Digital Legislation: a better future through co-design

I have put a few runs in on the digital legislation thing. Last year in February, the Service Innovation Lab facilitated a cross agency workshop called Better Rules, which Media Suite kindly donated my time to as a volunteer. Since then their work has been continuing and a number of hack-a-thons and papers have been released. The OECD Trends Report for 2017 has credited the work on digital legislation as a key innovation under the machine-readable-world trend.

At its core, digital legislation is about using a co-design team to develop rules. Technology may be part of the solution but it is not a requirement.  This way of working is not about the automation of a person’s important role. It is about focusing on empowering everyone impacted by a rule. We do this by applying technology where it can automate the mundane and empower the understanding of rules. When you consider that the history of law goes back to 3000 bc, you can really understand how the process is ripe for improvement!

Early this year, Mitch and I had the opportunity to work with Peter and Mark from Palmerston North City Council. Our hypothesis is that the application of the principles from the Better Rules group could be applied to the bylaw development process. We decided to test the hypothesis by applying the principles from the Better Rules working group to the development of a bylaw. We hosted a full-day workshop at Media Suite.

To start the day, the team looked at the current process of creating a bylaw. I found this extremely insightful. The process of moving a bylaw from development to ratification can take a lot of time – up to 12 months in some cases. Despite the lengthy process, there are a number of feedback loops which support the continuous improvement of the rules.

One lap around the process takes 9-12 months, but inner loops of improvement happen throughout.

Continuous improvement of rules is very important! You can see why when considering some esoteric rules that exist. The UK has a great example. They have a rule which prohibits operating a cow when intoxicated.  If the pace of rule change increases, we can continuously improve these rules so that they are more clear why they exist, or abolished if not fit for purpose. I learned that in New Zealand, the Local Government Act was updated in 2002, and as a result we have the legislative tools required to make sure continuous improvement of bylaw will happen.  

Next, we decided that it would be useful to apply our skills to the breakdown of an existing bylaw in Palmerston North. Section 6 of the signs & usage of public spaces bylaw was our target. We applied the technique of domain modelling and question modelling to build up some valuable knowledge assets.

Domain modelling can look like a spider web of complexity, and that usually directly relates to some complicated rules!

Note: A quick aside on domain & question modelling. Domain modelling is basically the way a software developer will represent what nouns (entities) and data fields relate to those nouns, this allows the creation of a database that will enable collection of data that can be surfaced to an intelligent agent (artificial or a domain expert). Question modelling is the process of determining what questions would need to be asked in order to reach a specific outcome. The result of this is a decision tree which people can use to understand the rules.

Domain & Question modelling empowers the creation of software, and independently adds value to all stakeholders who are collaborating on a rule. A key insight of the Better Rules group is about creating living documentation which improves the understanding of how and why a rule works the way it does.

The domain model developed includes the entities (nouns) and external actions (services) that would be required to determine an outcome.

We surfaced a number of potential improvements to the draft while going through the process of creating domain & question models. These insights can be taken to the councillors when the bylaw next goes through a mandatory review. The domain & question model helped us find and articulate the potential improvements.

Another key insight on the question modelling is that certain provisions are very hard to represent using the first order logic. For example provision 6.2 is about excluding the display of signs that are ‘objectionable or indecent’. It was impossible to define what is ‘objectionable or indecent’ using first order logic because first order logic can only represent objective truth, and a more correct definition is subjective when it comes to ‘objectionable or indecent’. The team came up with two ways that this could be dealt with. First, a human intervention step, where a real person could look at the situation and determine an outcome. Second, a defeasibility logic could be applied, which would allow a system that determines the outcome, but allows new facts about the world to update it’s decision. Ongoing research is being done here.

On the day, we didn’t end up putting fingers on keyboards, but using the assets and the domain model I was able to hack a small thing together . Using the tool, we can visualise the question model, and how you would navigate around it. The code is open source and MIT, and you can check it out here Bore you with the technical details I will not, but check out the on Github for a deeper dive on what has been created.

Putting some time in on an interesting new domain is one of my favourite parts of the work I do at Media Suite. Throughout the day I learned a lot about how bylaw works in NZ, and it feels empowering to know how the bylaw situation has improved with time, thanks to the Local Government Act. There is so much more exciting work to be done with Local Government in this space. The area of research is wide, and will involve collaboration between different disciplines.  New technologies will be required to support the domain. Most importantly, everyone needs to benefit from digital legislation, or we are not hitting the target on what this whole thing means.

