Legal Director at The Legal Atlas
Legal Atlas (LA) is an open-source knowledge platform that combines the power of cloud-based data management and GIS-applications with scientific and legal information to map the physical/social footprint of law and study its use as a management tool for the world’s environment, natural, and agricultural resources.
LA examines how countries incorporate (or don’t) scientific and management best practices into their laws, and what impact this has. LA is founded on the premise that: 1) law is a primary management tool that defines much of what happens in society; 2) legal frameworks can be made more effective by responding to science and best practice lessons; 3) there is a large and continuing gap between what we know from science/management and what we do in legal contexts, and 4) this gap prevents or significantly worsens resource management across the globe, adversely affecting basic rights and causing instability.
LA builds on existing on-line legal information and focuses on a missing piece of the puzzle – the creation of a one-stop window that:
- compiles and maps full legal frameworks topic-by-topic (all national laws and regulations governing a resource; e.g. forests, marine environments);
- compiles frameworks for multiple resources, improving cross-referencing and comparisons;
- further develops legal best practice principles that respond to the science and management needs;
- describes and assesses legal frameworks and their compliance with best practices;
- compares compliance levels to social/science indicators to determine relationships between law, the environment, and society.
- engages society and channels youth enthusiasm in monitoring.
1. Can you briefly describe the innovative idea, in terms of the problem(s) it tries to solve and why is it necessary?
Rule of law begins with the rules, which provide multiple services to managers and to society as a whole, creating, among others, the basis for dispute resolution, incentives to compliance, disincentives to non-compliance, reducing enforcement burdens, and improving conditions for adjudication. Regardless of the resource, law drafting is a multidisciplinary effort that requires an understanding of scientific, technical, social, economic, and political aspects of the subject being regulated, as well as the specific national legal system, cultural and historical contexts, community needs, relevant international law, and scientific and legal best practices.
However, for many resources, in particular vital but “low profile” resources, rule-drafting efforts are mostly isolated, falling to individuals without the resources or background required. While international expertise exists, it cannot be easily or affordably provided through standard aid interventions. Most projects do not have the time, funding, or mandate to address legal questions. The typical rule-of-law assignment is limited in focus and, as a practical matter, does not provide any assistance to the many projects of a non-legal nature (medicinal plant projects, health, etc.), all of which nonetheless have legal implications and needs.
As natural and agricultural resources constitute 30-50% of the economy for many developing countries, and comprise even larger percentages of the work force, the gap in the quantity and quality of legislation represents a fundamental development challenge. Despite the local nature, this is in fact a global problem in which advanced information technologies combined with new analytical approaches can play an important and cost-effective role.
2. What makes your innovative idea unique?
There are a number of online resources that publish and compile legal information. This project is not about merely accessing law; it’s about synthesis. Legal Atlas goes beyond anything currently offered in that:
- it offers a one-stop window for a wide range of topics that can be added to and amended, as required;
- it compiles and maps law to provide an organized look at full legal frameworks and a global view, not just some isolated laws or data from a few select countries;
- it geo-references all relevant legal material to show the jurisdictional coverage of laws and allow for comparative analyses against a wide variety of other map relatable information (e.g., population, area, habitat, species range and distribution, best practice principles, etc.)
- it describes key processes and structures from each legal framework in word and diagram format to make the system more easily understood and accessible to the non-legal professional;
- it offers tools to allow easy searching (that is, organized and pre-populated search fields with a focused result – e.g., searching for environmental impact assessment law in Brazil returns the entire EIA legal framework for Brazil, without extraneous information);
- it provides tools to improve research efficiency (e.g., tables of articles for all laws reproduced, html and pdf formatting for printing or viewing online, official and English language translations);~
- it allows an international treaty implementation and compliance review (a database designed to provide treaty content, selection of a country shows implementing legislation and allows for compliance assessments);
- it visually represents laws, legal compliance concepts, and impacts using GIS mapping tools as well as visual analytics;
- it publishes and assesses all official online sources of law for all countries;
- it includes GIS mapping and contact information of institutional authorities (as mandated by legislation) providing a basis for spatially related capacity analyses;
- it provides a “red flag” and “star case” portal to allow engaged citizens to highlight success stories and anonymously report problems to signal where changes to law have made a difference or are still needed to improve management.
