" San Francisco laws without getting into legal trouble. 

    An interesting thing also happened with Operation Decode San Francisco. As they expected, it took one-fourth of the time to decode San Francisco as it did to decode Baltimore. Moore's Law in operation yet again.

    "The law is the most important data set in any community, whether it be a country, a state or a city like San Francisco," said Kraft. "Yet it's often impossible for citizens, businesses, and even government employees to find and use. At best, there are massive headaches, hassles, and frustrations. At worst, the law you need—and have to live by—is not even available to you."

    Kraft calls this past system inefficient and unhealthy for a properly functioning democracy. And so the important takeaway here is that government itself didn't solve the problem—hackers and developers did. Let us hope that this type of technological innovation signals more and more open and responsive democracy.