On May 4, I had the pleasure of introducing Carl Malamud during the filming of “Show Me the Manual: An Internet Town Hall” at Code for America (video below). The discussion focused on the importance of making privately-developed public standards that are “incorporated by reference” into our laws and regulations freely available for use, re-use, and distribution for the sake of innovation, education, business and democracy.
Government can’t do it all and expertise is necessary to develop standards. As Mr. Malamud points out, however, the perception that government can only spend money and rely on industry for these functions is clearly wrong. Beyond standards development, this is information we need for our work as students, citizens, teachers, business owners, and many other capacities. Malamud vehemently disagrees with the so-called “Dumb American Theory” that only a few engineers and head honchos care about reading or using these standards. Shouldn’t an entrepeneur be able to read about the regulations governing their business? A homeowner, the results of a water quality test? A general contractor, building standards? etc. For governments, there’s also the cost: our speaker noted the $30,000 annual line item in the Sonoma County building inspector’s budget just for purchasing building codes.
At Code for America, our work often involves translating government services or information into user-friendly services. Malamud has purchased hundreds of these standards and is in the process of scanning them, converting the scanned pdfs to text, adding pagination, and formatting in html to get the process started for publishers, developers, researchers, and others. Just like our constant requests for raw data, we first need the raw standards to start providing context, explanation, and meaning to dense legalese. As Tim O’Reilly noted during the conversation, one potential is that anybody could read the law but nobody needs to because we’ve built better interfaces to it. As Code for America projects from last year and this year demonstrate, we’re working on it.