Syndicate content
New voices in legal information
Updated: 12 min 14 sec ago

Constitutions as Summer Reading

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 06:30

Two years ago my collaborators and I introduced a new resource for understanding constitutions. We call it Constitute. It’s a web application that allows users to extract excerpts of constitutional text, by topic, for nearly every constitution in the world currently in force. One of our goals is to shed some of the drudgery associated with reading legal text. Unlike credit card contracts, Constitutions were meant for reading (and by non-lawyers). We have updated the site again, just in time for summer (See below). Curl up in your favorite retreat with Constitute this summer and tell us what you think.

Some background: Constitute is built primarily for those engaged in the challenge of drafting constitutions, which occurs more frequently than some think (4-5 constitutions are replaced each year and many more are revised in smaller ways). Drafters often want to view examples of text from a representative set of countries – mostly so that they can understand the multiple dimensions of a particular area of law. Of course, scholars and educators will also find many uses for the data. After all, the resource grew out of an effort to study constitutions, not write them.

How does Constitute differ from other constitutional repositories? The core advantage of Constitute is the ability to view constitutional excerpts by topic. These topics are derived from the conceptual inventory of constitutions that my collaborators and I have been developing and refining over the last ten years as part of the Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP). The intent of that project is to record the content of the world’s constitutions in order to answer questions about the origins and effects of various constitutional provisions. In order to build that dataset (CCP), we invested quite a bit of time in (1) identifying when constitutions in each country had been enacted, revised, or replaced, (2) tracking down the texts associated with each of these changes, (3) digitizing and archiving the texts, (4) building the conceptual apparatus to extract information about their content, and finally, (5) reading and interpreting the texts. We leveraged all of this information in building Constitute.

We are committed to refining and elaborating Constitute. Our recent release includes some exciting developments, some of which I describe here.

Now in Arabic! Until now, Constitute’s texts have been in English. However, we believe (with some evidence) that readers strongly prefer to read constitutions in their native language. Thus, with a nod to the constitutional activity borne of the Arab Spring, we have introduced a fully functioning Arabic version of the site, which includes a subset of Constitute’s texts. Thanks here to our partners at International IDEA, who provided valuable intellectual and material resources.

Form and function. One distinction of Constitute is the clarity and beauty of its reading environment. Constitutional interpretation is hard enough as it is. Constitute’s texts are presented in a clean typeset environment that facilitates and invites reading, not sleep and irritability. In the latest release, we introduce a new view of the data — a side-by-side comparison of two constitutions. While in our usual “list view,” you can designate up to eight constitutions for inclusion in the comparison set, once in “compare view,” you can choose any two from that set for side-by-side viewing. In compare view, you’ll find our familiar search bar and topic menu in the left panel to drive and refine the comparison. By default, compare view displays full constitutions with search results highlighted and navigable (if there are multiple results). Alternatively, you can strip away the content and view selected excerpts in isolation by clicking the button at the right of the texts. It is an altogether new, and perhaps better, way to compare texts.

Sharing and analyzing. Many users will want to carve off slices of data for digestion elsewhere. In that sense, scholars and drafting committees alike will appreciate that the site was built by and for researchers. Exporting is painless. Once you pin the results, you can export to a .pdf file or to Google Docs to collaborate with your colleagues. You can also export pinned results to a tabulated .csv file, which will be convenient for those of you who want to manage and analyze the excerpts using your favorite data applications. Not only that, but our “pin search” and “pin comparison” functions allow analysts to carve large slices of data and deposit them in the Pinned page for scaled-up analysis.

Raw data downloads. For those of you who build web applications or are interested in harnessing the power of Linked Data, we have exposed our linked data as a set of downloads and as a SPARQL endpoint, for people and machines to consume. Just follow the Data link on “More Info” in the left panel of the site.

And then there is “deep linking,” so that you can export your pinned results and share them as documents and datafiles. But you can also share excerpts, searches, comparisons, and full constitutions very easily in your direct communications. The most direct way is to copy the URL. All URLs on the site are now deep links, which means that anything you surface on the site is preserved in that URL forever (well, “forever” by internet standards). Suppose you are interested in those constitutions that provide for secession (Scotland and Catalunya have many thinking along those lines). Here are those results to share in your blog post, email, Wikipedia entry, or publication. By the way, do you know which constitutions mention the word “internet?” Chances are you’ll be surprised.

So, please take Constitute with you to the beach this summer and tell us what you think. Any comments or suggestions to the site should be directed to our project address,

Zachary Elkins is Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include constitutional design, democracy, and Latin American politics. He co-directs the Comparative Constitutions Project.


VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Legal Research Ontology, Part II

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 11:06

My blog post last year about developing a legal research ontology was such an optimistic (i.e., naive), linear narrative. This was one of my final notes:

At this point, I am in the beginning stages of taking advantage of all the semantic web has to offer. The ontology’s classes now have subclasses. I am building the relationships between the classes and subclasses and using Protege to bring them all together.

I should have known better.

What I didn’t realize then was that I really didn’t understand anything about the semantic web. While I could use the term in a sentence and reference RDF and OWL and Protege, once you scratched the surface I was lost. Based on Sara Frug’s recommendation during a presentation at CALI Con 2014, I started reading Semantic Web for Dummies.

It has been, and continues to be, slow going. I don’t have a computer science or coding background, and so much of my project feels like trying to teach myself a new language without immersion or much of a guide. But the process of this project has become just as interesting to me as the end product. How are we equipped to teach ourselves anything? At a certain point, you just have to jump in and do something, anything, to get the project moving.

I had already identified the classes:
* Type of research material;
* Type of research problem;
* Source of law;
* Area of law;
* Legal action; and
* Final product.

I knew that each class has subclasses. Yet in my readings, as I learned how ontologies are used for constructing relationships between entities, I missed the part where I had to construct relationships between the entities. They didn’t just magically appear when you enter the terms into Protege.

I’m using Web Protege, an open-source product developed by the Stanford Center for Biomedical Informatics Research, using the OWL ontology language.

Ontology engineering is a hot topic these days, and there is a growing body of papers, tutorials, and presentations on OWL and ontology engineering. That’s also part of the problem: There’s a little too much out there. I knew that anything I would do with my ontology would happen in Protege, so I decided to start there with the extensive user documentation and user support. Their user guide takes you through setting up your first ontology with step-by-step illustrations and a few short videos. I also discovered a tutorial on the web titled Pizzas in 10 minutes.

Following the tutorial, you construct a basic ontology of pizza using different toppings and sauces. While it took me longer than 10 minutes to complete, it did give me enough familiarity with constructing relationships to take a stab at it with my ontology and its classes. Here’s what I came up with:

This representation doesn’t list every subclass; e.g., in Types of research material, I only listed primary source and in Area of law, I only listed contracts, torts and property. But it gives you an idea of how the classes relate to each other. Something I learned in building the sample pizza ontology in Protege is the importance of creating two properties: the relational “_property and the modifier_” property. The recommendation is to use has or is as prefixes1 for the properties. You can see how classes relate to each other in the above diagram as well as how classes are modified by subclasses and individuals.

I’m continuing to read Semantic Web for Dummies, and I’m currently focusing on Chapter 8: Speaking the Web Ontology Language. It has all kinds of nifty Venn diagrams and lines of computer code, and I’m working on understanding it all. This line keeps me going. However, if you’re looking for a system to draw inferences or to interpret the implications of your assertions (for example, to supply a dynamic view of your data), OWL is for you2.

One of my concerns is that a few of my subclasses belong to more than class. But the beauty of the Semantic web and OWL is that class and subclass are dynamic sets, and when you run the ontology individual members can change from one set to another. This means that Case Law can be both a subclass of Source of Law and an instance of Primary Source in the class Type of Research Material.

The way in which I set up my classes, subclasses, and the relationships between them are simple assertions3. Two equivalent classes would look like a enn diagram with the two sets as completely overlapping. This helps in dealing with synonyms. You can assert equivalence between individuals as well as classes, but it is better to set up each individual’s relationships with its classes, and then let the OWL reasoning system decide if the individuals are truly interchangeable. This is very helpful in a situation in which you are combining ontologies. There are more complicated assertions (equivalence, disjointness, and subsumption), and I am working on applying them and building out the ontology.

Next I need to figure out the characteristics of the properties relating the classes, subclasses, and individuals in my ontology: inverse, symmetric, transitive, intersection, union, complement, and restriction. As I continue to read (and reread) Semantic Web for Dummies, I am gaining a new appreciation for set theory and descriptive logic. Math seems to always have a way of finding you! I am also continuing to fill in the ontology with terms (using simple assertions), and I also need to figure out SPARQL so I can query the ontology. It still feels like one of those one step forward, two steps back endeavors, but it is interesting.

I hope to keep you posted, and I am grateful to the Vox PopuLII blog for having me back to write an update.

Amy Taylor is the Access Services Librarian and Adjunct Professor at American University Washington College of Law. Her main research interests are legal ontologies, organization of legal information and the influence of online legal research on the development of precedent. You can reach her on Twitter @taylor_amy or email:

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

1 Matthew Horridge, A Practical Guide to Building OWL Ontologies, 20, (last visited May 19, 2015.

2 Jeffrey Pollock, Semantic Web for Dummies 195 (Wiley 2009).

3  Id. at 200.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs