Jim Wingard and Maria Pascual traveled the world during much of their careers, working as international consultants on projects such as defining Mongolia’s national park laws or helping private entities that want to develop public lands in Afghanistan.
Much of their time was spent assisting clients as they sorted through legal issues that delayed or otherwise stymied projects. Their complicated work abroad convinced them it was time to create a new way of looking at the law.
“The thing that hasn’t been done is make laws as visual as possible,” Wingard said.
Since they settled in Missoula, the couple has been busy building Legal Atlas, an Internet-based global legal intelligence service they hope will benefit everyone from international business owners to academic researchers.
As its name implies, Legal Atlas intends to map the world’s laws using new technology, compiling information into an interactive, structured and highly visual database broken down by country and topic.
It’s tedious, high-tech work.
The database not only compiles legal information, it describes things like legal processes, structures and implications. The visual elements include Geographic Information System mapping of the physical versus jurisdictional footprints of laws.
Legal Atlas is being developed as public-private partnership with the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, adding what Pascual and Wingard say is a crucial “academia” element that can help expand on what’s learned from the data.
The center’s interim director, Dan Smith, said the partnership is a natural fit.
“(Legal Atlas) is an attempt to develop really a very sophisticated tool to look at a worldwide perspective on legal issues having to do with the environment, agricultural issues, forestry, health – a number of variables that were very much of interest to the university,” Smith said.
Not only could the university benefit from the revenue generated through the consulting portion of Legal Atlas, the research component “supports the mission in a very direct way,” Smith said.
It could provide scholarships and hands-on experience to students.
“Not just in the computer arena, in terms of geography, political science, international programs, exposure to what happens around the world,” Smith said. “The whole legal arena is something new to us, but it makes a lot of sense for us to be supportive.”
The Legal Atlas project is still in the prototype phase but was recently selected as a top-three finalist for the Innovating Justice Forum’s “innovative ideas” award. The award is designed to stimulate innovations in the justice sector.
The nomination is validation that this idea could have an effect on fixing “cornerstone” problems in countries where legal infrastructure is so shaky, it often holds up development.
“When we do development work, part of the problem can be the rules aren’t in place or are so poor they’re triggering part of the problem,” Pascual said.
Wingard began forming the concept of applying the new technology to map out laws while working on Mongolia’s national park laws. He noticed a provision in the country’s existing water laws could potentially interfere with a proposed national park stream buffer law.
He asked for a GIS map of the laws’ physical footprints. The map was made in a day and exemplified how new technology could help make laws more clear.
A certain amount of Legal Atlas’ information will be made public. There also will be a subscription element. The business will have consulting services as well, for clients that need more synthesized, complex information.
The product pilot to solidify the platform focused on gathering, organizing and structuring environmental impact assessment laws from 19 countries in South America. Rather than a keyword search, users identify aspects of their inquiries such as region, country and legal topic through pulldown menus.
Search results will include links to legal documents and, eventually, interactive maps that give a visual representation of how laws are applied across the landscape.
“You can march around the world looking at the legal framework at a preliminary level,” Wingard said.
The prototype already includes a “best practices” tab to compare countries’ laws and how they’re implemented. For example, the legal notion of environmental impact assessments was developed in the U.S. and has been widely adopted by other countries. However, Pascual and Wingard have found some countries haven’t defined “environment” in their laws.
Wingard and Pascual recently demonstrated Legal Atlas to Trevor Blyth, chief executive officer of Kamut International. Blyth’s Missoula-based company distributes organic Kamut-brand khorasan wheat around the world.
Kamut is a registered trademark in roughly 40 countries. Achieving that distinction was a tough task, Blyth said.
“We use lawyers in lots of different countries – it gets expensive. (Legal Atlas) could be a great first stop before having to hire lots of lawyers,” Blyth said. “What I said to (Wingard) was it looked to me like it’d be a great tool to help efficiently find information about legal requirements pertaining to new markets.”
While smaller companies could benefit by saving money, the extensive nature of Legal Atlas’ database could benefit larger companies, Blyth said.
“I thought it was a very nice way of organizing legal information to make it easy to see what you’re doing and looking at,” Blyth said.
The Legal Atlas website hasn’t been launched yet. Pascual and Wingard are busy filing for patents and promoting Legal Atlas to the world.
It took a student about a month to complete the research for the environmental impact assessment pilot. Then, Pascual and Wingard worked for another month to audit and check that work.
They estimate it will take six months to a year to complete the research to add the rest of the countries and topics to the database.
“The reality is, laws don’t change that much. There’s activity on the regulatory side, but laws don’t change as fast as we tend to think they do. As we populate the site, the time for each subject decreases because of ties to other areas of law,” Wingard said.
Ultimately, Pascual and Wingard want Legal Atlas to become a global center for reference that brings into focus how much countries’ legal framework affects daily life.
When systems don’t work, oftentimes people ask, “Isn’t it all about corruption?” Wingard said.
In reality, it’s more often a misunderstanding of the laws.
“Laws are constructed without knowledge of how they should or could work,” he said. “We want to raise that understanding and the way people work with it.”
Eventually, Legal Atlas will include a component that allows users to flag, map and comment on topics. That interaction could provide another resource for progression of best practices.
“In the end, everything is about smart laws, smart planning. It’s about managing the planet better,” Pascual said.