U.Va. Staffer's Web Site Illuminates the Actions of the General Assembly

February 21, 2008 – In the current session of the Virginia General Assembly, which adjourns March 8, the state's legislators must steer more than 3,000 bills through a maze of committees, subcommittees and perhaps even floor votes, all in just 60 days. The sheer volume of proposed laws makes the already difficult task of understanding the legislative process almost impossible for the average constituent to follow.

Enter Waldo Jaquith, by day the Web editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and by night the founder of "Richmond Sunlight" (www.richmondsunlight.com), a Web site that helps even the most politically inexperienced observer track the actions of Virginia's delegates and senators.

Richmond Sunlight provides up-to-date information about the status of bills by using a software link that connects to the General Assembly's own bill-tracking database. Jaquith's Web site includes a page for each legislator, which, along with their picture and biography, lists all bills they have introduced, their bill-passage percentage for the previous session and information about their district. Additionally, each legislator's page includes fundraising information, recent mentions in the media and links to their personal Web sites and blogs.

Jaquith developed the code for his own personal use and posted it on his political blog.

"I found the General Assembly's Web site really hard to use," Jaquith said. "So I thought it would make my life easier if I could write a little software for myself just because I'm a geek and I like to follow what is going on in General Assembly. … This is all data that is publicly available on the General Assembly Web site, but it is so scattered and so difficult to find that it is tough to figure out what's what."

The project quickly gained fans, including some legislative aides in Richmond. Jaquith decided to make the legislative tracker a separate Web site. He launched Richmond Sunlight on the first day of last year's session. Although he maintains the Web site and serves as its programmer, Jaquith transferred its ownership to an interfaith lobbying organization called Interfaith Center for Public Policy, so that the Web site could be distinct from his personal political views.

"By giving the site away, I made it possible for it to be useful," Jaquith said.

Working on the project in his spare time, Jaquith constantly adds new features. This week, the Web site saw the addition of unedited video of the Senate floor sessions. Although the Virginia Senate has free live video stream of its floor sessions available on its Web page, it charges for DVD copies of the recorded video. Through a $2,500 grant from the Sunlight Foundation, a group that funds initiatives to make government more transparent online, Richmond Sunlight was able to purchase all the footage and provides it to visitors for free.

In addition to providing information about the General Assembly, the Web site has the characteristics of a blog, allowing users to comment on and "tag" bills. In "tagging," registered users assign individual bills with subject-word tags related to the issues they address. This links similar bills and makes it easier to track certain topics in the General Assembly. Visitors to "Richmond Sunlight" can also vote on whether or not they feel a bill should pass, as well as provide opinions in their comments.

"Normally, if you wanted to find out more [about a proposed law], you would have to read the text of the bill, and I am not a lawyer so I really don't know what to do with that," Jaquith said. "More and more people are providing useful descriptions. … People are using the comments to provide explanations of why bills are good or bad in factual terms."

And it's not just political observers who frequent the Web site. Jaquith said at least four legislators link to Richmond Sunlight from their own Web sites, and some even make comments on the Web page. Many legislative staffers have told Jaquith they are signed up on the site and use it regularly.

While Virginia voters are undoubtedly grateful for Jaquith's devotion to facilitating government transparency, he knows of at least one person who is not entirely appreciative of the hours he spends on the Web site. "During sessions, it takes all my spare time," Jaquith confesses. "My wife's distinctly unhappy about how much time it's taken."

— By Catherine Conkle