Social Research for Social Justice: A Free Law Project

This is the third is a series of posts considering whether academics committed to social justice in theory need to work socially in practice. Last time, I reflected on my early experiences with the online casebook platform ChartaCourse and concluded it provided an innovative way to engage in “social teaching.” Today I’ll turn to “social research” and discuss an exciting ongoing collaboration with the Free Law Project. As I hope to show, this collaboration arcs toward social justice and (not coincidentally) depends on collective action.

First, some background. As regular readers know, I am the principal investigator for the Supreme Court Mapping Project, a software driven-initiative that creates visualizations of SCOTUS doctrine. From its inception, the Project has been collaborative. Doctrinal maps are created using custom software (“the Mapper”) engineered by my good friend and co-conspirator Darren Kumasawa. After I published work featuring maps, I realized that others shared my interest in doctrinal cartography. Thus, I soon had the privilege of working with Prof. Scott Dodson of UC Hastings to make a map-based video about the Court’s pleadings decisions. Then I got the join forces with the University of Baltimore’s excellent law library staff to build a custom map library and put it on the web.

This all helped to spread the word about the SCOTUS Mapping Project, but it failed to accomplish one key task — let folks easily create doctrinal maps on their own. The problem is that the Mapper software is a desktop app with quirky user interface. (Darren and I designed the original mapper with me as the sole intended user.) And a desktop app with a quirky UI is not designed for large-scale distribution.

All of that is about to change. I am happy to announce that the SCOTUS Mapping Project has joined forces with Free Law Project to create an online version of the Mapping software that will be hosted on the CourtListener website. The new web-based application is under construction now under the leadership of the Free Law Project’s Chief Technology Officer and resident computer genius Mike Lissner. Of course, Mike is also collaborating with other great folks to make the project fly. We hope to have a version of the new web app ready for folks to play with by 2016.

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Social justice informs this collaboration at its deepest level. As its name suggests, the Free Law Project (FLP)  is committed to providing free access to primary legal materials and to sophisticated legal research tools. The idea is to provide a platform for folks to find the law they need without forking over hefty sums to big providers like Lexis and Westlaw. The FLP is also committed to making all of their software open source and providing useful APIs so that the technically inclined can improve, tweak, or change the underlying software as they please. The radical openness of the platform insists on putting people before profits and community before competition.

Now as anyone who was worked on such projects before can testify, simply announcing a commitment to free and open source materials doesn’t automatically result in good software. It requires hard work and collective action. To that end, our team has regular meetings where we talk about big-picture design as well as little-picture details. We disagree and hash out differences. There is give and take. I mention all this because this part of the process is important. It puts the social in our efforts towards social justice. And this highlights the reality that when the time comes to release the new online version of the Mapper, we’ll depend on YOU to help us make it better. Come be social with us!

** Addendum: After publishing this post, I realized that I may have left readers with the misimpression that the Mapper desktop app is being replaced by the new web app. Far from it. Although I described the desktop app’s UI as “quirky,” that is only because it is loaded with features that permit users to create highly sophisticated and customized maps. Indeed, the desktop app rocks hard thanks to Darren’s tireless and butt-kicking efforts. The SCOTUS Mapping Project will therefore continue to support the desktop app for those “advanced users” who want to take their doctrinal mapping to the next level. If that describes you, please contact me and we’ll get you your own copy of the desktop app.

Next Time: More Social Research for Social Justice — Collaborating with Casetext

 

 

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