3. What triggered the innovative idea?
The idea comes from many years of international development practice and watching project managers spend significant time and effort to develop programs that are undermined or threatened by something hidden in or missing from a country’s legal framework; e.g. a national park project threatened by overlapping and conflicting hydrocarbon exploration and extraction rights; wildlife management programs threatened by a hunting law that fails adequately to protect an endangered species; a payment for environmental services program that cannot be implemented because a government finance law prohibits the very payment program proposed.
It also comes from international legal development practice, in which the principals have worked directly with ministry staff in numerous countries and recognized that, while some subjects receive significant attention (banking laws, national park laws, etc.) others receive none at all (fertilizer laws, medicinal plants, government concession agreements, etc.). The level of attention varies (usually a function of political and financial interests), but in general far more is either left unattended or produced without the expertise it requires.
Finally, it comes from the simple recognition that all law has a physical footprint. In some instances, this is the jurisdictional boundary of the regulating authority. In the case of agricultural, natural resource, and environmental law, that physical footprint is often the physical extent of the resource; e.g., a riparian buffer zone, a national park boundary, an agricultural zoning boundary, a mining exploration concession, etc. In every instance (whether a jurisdictional or resource boundary), simply making this boundary visible can create a better understanding of how laws function, what resources and communities they cover/impact, where they overlap, and potential sources of conflict. Through the relational power of GIS layering, a new level of analysis, comparison, and cross-referencing of law is possible.
The genesis of the project is therefore an effort to put legal information together in a way that government staff and development professionals can use whether or not the resources and expertise of a particular project are available to them; to give them tools to understand the law, its location, its coverage, and potential impacts; to show at a glance how other countries organize their legal frameworks to manage the same or similar resources; and finally to highlight what are, may be, or should be considered best practices.
In sum, the concept driving the project is to put a virtual legal development “professional” in everyone’s back pocket (or desk).
The idea has matured thanks to the confluence of global trends that include the widespread development and use of mobile applications, the engagement of universities in global development challenges, and the increasing efforts from governments around the world to make laws accessible through online publication systems.
4. Which persons and organizations came up with the innovative idea and what role do they play?
The project originators are James Wingard, JD and Maria Pascual, MSc. Ms. Pascual is an economist and agricultural specialist with over 15 years experience as a strategic planner, team leader and development professional involved in designing, developing, promoting and managing new organizations, companies and projects to address social, political and economic constraints using innovative approaches. She has worked in Spain, Guatemala, Central America and Afghanistan. Mr. Wingard is an international legal development specialist with 18 years of experience in both international consulting and the private practice of law. Together, they have worked on 40 initiatives in over 20 countries for several organizations, including the World Bank, USAID, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, UN FAO, UNDP, IADB, DANIDA, AECI, The Asia Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF, and GIZ (f.k.a. GTZ).
In September 2011, the University of Montana and the IT company, GCS Research, formalized a joint effort to pursue this initiative. The Mansfield Center of the University of Montana is the hosting unit on campus and key personnel of the institution and involves the Mansfield Center Director (Dr. Terry Weidner), Associate Director, Otto Koester, the UM Academic Provost (Perry Brown), and the UM Vice-President for Research (Dave Forbes). Alex Philp, CEO of the NASA spin-off company GCS Research, who has a long history in innovative GIS application and development, completes the equation of the team leaders for Legal Atlas.
The leaders of this public-private partnership plan to remain involved with the initiative for the long term, striving both to perfect its unique contributing elements (technological means, development orientation, and academic foundations) and to make them available to a growing global community of users.
During the last months, several potential users such as private practitioners, law firms, universities, development agencies and environmental NGO’s have received information about Legal Atlas. Virtually all have provided strong positive feedback confirming the novelty, usefulness, and necessity of the service. The Nature Conservancy, the World Bank, the Inter American Bank, National Geographic and the World Resources Institute are among them.
5. What kind of resistance do you expect to encounter and how do you plan to overcome it?
The main obstacle to the Legal Atlas initiative is the still relatively new trend of multidisciplinary research in law and sciences. Even though we see more and more discoveries and advances coming from the intersection of disciplines every day (such as those in medicine and psychology, biology and chemistry, etc.), multidisciplinary work remains an elusive goal for development agencies, governments, and universities alike. Academic programs, grant lines, and public interventions are often defined by rules and procedures that constrain them to one or two fields. In this sense, finding financial and technical support for an initiative that requires strong collaboration among lawyers, cartographers, historians, statisticians, IT engineers, communications experts, biologists and economists, among others, represents a significant challenge. Legal Atlas, aware of this reality, is approaching different entities with specific and tailored language to educate them about not just the need for this type of multidisciplinary research, but its potential and availability, while also highlighting the important role that their specific field can play in such collaborative work. Legal Atlas plans to divide its budget needs in modules to fit specific budget lines and areas of interest of donor entities.
