Computerize vs. Automate

There are two words that have long been important to me: computerize and automate. The dictionary defines these words as follows:


tr.v., -ized, -iz·ing, -iz·es. 
   1. To furnish with a computer or computer system.
   2. To enter, process, or store (information) in a 
  computer or system of computers

v., -mat·ed, -mat·ing, -mates. 
   1. To convert to automatic operation: automate a factory.
   2. To control or operate by automation.

We often make the mistake of confusing these two concepts as the same thing. They are very different. Doing one does not imply the other. Using a computer does not mean you have automated and automating does not imply the need for a computer. I have found the confusion between computerization and automation to be at the very heart of the disappointment many have with XML solutions. Just because you’re using XML does not mean you are reaping the benefits that XML can provide.

Let’s take a step back and see where we are in history. We are living in a very important era. We are witnessing the transition from paper documents to digital information. This is the sort of transition that only happens every few hundred years, rivaling the advent of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century. The benefits of digital information are all around us. Just think of how efficient many businesses have become. As I write this, I am waiting on a parcel that was shipped from Shanghai just 4 days ago. I have tracked that parcel throughout its journey and I know with certainty that is will be delivered in the next couple of hours. That is a benefit of automation.

In my experience, governments don’t see the same benefits of automation that the private sector does. Why is this? Governments, like private industry, have readily computerized their operations. But when it comes to automating, governments tends to balk. There are many reasons for this – the perceived loss of jobs, the need to retrain, the lack of competitive pressures. But to me it seems that the overriding reason is tradition. Things are done the way they are because that is the way they have always been done. When it comes time to rethink tradition, it is sometimes hard to identify who you need to get permission from.

Whatever the reasons, the slowness to automate slows innovation when it comes to legislative information. Sure, the information is now online. Great! But what has been put online is most often just digital paper – like PDFs or unstructured HTML. That’s a half step into the future whilst looking to the past. Rather than taking advantage of the new medium and exploiting what now can be done through automation, we’re clinging to the centuries old models for how to manage and publish paper.

Why is this important? What does it matter? Well, for starters, let’s consider accuracy. For as long as I have involved in this field, the importance of accurately representing the law has been drilled into me. Yet whenever I start writing software to analyze laws, from anywhere, I am surprised at how easy it is to find errors. I’m talking about citations to sections of laws that don’t exist anymore or have more recently been renumbered to be somewhere else. I am talking about duplicate numbering or misnumbering. I am talking about common typos. These are all things that could be rectified with proper automation.

A pet project for me is point-in-time law. It is a subject that has fascinated me for a decade. It is very hard to do. Why is that? Because deciding which law is effective or operational at any point in time is really hard to do. And deciphering references between documents is riddled with ambiguity. This is because, whilst we live in an era where information around the world is stitched together at lightning speeds by computers, we still write that information somewhere in the text of a bill to be read by a person alone. Sometimes I find that quite ironic as I am constantly surprised at how few people actually read the bills – despite having strong opinions about them.

Isn’t it time we started treating legislation as digital information rather than as paper? Isn’t it time we went beyond computerization and looked towards real automation of legislation?

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