HOME
          
LATEST STORY
The newsonomics of MLB’s pioneering mobile experience
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 23, 2011, 2 p.m.

The State Decoded, News Challenge winner, makes the law more user-friendly — and easier on the eyes

Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith was a teenager in 1996, when the Charlottesville, Va., city council proposed a juvenile curfew, an affront to his civil liberties. “I threatened to sue them if they passed a curfew, not that I had any idea of how I would do such a thing,” he said.

Jaquith threw himself into research. He visited the library to examine the only publicly available copy of the state code, an enormous three-ring binder whose pages were either missing or out-of-date. He could not believe it was not online.

Jaquith persuaded the city clerk to provide a copy of the code, normally $120 or so, and then asked local businesses for help scanning the thousands of pages. The scans were converted to text, the text to HTML, and the HTML was — eventually — uploaded to the web. And as soon as it was done, he realized it was already out of date. “I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.'”

Nowadays state codes are online but apparently frozen in the ’90s. No APIs, no links, no formatting. (See California.) That’s why Jaquith set out to bring Virginia’s code to the modern age. For the past year, he has written APIs for the Virginia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and has worked with the Virginia State Code Commission and open-government groups to publish a richly hyperlinked, highly annotated compendium of state law. Now, a $165,000 Knight News Challenge grant will help Jaquith take the project nationwide under the banner of The State Decoded.

Look up a statute and you’ll also find attempted amendments, related court decisions, mentions of the law in Google News and social media, campaign finance data for the legislators who introduced the bill, and details about the lobbyists who fought or campaigned for it. Legal definitions for key words are embedded. Cross-referenced sections are hyperlinked. And it’s typeset in a human-readable font. (Government documents come in one typeface: Courier New.)

The goal, he said, is to add context, clarity, and humanity to the law. For example, you can look up Virginia Code §18.2-344 on the state’s website to find the text of a centuries-old ban on fornication. What the state does not provide is a key link to the 2005 court decision invalidating the law.

Jaquith’s directive from Knight is to upload the software code to GitHub and make it open source, which he plans to do. Then he will help organizations in other states implement his program, but he won’t maintain the data.

“I know Virginia law, I don’t know Massachusetts. And I’m not gonna. I don’t think anybody is in a better position to set that up than a relevant interest group or university or newspaper,” he said. “The New York Times Company, of course, has an impressive commitment to setting up these sorts of databases, so the Boston Globe might say yes, we’d love to do this. If you could just give us this ready to go we’d love to be the keeper of this data for Massachusetts.”

Jaquith said there could be money in advertising, too. “If they can sell ad space to attorneys, I mean, I would think that would be pretty valuable space. If somebody searches for Massachusetts DUI law, somebody’s gonna pay top buck for a little text ad on the side.”

By the way, the city of Charlottesville did enact that curfew, and Jaquith did sue. The ACLU represented him, and the case was argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. The curfew remains law today — it’s right there in the Charlottesville city code.

POSTED     June 23, 2011, 2 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2011
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
The newsonomics of MLB’s pioneering mobile experience
Running a sports league and running a news operation aren’t the same thing. But there are lessons to be learned from baseball’s success in navigating mobile.
Why The New York Times built a tool for crowdsourced time travel
Madison, a new tool that asks readers to help identify ads in the Times archives, is part of a new open source platform for crowdsourcing built by the company’s R&D Lab.
Opening up the archives: JSTOR wants to tie a library to the news
Its new site JSTOR Daily highlights interesting research and offers background and context on current events.
What to read next
1020
tweets
The newsonomics of the millennial moment
The new wave of news startups is aiming at a younger audience. But do legacy media companies have a chance at earning their attention?
803A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
413The new Vox daily email, explained
The company’s newsletter, Vox Sentences, enters an increasingly crowded inbox. Can concise writing and smart aggregation on the day’s news help expand their audience?
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Texas Tribune
Salon
The Times of London
American Public Media
U.S. News & World Report
New Jersey Newsroom
Media Consortium
Chi-Town Daily News
E.W. Scripps
Ars Technica
FactCheck.org
The Huffington Post