Introducing "Understanding the U.S. Constitution"

Introducing "Understanding the U.S. Constitution"

I am thrilled to announce the release of Understanding the U.S. Constitution, a free research app for your phone or tablet that lets you use the text of the Constitution as a pathway into the scholarship about it. We can"t wait to see how high school and college-level teachers and students use it to enhance their study of our democracy.

To get an idea why we created the app, let’s create a new measurement.  We’ll call it the quotable quotient, or QQ, and we’ll use to to gauge the extent to which a given author or document is quotation-worthy.*  Shakespeare, for instance, I think it’s safe to say, would have a pretty high QQ.  In fact, you could look at JSTOR Labs’ Understanding Shakespeare project, and its accompanying API, as an attempt to calculate Shakespeare’s QQ. Many of his lines have been quoted over a hundred times in the articles of JSTOR, and the most quoted – no surprises here: Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech – was quoted over 750 times.**  Pretty quotable!  Way to go, Will.

Well, as far as QQ goes, the U.S. Constitution leaves Shakespeare in its dust.  To pick only the most extreme example, the Fourteenth Amendment, including the Equal Protection Clause, has been quoted almost 2,500 times in the articles in JSTOR.   Article I’s Elastic Clause has nearly 1,000.

So when we decided to expand on the idea of using the primary text as a portal into the scholarship about it, it only made sense for us to turn to the U.S. Constitution.  Our goal for this was to create something as useful as Understanding Shakespeare, but designed for a mobile experience.  That required a rethinking of the basic user experience and design.  It also required powerful filtering and sorting functionality to help zero in on, within the 1,000+ articles quoting your clause, the precise set analysis that you need.

The app is currently available for download from the IOS App Store.  And don’t worry, Android users: an Android version of the app is in the works and should be complete later this summer – we’ll let you know when it’s available!

The app, like all JSTOR Labs projects, is a work in progress, released in part to help us test a new idea and to learn how we can better realize it. I hope you try it out and, if you do, we’re eager to hear your thoughts on it by email or Twitter. Who knows?  A pithy summary and a retweet or two might help improve your own personal QQ.

*  Because we’re JSTOR we’ll focus our specific QQ on how quotable documents are in a scholarly context.  One could imagine the same measurement applying to pop culture more broadly, in which case someone would have to publish some giant QQ bracket, the inevitable result of which would be The Godfather going to the mattresses against The Simpsons.

** Roughly.  The quotation-matching algorithm that powers both Understanding Shakespeare and Understanding the U.S. Constitution uses fuzzy-text matching, and the precise number depends on how we calibrate the  algorithm, including setting a minimum string size and percent confidence.  The QQ numbers listed in this post are all based on the default settings we use.