For the interested, here is some choice links on Digital Legislation:

  1. The better rules working group report.
  2. One of my own posts on the topic.
  3. The Better rules work is recognized on page 104 of this OECD report

Moving to Aotearoa – jandals, tax refunds and always saying you’re sorry

The following are mostly interesting observations I’ve noticed after having moved to New Zealand 10 months ago.  There are a few tips and tricks as well for people that are thinking of moving here or have recently done so. For better context, I grew up in the midwest of the U.S. and these observations are from my time so far in Christchurch.  

Disclaimer: This is intended to be a light read.  No one wants to work their brain too hard.  If that’s not you, I salute you, you’re a better person than I.

On to the list!

Biosecurity is more of a threat than terrorism

If you bring hiking shoes with you through customs and haven’t thoroughly cleaned them before arriving, be prepared for a tongue lashing and a free thorough cleaning of said hiking shoes.

Housing standards are sub-par

Insulation is, or was until recently, an unknown term in NZ.  You’ll hear the term “double glazing” thrown around like the latest meme, but wall insulation is still a foreign concept.  If you’re renting an older home, prepare for some very chilly nights.

Rentals, especially long term, usually have a handful or more people interested in them.  Viewings commonly have more than just you for any given time slot. If you find something you like, don’t waste time sending in your application…unless you enjoy disappointment.

Cash is not king

Open a NZ bank account as soon as possible because many places of business prefer EFTPOS payments.  EFTPOS stands for Electronic Funds Transfer at Point Of Sale. They’re like debit cards in the U.S. Person to person payments tend to use bank transfers as well which is very easily done via phone app as long as you have a local bank account and the other person’s bank account number.  

Also, account numbers don’t seem to be considered sensitive information as I see people publicly post them frequently. I’m assuming that is because you can only transfer money into a random bank account and not out of it.

Shoes are optional

If you see people walking around barefoot, do not assume they are too poor to buy shoes.  Some people here prefer not to use footwear. Even in super markets and general shopping you will see this.  Whether it’s to toughen up their feet for surfing, “grounding/earthing” among the hippies or pure laziness, I do not know.  I haven’t worked up the courage to ask. Also, “jandals” are sandals with no back strap and have a holder through the toe. They are popular footwear in all weather conditions.

Be brave

Don’t be afraid to go through someone’s fence gate to knock on the door. Fences are primarily for privacy and pets, not security. I stood outside a very tall-fenced house at the gate for half an hour one time before texting the person.  She had assumed I would pass through the gate, walk around the house and knock on her door even though I was a complete stranger picking up a push mower.

Quality public TV content

FreeView is a free public television service.  All you need is an antenna or satellite dish to get it.  Hook it up and use it, it’s pretty great. If you have internet, you can even get free on-demand content via FreeView.  It’s like a socialised version of Netflix in many ways. Not quite as good as the private version, but it does the job.

Cost of living is high

Food and restaurants are not cheap.  If you prefer to avoid fast food, farmers markets and specialty fruit/veggie stands are your best bet for fresh reasonably priced produce.  If potato chips are your jam, then you’ve got it made. They are cheap and plentiful.

Mind your manners

Kiwis don’t wear their political and religious views “on their sleeves”.  Unlike the U.S. it is not common to bring up potentially confrontational topics like politics and religion.  It is very rude to ask someone for whom they voted. Although there are exceptions to this like the crazy preacher you will find most days in Cathedral Square in central Christchurch.  He will gladly shout at you about his views.

Work-life balance is paramount

Time off is taken very seriously.  International trips on holiday are common for many New Zealanders that can afford it.  Other common options are road trips, caravanning, and camping.

Christmas Crackers

No, they’re not actual crackers.  It’s a tube that two people pull the ends of and it makes a popping sound (crack!).  Whoever gets the bigger half gets the inside goodies. The goodies inside being a tissue paper hat, a bad joke, and a lame (Cracker Jack quality) toy of some kind.

The tax man cometh…sort of

Tax refunds are automatic here.  If you don’t have any complicated work situations, you don’t even have to file a tax return.  Although for immigrants this may not be the case if you still have income from abroad.

