Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ravel: Visualizing Legal Research

Want a new perspective on legal research?  Take a look at Ravel, a new legal search engine started by Daniel Lewis and Nik Reed out of Stanford Law School.

The two Stanford Law graduates set out to create a platform that makes legal research faster, easier, and more intuitive.  Their approach was to use graphics to allow researchers to quickly see patterns and trends in their search results.  When you conduct a search on Ravel, it displays the results in a chart.  Each case is a shown as bubble sized according to relevance; the more relevant Ravel thinks a case is to  your search, the larger the bubble.  Ravel draws lines between the bubbles to represent citations, creating a visual web of case law.

Clicking on a particular bubble highlights its connections in the chart and brings up the case name in a text result list on the right.  You can jump to any of the connected cases by clicking on their bubbles or by selecting the case names from the list that appears under your highlighted case in the text result list.

Ravel organizes the chart chronologically and lets you zoom in on a particular time period by highlighting it on the timeline at the bottom of the chart.  You can group the cases on the chart by relevance so that more relevant cases appear higher on the chart, or by court so that opinions of courts at different levels are displayed at different heights on the chart.  Both of these options maintain the overall chronological ordering.  You can also group cases into clusters based on their connections, which is useful for identifying different lines of case law within your results.  In this view, the clusters are not displayed in any chronological order.

If you click on a case name in the text search results, you can view the text of the opinion.  Users with accounts can highlight portions of opinions and add annotations.  You create an account either by signing up on Ravel or by logging in with an existing Google or LinkedIn account.

Ravel has several limitations as a legal research platform.  Currently, Ravel searches only federal case law.  If you are looking for state cases, or you are interested in legal resources other than case law, you are out of luck.  Ravel's creators are trying to expand its coverage of primary sources, but don't expect Ravel to rival Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg Law any time soon.  Another limitation is a cap on search results.  Ravel will tell you how many cases it found that fit your search, but its display is limited to the 75 most relevant results.  If your search is too broad, you could lose valuable cases below the cutoff.  The limit also prevents researchers from using Ravel's visual display to search for insights into large collections of cases.

Ravel offers a refreshing, innovative approach to case law.  It has great potential as a place to go to jump start a research project that has grown stale or to view the landscape from a new perspective and see what you may have missed.  Ravel is free and easy to learn, so there is little cost to giving it a try. 

You can find more information about Ravel and how it works by reading the Ravel FAQ