Resistance is also anticipated from international legal associations that might perceive LA as a competitor. LA will make special communication efforts to emphasize that its approach is uniquely multidisciplinary and therefore complementary to their work, and that we seek to engage these organizations in a larger, mutually productive network of collaborators.
A third point of resistance comes from conservative Law Schools and Law professors, who are mainly oriented toward preparing professionals in a specific legal jurisdiction and tend not to recognize the additional importance of preparing professionals to engage in legal development at the national and international level. In this case, Legal Atlas will work to identify law professionals who are receptive to a broader approach and will reach out to students directly to generate further interest – although among the students, we already see this happening.
Resistance from some funders is due to what we consider a plus: the potential size and breadth of the project. The system we are developing can apply to virtually any legal topic -- as a preliminary list we have set out more than 60 areas. We recognize that this is ambitious and to overcome it are targeting specific subjects as priorities and initially looking for support only in specific areas – e.g., marine environments, fresh water, etc. The process of compilation and mapping for one area necessarily spills over into other areas and helps to reduce the cost of programming and populating the site for other subjects later. In addition, we are seeking partners that have existing information they are willing to share. A number of organizations have done substantial work in legal compilation. Through targeted partnerships, Legal Atlas will incorporate existing data into the platform and focus on advanced geo-referencing and best practice assessments.
6. How do you make the goals of your innovative idea realistic and attainable, and when will quick wins be available?
Legal Atlas has already developed a functioning working model. The working model contains information only for Latin America and only for environmental impact assessment legislation. The latter subject was chosen for the working model because it is a gateway law for many projects and investors. It was therefore deemed to have the greatest importance for a large group among the project’s many potential users and funders.
To ensure that it remains realistic and attainable, we have designed the system to be modular, so that it can be easily developed and made available in stages. Data management protocols allow for any area to be populated with information as it becomes available. Laws for any topic listed can be incorporated into the database and, where necessary, digitally processed to optimize search tools without waiting for the entire area to be developed first. Similarly, any portion of a best practice for any topic can be drafted, vetted, assessed, and published on an ongoing basis. Collaborators will have access to an existing intranet containing all research protocols, training materials, and database input systems.
With the working model basically complete (with the exception of three advanced areas and the mobile application), we are now focusing to secure the next level of funding, which will enable us to move the proof of concept into active use. In this effort, Legal Atlas has formally joined the World Bank’s Global Forum on Law, Justice, and Development and is starting the implementation of information and marketing campaigns. We are also working on establishing collaborative agreements with public development agencies, private foundations, and other potential donors. The platform’s content can be developed through independent modules or stages, giving LA the opportunity to tap into a variety of grants types and to grow at a realistic speed.
In addition, Legal Atlas is formalizing relationships with key institutions that can provide existing data, thereby ensuring immediate returns for relatively low investments of time and finances. Among these institutions are National Geographic (to provide map layers relevant to various topics), the World Resources Institute (to provide access to information laws and best practice definitions for African continent), Oregon State University (to provide database of 600 international and regional transboundary water agreements) and The Nature Conservancy (subjects to be determined).
7. Will the innovative idea affect other organizations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?
Legal Atlas anticipates having an impact along the entire justice supply chain, including:
- Staff at related ministries (e.g., Agriculture, Environment, Energy, Justice), staff in Congressional, and in the Justice public sector. These constituencies will have full access to international legal documents and standards for a wide variety of subjects in a single site, including numerous examples of full legal frameworks, legal formats and content, regulations and associated legal tools (concession agreement templates, reporting documents, public participation formats, etc), as well as rankings of legal sources and institutional structures they can independently analyze and compare. Through the Red Flags and Star Cases section of the site, they will also have access to independent and objective data and analyses that show how and why certain elements of law lead to failures in management and the associated costs, thereby giving additional evidence to support legal drafting and interpretation decisions.
