Leaders of the Legal Atlas initiative, a partnership between the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at The University of Montana and a Missoula private startup venture, traveled to The Hague, Netherlands, earlier this month to accept the 2012 Innovating Justice Award and 50,000 euros to further develop the initiative.
Legal Director Jim Wingard and Science Director Maria Pascual founded Legal Atlas and approached the Mansfield Center in 2010 to propose a partnership to do research with their company. UM students in disciplines such as natural sciences, political science and law are working to research laws in countries around the world that relate to agriculture, land reform, oil and gas, natural resources mining, water rights and other environmental topics.
Legal Atlas builds a virtual knowledge platform with this information, which can assist governments, international agencies, businesses, practitioners, academics and nonprofits on work or research they are doing that requires a broad understanding or comparison of laws. Wingard and Pascual came up with the idea after working 20 years in international development. They both encountered difficulties in identifying regulations and laws relevant to the implementation of projects in different countries, which can vary greatly. The platform helps businesses and organizations, and the partnership, they say, helps students.
“This kind of project or activity has a strong social-entrepreneur concept behind it,” Wingard said. “It’s something where a lot of research can be done and is typically best done in an academic setting.”
Working with Legal Atlas provides students with internships during school, and can provide career paths and opportunities as they graduate.
Kelsey Stamm, a second-year graduate student in political science, began working with Legal Atlas because of her interest in international development and her experience living in Latin America.
“It opened up my perspective to issues in the world,” Stamm said. “I am interested in international development, but I had never thought of legal development being part of that.”
Stamm’s professional paper for her master’s degree, which she recently presented, was inspired by her work with Legal Atlas. After graduation, she will stay on full-time at the Mansfield Center, working on the Cambodia and economic development programs.
Otto Koester, associate director of the Mansfield Center, said the center and the University have supported the partnership by providing offices for Legal Atlas in the MonTEC building and a salary for one of the primary researchers working as a part-time research faculty member. The information and service provided by Legal Atlas falls under the Mansfield Center’s mission to promote ethics and public affairs on a global scale.
Koester said in addition to providing information about the laws in different countries, the Legal Atlas website relies on geographic information systems to provide data about the implementation and impact of laws on people and everyday life in any part of the world. It could be equally useful in providing essential information about local conditions for a developer looking to invest or build in a different country or a nonprofit advocating for legal, regulatory or social change.
Wingard and Pascual also are developing the business side of Legal Atlas, which they say aims to create job opportunities for professionals and graduates in the community.
The award money from the Innovating Justice Award will allow them to access business incubator services in Europe to further develop Legal Atlas.
The beta version of the platform has not yet been released to the public, but Legal Atlas has a social network presence on Twitter and Facebook. More information about Legal Atlas and the Mansfield Center is available at http://www.umt.edu/mansfield/Legal-Atlas/. For more information call Wingard at 406-532-3223 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.