Constituting a New Framework: All the world’s constitutions at your fingertips
09 October 2013

by tmartin on October 9, 2013

IN OUR DIGITAL ALL-CONNECTED WORLD, no place remains a land far away and unknown. And now, with Google’s latest project, even the inner workings of far-flung countries lie at your very finger tips.

I’m talking about Constitute (https://www.constituteproject.org), in which the constitutions of every county gather before you, searchable, browsable, comparable.

Actually, Google didn’t create the project as has been reported in some venues. Rather, it seeded the effort with a grant from Google Ideas (http://www.google.com/ideas) which is an even cooler Google effort that connects engineers, content experts, and plain ole’ people for technology-driven efforts around global conflict and repression.

In this case, the Comparative Constitutions Project led by the University of Texas/Austin, University of Chicago Law School, and University College, London, gathered all the world’s constitutions, digitized and tagged them, and applied various analysis tools … and let us all play around with the results.

Oldest constitution? USA, 1789. Youngest? Syria, 2012. Shortest? Jordan at 2,270 words. Longest? India at 146,385 words.

Want to see the original text of those 146,385 words? All 185 constitutions live as .pdfs and as .html pages. Download it or view it online to your heart’s content.

Which constitutions mention freedom of religion? Turns out 175 of them do – and you can pop directly to the freedom of religion reference lines in any of them to compare and contrast how different countries handle the question.

A few minutes with Constitute offers up a whole different view of the world – and a bit of insight into how countries organize themselves and define their ideals. You can even explore the data set through data visualizations. For example, try viewing different types of rights as defined by the world’s constitutions as a graphic for a new way of seeing the information.

The more you know, the more you understand. That’s part of the goal of the project.

And of course if you are in the business of writing new constitutions, easy access to the world’s existing documents improves your process, as well. Which was the other key goal of the project whose Google Ideas tagline reads: Innovation for constitution design.

As Google explains, “… accessing, searching and comparing constitutional documents has historically been a frustratingly-manual process – increasing the complexity of an already-arduous task.”

Turns out there’s a lot of constitution writing going on. According to news source CCN, about five new constitutions get penned every year and dozens more undergo revision. The world has written more than 900 of these puppies since 1789.

The act of defining governance and ideals challenges its participants, both politically and technically. While Google — and technology — can’t do much to help the pure political process, it can let the drafters apply tech-based solutions to the mechanics, thus helping remove some of the logistical frustration.

“Google Ideas was interested in exploring how technology can continue to support and improve constitution design,” explains the company with the typical Google certainty.

Sometimes people make fun of Google and its efforts – efforts like Google Ideas. But trying to put technology to work for the larger good, even in small baby steps that may or may not work, is unto itself world changing.

Take the WayBack History Machine for a second. We might expect corporations to engage in philanthropic giving and show at least a modicum of social responsibility today, but that idea was as eyebrow raising in the early industrial era as Google Ideas is today. In fact, pundits considered it downright weird.

Consider Robert Owen. He was kinda’ the equivalent of a dot.com whiz kid.

At 19 he borrows 100 ponds to join with a mechanic named Jones to manufacture an improved version of new piece of technology, spinning mules (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RczuXg5nhMI).

Within the next decade, he had launched yarn production mills and became a very wealthy man. Then, he began turning his more traditional business peers’ head by talking about the “New Milleniuem,” a new industrialized century that would lead to a better society that enabled education and better health.

He ran his own companies in ways that were both very efficient – and very different from the standard proceudre of the day. His mills became a showplace of enlightened management … or of coddling overpaid workers, if you were more traditionally inclined.

No matter how you viewed him, though, you were impressed with his industry’s profits.

In today’s terms, he would likely embrace profit sharing, corporate equity as an incentive, and employee owned stock. And he’d probably bring in lunch to feed the staff – as both a positive gesture and a tool for ensuring greater productivity. In his lifetime, he funded experiments in education, utopian society, and philanthrophy.

Industrialization, much like digitalization, turned the world on its head. It made vast amounts of money at the same time it promised new tools to manage the modern world.

The jury is still out on how well technology actually improves constitution design, but merely having all the data in one searchable location really opens the eyes of the most casual browser to the variations among the world’s constitutions—and to the even more frequent commonalities.

And, like Google Ideas’ other seeded projects (human trafficking network tracking, small arms digital visualization) it simultaneously shows off the company’s technology and thinks differently about the world.

Yes, traditionalists, you can roll your eyes at Google’s overpaid workers with their free lunches and endless perks but you have to admit that the company isn’t afraid to look at business in a new way to benefit both the bottom line and provide a platform to explore today’s digital millennium and the world we can shape with technology’s tools.

Besides, for the inner geeks in us, Constitute is just plain, well, cool in a geeky sort of way. And sometimes that alone can be enough.

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