Building a digital lawyer?
Large corporations have whole departments dedicated to hacking through the tangled thicket of state and federal rules and definitions to determine what they must do to obey the law.
Small companies, even individuals, are no less bound by environmental rules. Yet they have neither the time nor the expertise to wrestle with slippery regs and provisions.
This is the problem Kincho H. Law, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, tackled when he launched his $1-million Digital Government project, Regnet.
"Regulations are definitely extremely complex, and a barrier for small business," says Law, the project's principal investigator. "A lot of regulations are now on line, but they only allow people to view them. There's no way to find the appropriate regulation for a particular problem."
The demonstration project is geared toward managing or disposing of used oil, a dilemma faced by everyone from the huge computer manufacturer to the mom-and-pop auto repair shop down the street. Work stoppages and fines for breaking a rule can be crippling, especially for the small business owner.
Regnet has taken shape in three phases:
The first was developing a document repository, containing 80MB of text-based content from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Westlaw legal information database.
The key here was to include not only the EPA codes, but also administrative decisions, federal cases and letters of interpretation from the EPA's general counsel. These supporting documents can radically alter the understanding of what a regulation means.
The next step was making the information retrievable via a searchable concept hierarchy. To date, the text has been indexed alphabetically by EPA hazardous substance, and by U.S. state.
"You navigate a classification hierarchy, like a Yahoo home page," says Stanford researcher Charles Heenan, who is also working on the project. "Where it is very different from Yahoo is [that] the underlying logic will differ."
Four categories of topic-based XML metatags have been affixed to the data:
Using a Web interface, the user selects a provision. At each step, the system - using the Otter automated-deduction program (public freeware from the Argonne National Laboratory) - asks the user for input to clarify whether or not he is in compliance. The system automatically inserts hyperlinks to referenced provisions, which can be opened in a new window.
The Small Business Administration has shown interest, and Law has been asked to participate in the EPA's compliance assistance forum in San Antonio, Tex., in December, he says.
Other Stanford investigators who worked on the project include Gio Wiederhold, professor emeritus of computer science, medicine and electrical engineering; Barton H. Thompson, Jr., Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law and Vice Dean, school of law, and James O. Leckie, profesor of civil and environmental engineering.
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