Digital Projects Shed New Light on Virginia Politics

April 18, 2007 -- Three Web-accessible projects are easing access to political information in Virginia, improving government transparency and thereby promoting better government. That was a central message of a U.Va. panel discussion last Wednesday, April 11, moderated by Sean O’Brien, director of U.Va.’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, that involved the creators of three projects, the Virginia Public Access Project, the Richmond Sunlight blog and the Virginia Elections and State Elected Officials Database Project.

U.Va. politics professor Charles Kromkowski created the Virginia Elections and State Elected Officials Database Project with the help of more than 125 University of Virginia students, mostly undergraduates. He discussed their trailblazing work on the project, which is enabling political scientists and students to conduct historical research more effectively. The relational database enables users to search state election results and better identify long-term trends and historical patterns. The comprehensive project contains biographical information for every Virginia state legislator since 1776.

Most important, Kromkowski said, is the project’s expandable design, which makes future extensions possible and provides a central online repository to preserve this information as a record for future generations.

Panelist David Poole serves as executive director of the Virginia Public Access Project and is a former newspaper reporter. He noted that as a journalist, he was continually frustrated by an inability to access information about contributions to political candidates. While campaign finance data was technically in the public domain, it was often tedious and time-consuming to obtain.

By distilling thousands of pages of disclosure reports for nearly every state election into a database and posting this information on the Web, VPAP has put campaign finance information at the fingertips of reporters — and anyone who wants it.

“The amount of time required to find out how much a special interest group has given a candidate went from a week to about four or five clicks of a mouse,” Poole said.

Panelist Waldo Jaquith, a young, self-described “geek” who has built popular Web sites such as and, shared about his work on “Richmond Sunlight,” a blog that similarly aggregates information for public consumption.

Richmond Sunlight gathers the nightly information posted by the Virginia General Assembly about its proceedings — bill titles, numbers, sponsors and text, for example — as well as statistics from VPAP and the State Board of Elections, and recombines it all into simple and meaningful tables and graphs that are much easier to read and understand.

The General Assembly’s actions, which were once mostly behind closed doors, are now open for anyone to see. “Legislators’ aides themselves are relying on it,” Jaquith said. “They tell me it’s the absolute best way they have to keep up with what’s happening on the floor every day.”

Taken together, moderator O’Brien noted, “these three projects provide a full trifecta of information — on money, legislation and election results — so the public can be better informed and a better watchdog of our government.”

Jointly sponsored by Alderman Library, Brown Science & Engineering Library and the Department of Information Technology and Communication, this presentation was one in an ongoing series of colloquia on research and digital scholarship at the University and beyond.

The next forum spring will discuss, "Digital Collaboration in the Classroom: Teaching Humanities with Computers," on April 25, 3:30 to 4:45 p.m., in the Scholars' Lab on the fourth floor of Alderman Library. Online interactions are ubiquitous in contemporary society, but it is not yet clear what this means for the university classroom. This talk will explore the potential of online collaboration in large undergraduate classes by introducing the Southern History Database a research tool developed by the University Library and the Virginia Center for Digital History.

All are invited to attend, and no pre-registration is required. Snacks and drinks are provided.

— By Lauren McSwain-Starrett