#HackTheConstitution: Where we are

As we go in to 2017 and start the work of organising volunteers and meetups for the phase of the project, it might be useful to recap on where we are for those who’ve been involved in the past and aren’t sure what’s going on, and those who want to join us in our mission to blow open African legal documents for discussion.

In the run-up to the hackathon in August, we had a very basic prototype of the web application up and running. This was based on the text of the constitution from myconstitution.co.za, and the Rap Genius annotation engine, which is very easy to implement.

What became clear as we worked through ideas at the hackathon was that we needed a much more sophisticated platform if we were going to build anything of real value and long term use. The Genius annotations worked, but they didn’t give us much of the functionality we realised users would need.

In mapping out user journeys to the site, we realised that we needed a system that was easily searchable for both the text and the annotated detail, presented search results in a coherent way, and – with a lot of user generated content – could be moderated properly. We need to be able to flag annotations as legally valid interpretations of the law, for example, or history pieces or stories that our user have uploaded. We need to be able to weight them if there are multiple annotations for a single section – and sort them into useful groupings for teachers, journalists, activists, etc.

Here’s some of the ways we came to those conclusions.

Which obviously makes little sense right now, and there were lots more of those. Scott from ENCA made a feature vid about the hackathon.

All of which meant that we went back to square one after the hackathon, with a lot of interest but nothing solid to show. The rest of the year was mostly spend in design thinking workshops, plotting out how a web app – which has to be mobile-first – can elegantly deal with all the demands we want to put on it.

They produced stuff like this:

And crazy sketches that involve animated tumblers and things like this.

But the big breakthrough was that we had to control where the annotations were placed. It can’t be a scattergun, select what you like system of the kind Genius and a lot of websites use. What we need is the ability to layer information over specific clauses in the Constitution, not individual words. Apart from anything else, that means the language that a user selects to read the Constitution in won’t matter – while words move round and change in impossible-to-track ways when translated, Section 9 clause 4 is always Section 9, Clause 4.

In some ways, this makes the project easier – it takes a lot of the complexity out of deciding where annotations go. In other ways, it makes it a bit harder – we’re not going to find an off-the-shelf system like Genius.com to do it for us.

The real beauty, however, is that if we can develop a platform that does what we want around the Constitution, it will be trivial to use the same system to annotate other laws and create similar reference documents or discussion platforms.

Our next step, before we finalise a technical brief for the project, is to investigate theĀ Akomo Ntoso standard for African legislation. If we can build to be compatible with that, it opens up a lot of opportunities for similarly-minded folk around the continent to build on our work.

Right now, progress is slowed by the fact that this is an entirely volunteer led project, and we need a lot of help. If you want to get involved, please drop us line here.