Can Legal Information Be Semanticized?

You may have noticed that it has been unusually quite in the Studio over the past week. Extreme travel and excessive work have taken their toll on my blogging output. However, it is time, once again, to buckle down and plumb the depths of law, technology and cutting-edge research and writing tools.

Absence apparently makes the heart grow fonder, as my reader greeted me with an interesting article over at Law.com by Dr. Adam Zachary Wyner on legal ontologies and how they may “spin a semantic web”.  I have heard it said before that legal information is too broad and deep and resistant to organization to be put under the semantic knife, or more aptly “blanket.”  I was heartened to see that Dr. Wyner disagreed (sort of) with this position.

First, I commend Dr. Wyner on providing an excellent explanation of what ontologies, knowledge management and taxonomies are and how they interrelate. I learned a few new concepts reading through his summary.

Next, the problem for those of us anxiously awaiting semantic treatment for case and statutory law is indeed that there is little consistency in how these materials are presented, the wide variety of search need to be satisfied and the sheer volume of material produced on a yearly basis. Dr. Wyner sees this conundrum as well. Coupled with the fact that most text marking, the process by which information is overlaid so that a computer can “read” and calcaulate an answer to a semantic search, would have to be performed by humans in the legal arena, it appears that the desired result may be somewhat of an impossible dream.

However, Dr. Wyner correctly points out that there are some categories of information that are clearly defined across cases and statutes that could certainly be marked for organization. For example, in the case law context, case headings, party information, result, even statements of issues can be tagged, organized and converted to computer-readable form. Dr. Wyner even suggests means for treating the information: through Semantic MediaWikis, as a learning tool for researchers and law students, and through treatment by large scale publishers and government agencies and courts prior to publication. Dr. Wyner sounds as enthusiastic as I feel about the possibilities of incorporating this layer of information and what such treatment could bring to the legal researcher’s table.

I am relunctant to get too excited about the Big Two jumping onto the semantic bandwagon and spearheading the effort to “semanticize” the vast amounts of legal information in their stables. After all, where is their incentive? Nonetheless, I can’t help but smile a bit at Dr. Wyner’s excited undertone and the thought that bringing cases and statutes into the 21st century may not be as impossible a dream as Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

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3 comments on “Can Legal Information Be Semanticized?

  1. Pingback: Can Legal Information Be Semanticized? | Digital Asset Management

  2. Interesting lead by Dr. Wyner indeed. Thanks for the pointer.

    While semantically marking up all legal documents can be prohibitively expensive, it is possible for machines to automatically annotate some key attributes. This can already enable many useful applications—See for example, how we use such technology for building large scale vertical search in apartment rentals, online shopping, and local events.

  3. Absolutely agreed, Govind. Some semantic treatment is better than none and there is little reason not to use the machine mark-up for the parts of legal information that are easily treated. Many legal researchers feel bound to services like Westlaw and Lexis because they offer a semblance of intelligent search for legal materials with the promise of the most thorough results available. However, I know I am not alone in wishing that similar intelligent search functionality will make an appearance in open source legal materials as soon as possible. For that, I agree with Dr. Wyner that we will need human help.

    Cheers

    Martha

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