Launching the Visual First AmendmentPosted: May 21, 2014
I am pleased to announce the launch of the Visual First Amendment, a project I have been working on for the past year with my colleague Dr. Chris Sula, and our wonderful group of graduate assistants.
But while the project took life this past year, it was born a few years back, in the semester of Spring 2006. I was teaching Information Policy and we were discussing in class the erratic nature of Supreme Court decisions.
How is it possible, students asked, that requiring students to salute the flag was considered constitutional in 1940 (Minersville School District v. Gobitis), but three years later, the Court ruled that this requirement violates students’ free speech (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette). Is it because the understanding of freedom of speech has changed so dramatically over the years, or is it because the composition of the court has changed? How do such changes in the court affect rulings? Can we predict how someone will be vote if we know their nominating president, their gender, their religion, their law school?
These are all questions that can be answered, but until recently, with the rise of empirical legal research, finding these answers was a labor-intensive process in which the researcher would have to sort case-by-case, justice-by-justice, to identify any patterns in the connections between cases, justices and topics.
My colleague Chris Sula, whose research areas are in information visualization and digital humanities, also takes a great interest in First Amendment rights, and we joined forces to turn this idea into reality.
What followed was a year in which Chris and I, alongside with our graduate assistants, collected data from various sources (First Amendment Center, Wash. U, LII, Oyez, Wikipedia and more links), in various sizes, and in various formats. We met weekly as the VisualFA took shape. As we moved through the stages of development we discussed our vision for the VisualFA, we looked and many examples, thought of our target audience, what questions we would like to answer, what underlying data would we need to answer that, where do we get it, what format does it come from, how do we define the fields, what networks are we linking, how do we balance narrative with visualization, how do we present the tool. We read extensively about empirical legal research and contextualized our work with larger theoretical frameworks, particularly Critical Information Studies. We looked for software solutions that are open-source and easily manipulated. Our graduate assistants used their coursework to contribute to the projects, using courses in information visualization, government information, legal sources, programming, GIS and more. We rolled the project out slowly, not advertising it, but showing it to small groups, including during presentations at the GL15 and iConference. We introduced it to a group of student in the Fall 2013 semester, and two of our graduate assistants, conducted user/usability studies during Spring 2014.
And now: Drumroll: We are ready to officially launch the VisualFA. We consider it in perpetual beta and have many plans to development. But since those are never done, there is no end to how long you can delay the release. We encourage you to use the VisualFA and write to us and let us know about your experience. We are seeking suggestions to improve the tool, as well as intuitional partners (ACLU, Georgetown, any takers?). You can contact us at or @VisualFA