Legal systems generate staggering amounts of text, from judge’s decisions to court orders to lengthy wordings of regulations, rules, and laws. And text is data. From one point of view, these data encode the structure and evolution of our attempts to govern. From another, they represent a rich dataset waiting to be excavated by the tools of big data.

Merge those perspectives, and you find a burgeoning research field in the computational study of law. For years, SFI External Professor Daniel Rockmore (Dartmouth College), a computer scientist, has been engaged in interdisciplinary collaborations that apply the tools of computer science and network analysis to legal documents. (In a recent work, the researchers used evolutionary biology models to analyze how constitutions change over time.)

Many of those collaborations have involved Michael Livermore (University of Virginia School of Law), much of whose research focuses on using computational tools to better understand the law. Together, and with others, they’ve applied techniques from a range of disciplines including network analysis, computational text analysis, and natural language processing to conduct an empirical study of the law. They’ve produced, for example, an online search engine that can both identify legal documents and make recommendations to a user of other useful documents.

Now, they’re bringing together leading researchers in the field for a working group at SFI December 11-14. It’s the first meeting in a new research theme at the institute, the Feldstein Program on Law, History, and Regulation.

“Our goal is to set the stage and coalesce the work that’s been done in the computational study of law,” Livermore says. The lineup includes an international mix of leading economics, political scientists, legal scholars, and computer scientists.

Livermore hopes the working group will inspire new computational tools that can produce more sophisticated ways of understanding legal systems. These tools would be useful for any system; they also might be used to study relationships between legal systems or track how legal ideas spread over time. “Anywhere the law matters, which is everywhere, the work is applicable,” he says. 

Read more about the working group.