How can Machine Learning and Network Analysis help us identify the “influencers” of Constitutions?

Alex Rutherford and Manuel Garcia Herranz
Map of data plotted in the a global map
UNICEF Innovation
12 November 2018

“Analyses of governing documents from 194 countries could help people fighting for human and environmental rights.”Scientific American

UNICEF’s Office of Innovation has applied network science and machine learning to national constitutions to better understand how laws develop to protect vulnerable populations.

New research by scientists from UNICEF’s Office of Innovation — published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour — applies methods from network science and machine learning to constitutional law.  UNICEF Innovation Data Scientists Alex Rutherford and Manuel Garcia-Herranz collaborated with computer scientists and political scientists at MIT, George Washington University, and UC Merced to apply data analysis to the world’s constitutions over the last 300 years. This work sheds new light on how to better understand why countries’ laws change and incorporate social rights.

Our Approach:

Data science techniques allow us to use methods like network science and machine learning to uncover patterns and insights that are hard for humans to see. Just as we can map influential users on Twitter — and patterns of relations between places to predict how diseases will spread — we can identify which countries have influenced each other in the past and what are the relations between legal provisions.

Map of data plotted in the a global map
UNICEF Innovation

Why The Science of Constitutions?

One way UNICEF fulfills its mission is through advocacy with national governments — to enshrine rights for minorities, notably children, formally in law. Perhaps the most renowned example of this is the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (ICRC).

Constitutions, such as Mexico’s 1917 constitution — the first to limit the employment of children — are critical to formalizing rights for vulnerable populations. National constitutions describe the role of a country’s institutions, its character in the eyes of the world, as well as the rights of its citizens.

From a scientific standpoint, the work is an important first step in showing that network analysis and machine learning technique can be used to better understand the dynamics of caring for and protecting the rights of children — critical to the work we do in a complex and interconnected world. It shows the significant, and positive policy implications of using data science to uphold children’s rights.

What the Research Shows:

Through this research, we uncovered:

  • A network of relationships between countries and their constitutions.
  • A natural progression of laws — where fundamental rights are a necessary precursor to more specific rights for minorities.
  • The effect of key historical events in changing legal norms.

Using machine learning techniques, we were able to explicitly uncover four communities of countries whose constitutions strongly resemble and influence one another:

global map
UNICEF Innovation

We also uncovered a strong hierarchy of legal provisions: for instance, laws providing for trade unions tend to offer support for laws on child employment to come later, suggesting that the former help the latter to move from being fringe rights to accepted rights (see the growth in the range of legal rights over time below).

showcasing strong hierarchy of legal provisions
UNICEF Innovation

Applying the Science of Constitutions to Children’s Rights:

Our sense of ‘legal norms’, or what should be enshrined in a national constitution, changes as we do. The earliest constitutions did not mention the environment or digital privacy, for example. But through international advocacy efforts such as the ICRC and following important historical events, children’s rights are now reflected in a greater number of countries’ constitutions, and more likely to be included in new constitutions.

UNICEF engages national governments to enshrine protections for children and young people. These advocacy efforts can be more effective by understanding trends in constitutional change — as our research demonstrates, engaging with one country can be an indirect influence on a second country, and advocating for one legal provision can provide support for another.

“Next, researchers could search for these signatures in other countries, such as the United States. ‘Could we tell when added rights are actually red flags bearing the signs of authoritarianism?’” Scientific American