Chicago first launched the beta version of its open legal code website – ChicagoCode.org – in November 2013. And on March 18, the website was relaunched in full -- it's now out of beta, boasting 45,000 hits, and providing citizens with access to the laws of their city in regular language.
The data is free, it’s not spread across multiple agency websites, and it’s understandable, which meets the government’s goal of being transparent and accessible, City Clerk Susana Mendoza said in a press release.
“It’s a little known fact that many municipalities charge for access to the documents that set laws and policies. That’s beyond ridiculous,” Mendoza said.
Produced by the OpenGov Foundation, the Office of the City Clerk, the City of Chicago and American Legal Publishing, users of the portal can search for topics they are interested in or browse the municipal code by section and read descriptions of the law with in-line definitions. Users can download the laws in different formats or comment below, as they would on YouTube.
“It allows people to do their own research without having to pay a third party, and having an attorney is cost-prohibitive for a lot of people,” Spokesperson Patrick Corcoran told Government Technology. “Having that direct access, having it searchable, making it easy to comprehend and break down really helps. When you have a document and you see it in person, and it’s three feet tall and thousands of pages, you know, people don’t know where to start. But when you go online and see there’s a search box there, I think that puts people at ease.”
Some residents use the code to educate themselves about tenant-landlord law or to avail their community of an option to “vote a neighborhood dry,” prohibiting the influx of establishments that sell or serve alcohol. “If you were to go about it 10 or 15 years ago, you’d probably have to hire an attorney to dig in there and find all the information," Corcoran said. "But now it’s something [where] citizens can do their own homework."
The relaunched non-beta website includes a streamlined design and features that weren’t originally available upon beta launch. Now that the website is officially launched, the city plans to add even more functionality, some of which would turn the portal into more than a legal dictionary, but a sort of historical document.
“One of the ideas is to connect contemporary news stories to different items within the code, so if you’re looking at a particular piece of legislation, you can see news coverage or different things outside the council that may have impacted the legislation,” he explained. “We’re even thinking of connecting vote tallies at some point in the future. It would be pretty cool to have the speech that launched the legislation that resulted in it being approved.”
The video and audio archives of that information is already available, and connecting the information to the service, Corcoran said, is simply a matter of doing some heavy lifting.
Editor's note: This article was edited on Mar. 19 for clarity.