Monday, March 10, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #14: ShalePlay

Today's review looks at ShalePlay, a news app from the Texas law firm Bracewell & Guilianni LLP. The app consists of news and information on hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a process for extracting gas and oil from shale.

When the app was first released, it generated a lot of buzz (showing up on news sites such as Legal Technology News and Yahoo! Finance and on many blogs). The app's popularity may be because it addresses a hot topic surrounded by controversy, or because it is one of the few apps by a law firm that does more than market the firm. Whatever the other reasons, one reason is that the app delivers useful content on fracking. Anyone interested in fracking or the US energy industry more generally should take a look at ShalePlay.

ShalePlay offers fracking news feeds, an interactive map of major shale basins and shale plays (a play is an area targeted for drilling), a glossary of terms, a fracking timeline, and a list of other sources for commentary.

The news section of the app is broken into multiple feeds. The "In the News" feed lists news stories having anything to do with fracking. The "Legislation/Regulation" feed focuses on news stories discussing fracking laws, fracking politics, and government oversight of fracking. The "Shale Studies & Reports" feed pulls together stories relating to scientific investigation of fracking issues.

The stories in these three feeds are pulled together from a wide range of news sources, national, regional, and local. The app tends toward pro-fracking news, but there are plenty of other viewpoints as well. Overall, the app appears to try for comprehensive news coverage.

ShalePlay's last three feeds consist of content generated by Bracewell & Guilianni. One feed is just the firm's energy law blog, one is it's Twitter feed, and the last is marketing material. The information in these feeds presents the viewpoint of Bracewell and its clients. The feeds are not much use for research purposes unless your interest is in the Bracewell perspective. The feeds are a reminder that the app may be more than just marketing, but it is still marketing.

ShalePlay's news feeds show only headlines. For more information, you tap the headline to open a new window with the full article. ShalePlay pulls in the entire website with the article rather than taking the text and formatting it in the app, so you get the article exactly as it would appear in you browser.


The window with the article sits over rest of the ShalePlay, leaving part of the app visible behind. This creates the feeling that displaying the article is an afterthought, a peripheral feature added at the last minute. This is an odd design choice for an app advertised mainly as a news reader, and significant point against the app.

The most promising feature of the app is the interactive map. It shows at a glance where in the US shale exists and where fracking is taking place (generally; it doesn't show actual wells).

Tap on a play, and ShalePlay will tell you the name of the shale basin where the play is located and the basin's age (era). Tap and hold on any point on the map, and the app displays a list of news articles for the state you're touching.

This is the app's only attempt at a search feature. The idea is a good one: use the map to identify shale plays and pull up news specific to that region. But the feature doesn't work. Taping and holding on most of the states brings up the same list of news articles. Not only do many of the articles not deal with the state you select, some of the articles the app showed me weren't even about events in the United States.

The state news feature is misleading, redundant (compared to both itself and the app's news feeds), and incomplete (compared to the app's news feeds). You are much better served getting news from the apps news feeds despite the lack of any attempt at search.

ShalePlay supplements its news content with a glossary of common and important terms related to fracking, including the definition of hydraulic.

The glossary is small, but it is a useful resource for those of us who want to read up on fracking news but don't know the vocabulary. The glossary could stand to be a little larger, though. For one, it doesn't contain the definition of shale play.

In addition to the glossary, ShalePlay has a list of eight Online resources for further resources (all pro-fracking) and a historical timeline.

The timeline is a nice visual distraction (it simulates a shale gas well), and gives a decent brief overview of fracking history. But don't expect much substance.

ShalePlay is worth at least a cursory look by those researching fracking. With a few changes (better reading interface, search feature), it could become a go-to resources for fracking news and information.

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