The answer, apparently, is yes. As of today (Constitution Day), a Google search on “constitution” squeezes the 4,500 word U.S. Constitution on a card at the top of the results (and a 3×5 card at that, at least on my screen). A drop-down menu allows the reader to jump through sections. A number of other constitutions are there too — try searching “Bhutan Constitution” and read about that country’s commitment to Gross National Happiness in Article 9 (2). James Madison and his fellow fathers would be impressed by all of this, although perhaps dumbfounded that we haven’t managed to improve much upon their text in the process.
There is a lot to say about the U.S. Constitution on Constitution day, but most of it has already been said many times in many ways. I want to turn to the Index-card part, quite literally a small thing, but something that represents a huge advance for information science, and the social scientists like me that depend on such. Most of us by now are at least semi-conscious of the info-boxes that surface in and around internet search results. So, if you Google “things to do in Austin,” you see a carousel of images that depicts top-rated Austin outings (my recommendation is Zilker Park). Orsearch “MLB standings,” and a box (a “onebox,” in Google terms) sits atop the results that very compactly shows the Giants’ slide and the Cardinals’ strong season. Click any of these items (from within the carousel or onebox) and a “knowledge panel” on the right margin materializes with more information about the item (the Yankees’ knowledge panel lists the current 25-player roster).
Where in the world (wide web) do these “infographics” come from? The data is stored in Google’s “knowledge graph,” a curated set of highly-connected and machine-readable data (“linked data”). Google began delivering results from the knowledge graph in 2012, but the concept of linked data had been simmering at least since Tim Berners-Lee, known to many as the “inventor” of the World Wide Web and to many of his followers as simply “TimBL,” had begun championing the concept as early as 2009 as the heart of his Web 3.0.
Linked data are simple to understand and their utility is immediately obvious. One key feature is that each data element, whether a concept or a concrete “thing” (e.g., the U.S. Constitution) has its own unique location on the web (http://something…). These are not websites that you would surf, but places where data resides. The beauty of linked data is that these things and concepts can be linked to infinite number of other things and concepts. The consequence is that machines and their human analysts can draw connections easily and, as network ties grow, exponentially.
So back to the Constitution-on-Index card, which is a very simple use of linked data. To produce these cards, Google’s “knowledge graph” queries data on the world’s constitutions that the website Constitute has released as linked data on a SPARQL endpoint (a data hub that machines can hit). (Constitute is a project based at the University of Texas that provides excerpts of constitutions, indexed by topic). Google can then program its search engine to reproduce the textual data as an info-box with the text indexed by the section headers, which are also identified in the Constitute data. It’s a simple application, but one could exploit the knowledge graph for more. Imagine a box that lists provisions on “cruelty” in Constitutions from countries about which Human Rights organizations have made allegations of torture. Linked data on all of those elements exists; one needs only to put together a few lines of query-code to get the list.
It seems to me, however, that linked data still has a frontier-like, Field of Dreams quality to it. Constitute is a project of political scientists, but it happened to include a team of forward-thinking linked-data pioneers from the UT’s Computer Science Department (which recently spun-out the start-up Capsenta). In early 2013, the Constitute team released its SPARQL endpoint, which allowed machines to query its data, but as far I can tell, machines could not have cared less.
But sometimes if you build it, they will come. In this sense, the beautiful repackaging of these constitutional data by Google’s search engine represents something like Shoeless Joe coming out the cornfield in right field. True, the simple index card represents only a glimpse at what one can do with the data on the world’s constitutions. But it’s a glimpse at a bright future.
Feature image: Howard Chandler Christy‘s Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States.