Enthusiasts of open government and open source software in Switzerland, France and Germany are devising ways to access their country's law texts by using common open source tools. Independently from one another, all three started managing law texts and track revisions by using Git, a open source tool popular among software developers for managing source code and code revisions.
The most recent example is Bundes-Git, begun by a handful of computer programmers on 2 August. In his introduction to the project, initiator Stefan Wehrmeyer writes: "Making the complete German legal history accessible in Git is the ultimate goal."
Swisslaw, a similar project, began in late March. The programmer, Simon Hafner, says his goal is a simple method to allow citizens to edit law texts.
The third such project, La Fabrique de la Loi (The Law Factory), started already in May last year. It aims to use information technology to check the democratic quality of the political process.
This project was started by the Paris Centre for European Studies and Regards Citoyens, a group of Internet users aiming to simplify the access to democratic institutions. It uses Git because of its versioning capabilities, says Benjamin Ooghe-Tabanou, one of the members of Regards Citoyens.
The three groups see their approach as very different from the work done by parliaments. Several parliaments are currently building software solutions that allow drafters to create legal texts and, at the same time, service those working on existing texts, such as publishers, translators and parliamentarians working on amendments.
A number of software specialists are working on a document standard for legal documents, shows a recent study, done for the European Commission's Leos Project. At standardisation organisation Oasis they work on a future version of Akoma Ntoso, an XML schema developed by a project at the UN, originally for parliaments in several African countries. Akoma Ntoso is now also used by the parliament in Brazil and the European Parliament.
"From everything we have heard about it, Akoma Ntoso sounds like a reliable base for parliaments to create and edit their documents", comments Paris-based research engineer Ooghe-Tabanou. "Our project, however, aims to make laws and amendments easier to understand. A simpler document format is better for us, it makes it easier to gain interest from other, non-legal experts."
Fork and pull
The specification of Akoma Ntoso seems a bit complicated, says the Zürich computer scientist Hafner. "And the more complex a system is, the less likely others will build software solutions around it. My project aims to let everyone make direct modifications to the law text and propose them using the tools of Git, like fork and pull request."
In Berlin, software engineer Wehrmeyer has not yet contacted or been contacted by the Ministry of Justice, developing a federal XML template and tools for drafting legal texts. He is critical of the eNorm approach, as it depends on a proprietary text editor. "Their format may be open, but when tools are tied to proprietary software, it can not be considered a success for openness"