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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the only publicly available copy of the state code, an enormous three-ring binder whose pages were either missing or out-of-date.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 And as soon as it was done, he realized it was already out of date.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
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