Architectural flair

Public buildings like libraries and bus stations are top notch.  I was recently blown away at the opening of the Turanga central library in Christchurch.  It’s well beyond anything I’ve seen in a library before. Not just architecturally, but by offerings as well.  They even have 3D printing available to the public for super cheap. You only pay for the cost of the printing material. And a gigantic Lego area for the adults kids.

Miscellaneous customs and social aspects

  • The metric system is in full force here like most other countries of the world while the U.S. continues to fumble around with the imperial system.
  • Cricket is somewhat popular in NZ, but in my experience, many kiwis are just as confused by it as I am.
  • Racists exist here just like anywhere in the world, but they’re a bit more refined in the language of their rants.  Less needless swearing too.
  • New Zealanders love being “clever”.  It seems to be the most sought-after personal attribute.
  • Fights over who is wrong and who is sorry.  “I’m wrong.” “No I’m wrong!” “I’m sorry.” “No, I’m sorry.”

Local knowledge is important

Brush up on local history and phrases

  • If you don’t know what “the earthquake” is, you will likely get some dirty looks
  • Many common phrases like “Kia ora” (hello/good health) and “Mōrena” (good morning) come from the native Māori language of Te Reo.
  • Ta means thanks
  • Arvo means afternoon
  • “Yarn” means discussion, or dramatic story telling
  • “Faff around” means mess around or taking a long time to complete a task through lack of focus


Blue-collar workers are called “tradies” here.  Not to be confused with the ubiquitous which is flashier version of  You will find the word on signs, clothing, and even as a separate department in some stores.

English isn’t really English

You will need to get accustomed to more than just the New Zealand accent.  It is helpful to know when you’re talking to a Brit, Aussie, Kiwi, etc. The context will help in understanding what they mean – as long as you can understand what they said…

Pristine greenery

Yards are called “gardens”.  They take gardening very seriously.  I don’t know how they do it, but most houses have pristine yards with weedless flower beds and manicured lawns.  Possibly gnomes are to blame??

Fixer upper

Auto body repair shops are called “panel beaters”.  A little on the nose with that name, but it works.

Weather prediction seems more ‘guess’ than science

New Zealand is NOT a tropical climate (at least in the winter) and thick wool sweaters are not a fashion accessory, they are a necessity. You should be prepared for all seasons in one day, despite what the forecast claims. 

Borrow before you buy

Everyone seems to have quality outdoor gear.  So if you ever want to borrow a bike, tent or BBQ, you only need to ask one or two people.  They probably have extras.

The great outdoors really is great

Parks and tracks are plentiful and very well maintained.  Treat yourself to at least a couple hikes or “tramps” as they are called here to see some of the amazing views.  But beware of the sheep. Or, more specifically what they leave behind.

Since most of NZ is so close to the ocean and mountains, the weather can change in the blink of an eye.  Be prepared with a raincoat, sunglasses (aka “sunnies”), light jacket, and a selection of swear words for when it happens.

Birds galore

Flora is plentiful here, but fauna not so much.  You will see plenty of farm animals in the wide open spaces, but wildlife is mostly just birds meaning there are loads of them.  Bird watchers will have no problems keeping the camera busy.

Appetite for (wood) destruction

If you think you have termites, it is probably borer not termites.  Same problem, different bug.

Whirlwind threats

Tornadoes are a thing here – albeit on a smaller scale.  Because of the size of New Zealand they tend to only show up near the middle of the islands, not on the edges and are very infrequent with 20 to 30 per year.  Compared to the U.S. which gets around 1,000 per year, it’s not something to be too worried about.

Take me out

Fish and chips (or “fush and chups”) are somewhat of a religion.  Many families have it as “take out” on a weekly basis. I can stomach the grease bomb about once a month.

Would you like mayo with that?

Mayonnaise is used like ketchup is in the US.  Especially with fries. There is also a popular sauce called “aioli”, but I’ve found it’s like fancy mayo with a bit of extra flavour.

Tea time

When someone invites you to have “tea” they usually mean dinner, or some sort of food at a minimum, and not just tea.

Miscellaneous food and drink

  • “Chips” are fries (or potato chips), cookies are “biscuits”, and crackers are “crackers”
  • Hard candy is known as “boiled sweets” here.  I suppose that makes sense as that is literally how they are made.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but should have given you a taste of what to expect if you’re new to the islands down under.  Have some of your own thoroughly Kiwi observations or things that caught you off guard? Leave them in the comments!