- Universities in developing countries. The site will provide a substantial educational resource, in part by providing an opportunity to develop new curricula covering subjects that are often addressed only partially (environment) or not at all (agriculture and natural resources) in law curricula. For law schools this can mean the creation of new clinical programs linking their academic strength with the legal needs of governmental authorities in their countries.
- Law students around the world will have the opportunity not only to use the LA project as a rich research source, but also to join multidisciplinary and multicultural virtual research teams in a unique international learning experience.
- Legal practitioners around the world will be able to access new free and state-of-the-art knowledge resources on their areas of expertise, along with a focused learning experience gained through engaging in public discussions and debates regarding the joint development of legal best practices.
- Media. Journalists will enhance the quality of information delivered by having access to synthesized and analyzed legal information while writing news, reports, and documentaries.
- Development agencies, including public international agencies, multilateral banks offering grants and NGO’s implementing programs will have access to global analyses of critical points of the legal system and will be able to prioritize interventions and investments.
- Regular citizens that today are not part of the justice supply chain will now have opportunities to learn how laws function and channel their commitment to their communities and the environment by posting graphic evidence and comment on the management of natural resources, environmental problems and successes, through online and mobile applications. Legal Atlas plans to incorporate the enthusiasm of the youngest generations in a global crusade for a smarter planet supported by smarter laws.
8. How will the development of the innovative idea be funded and what would be the reasons for the financing organization?
Legal Atlas has been funded during the working model development phase by the three founding entities and the US Department of Commerce.
- The Legal Atlas, LLC, with Maria Pascual and James Wingard as the social entrepreneurs are the designers of the system and have provided in kind intellectual contributions.
- GCS Research, the IT private partner, has sponsored the programming of the working model.
- The University of Montana has provided office space and a budget for staff, program-related expenses and travel.
- The US Department of Commerce has provided funding for design and communications strategy development.
Since the open access virtual platform will be a public good, Legal Atlas expects to attract grants, private contributions, and sponsors through the University of Montana and also through the partners in the network. Existing resources such as funds for academic research internship programs will be directed to students contributing to Legal Atlas, creating important synergies.
9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovative idea that are most essential to make it work?
Self-Interested Contributors: Governments, NGOs, think tanks, international development organizations and legal practitioners are already investing time and resources to produce legal information. Legal Atlas will tap into the self-interest of these and others to create relevant information – newly published/amended laws, assessments and critiques, reports of problems, etc.—essential to their work. The Legal Atlas focus is on harnessing this interest through direct contributions and partnerships, and through coalescing what remains mostly scattered and segregated information into a single system with advanced applications.
An Existing and Continuing Demand: As international trade increases and communication systems improve, more and more people, organizations, and institutions need the kind of aggregated and processed international legal information produced by Legal Atlas. In the US, the Lacey Act is already creating a strong impetus among the private business community to know and understand national laws in other countries. The Legal Atlas project can provide key assistance to this effort.
Real Advances in Understanding: The analytical tools proposed by Legal Atlas ultimately can make a difference in how we understand and therefore use law as a tool. We realize, however, there has to be an “aha” effect that has a positive outcome on decision-making at multiple levels for this project to reach its potential. Based on initial reactions, we are optimistic that will happen – and confident that mapping tools and visual analytics applied to the world of law will generate new understandings of how we manage resources and what we need to do to make it better.
10. How do you measure whether the innovative idea has turned into a successful innovation?
Several indicators will be measured, including:~
- Number of affiliated law schools using LA material to teach subjects not currently available in their school’s curricula.
- Number of committed contributors – institutions that have partnered with LA to provide data and assessments for identified subjects.
- Number of topics with complete global coverage for the full legal framework in the database.
- Number of topics for which legal best practices have been defined and assessments completed.
- Number of daily users.
- Number of “red flags” and “star cases” posted worldwide.
- Number of students engaged in LA research worldwide.
- Number of legal practitioners contributing to LA.
- Testimonials showing how Legal Atlas has helped improve decisions.
11. How many people or organizations could potentially benefit from your innovation now and in the future? Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences? #
See the response to Question 7, which addresses the spectrum of institutions that can benefit from Legal Atlas, although the ultimate benefit will be global society as a whole. ~
Legal Atlas intends to grow in stages to cover all topics related to the environment, agriculture and natural resources and all countries. Scaling up the initiative includes plans to cover regional and local legislation after covering national legislation. It will also include the provision of legal documents in both the official language and in English translation.
12. Can you quantify the financial benefits?
With this type of initiative, it is difficult at best to state what the specific financial benefits would be. There are simply too many potential uses and cost-implicating consequences. However, we are confident that the potential for financial benefit is manifest and can be divided into two types: first, a substantial savings in current legal information gathering and assessment costs; and second, gains associated with better management of our natural resources.
Among the first type of effects, are the following:
- Access to legal information costs money. Typically it involves hiring attorneys with international expertise or from the jurisdiction in question. Because in many countries this type of information is still not easily accessible or well organized, sizable resources are regularly being spent by private businesses, banks, and development organizations simply to track down legislation and conduct preliminary reviews. It is unlikely that anyone has ever tracked the time and money spent, but it is a regular and repeated exercise that the Legal Atlas system would help minimize.
- International organizations making decisions about project investments often expend financial resources to contract papers and legal diagnoses for a single topic in a country or a region. It is not uncommon for a consulting report of this type to cost as much as USD 100,000 or more. However, these reports are often for internal use or have limited circulation. It is therefore not uncommon to see two or more agencies investing similar amounts into the same studies, retrieving the same kind of information within the same or similar time frame. By making this kind of information public and easily accessible, the Legal Atlas would save substantial effort and expense in this area as well.
- International development projects also invest resources in gathering legal understanding of a particular subject related to their particular development activities. Again, the lack of a single, standardized repository for this kind of information leads to repetitious and unnecessary expenditures.
- Multilateral banks conducting risk assessments and due diligence prior to approving a loan incur expenses to gather information about the legal performance of a country in a particular field. We will offer assistance here as well.
More important than saving individual actors financial resources, Legal Atlas has the potential for a positive impact through the refinement of laws at the country level thanks to its best practice assessment system, mapping tools, and visual analytics. Potential impacts of smarter laws include:
- Decreased cost of corruption and non-efficient administrative practices;
- Decreased cost of social conflict;
- More dynamic and responsible business environments;
- Reduced adverse effects in human health and nutrition.
13. Will the innovation be financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how?
A detailed business plan has been developed with the support of the Business School of the University of Montana. Financial viability will be ensured through the following mechanisms:
- Permanent self-funded internship positions with University partners;
- Voluntary contributions from citizens and practitioners to the content;
- Agreements with legal online libraries and Ministries to provide content;
- A specific endowment to be created to support the LA core unit at the University;
- An International Legal Consulting Business Unit to be created to support the LA core unit at the UM;
- Development of associated for-pay products (e.g., annual subscriptions for private law firms, e-learning programs, mobile apps, others)
14. Did you receive any recognition?
The first recognition came with the formalization of collaborative partnerships for the initiative involving the University of Montana, GCS Research, and several universities, as well as expressions of interest from National Geographic, the World Resources Institute, and the Nature Conservancy.
Recognition is also growing in the student and professional community, as the first twelve volunteers (UM students and practitioners) have become involved during this first nine months in a wide variety of tasks to create the working model and its current content.
Additionally, we were awarded with a first small grant by the US Department of Commerce to prepare our Communications Strategy prior to implementing our fundraising campaign.
Letters of support and recognition have been received from Montana Senators John Tester and Max Baucus, and also from the offices of the Missoula Mayor and the Missoula County representatives. Legal Atlas also received a very enthusiastic welcome from the World Bank when joining their Global Forum on Law, Justice and Development.
15. What lessons did you learn so far that could be useful to others?
This is an ambitious project that really was not possible to consider at this scale just a few years ago. Understanding that it is realistic requires an understanding the resources that already exist and an involvement in the sector to understand the need. In other words, it’s not a project for just anybody – just yet.
It is also a visual product – one that needs to be seen to be appreciated. Few people ever talk about mapping law; that seems almost counter-intuitive. But it is not only possible, it is an essential exercise that, once made visible, makes law suddenly more relevant and more understandable to just about anybody.
In the early stages, we have found that the visual effect of the project and its application at a global scale requires the opportunity for face-to-face meetings and presentations rather than written communications through email. In the development stage and likely into the future, it appears appropriate to have a physical presence and representation in key cities will be needed to promote the dissemination and use of the system.
Because of its size and global orientation, Washington DC has so far seemed the best location for Legal Atlas to find technical partners, discuss its design and intent at the highest levels, and gather financial support for the project.