July 7, 2011 — A routine traffic stop got Waldo Jaquith thinking: Just what does Virginia law say about showing your driver's license to a police officer?
That thought led Jaquith, a web developer at U.Va.'s Miller Center, to create an Internet database that he hopes will help Virginians find answers to any questions they have about state laws. His project, "Virginia Decoded: The Virginia State Code, for Humans," caught the attention of the journalism-focused John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The foundation has awarded the Miller Center a $165,000 grant that will allow Jaquith to take his idea to the other 49 states, as well as the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.
He will spend the next 20 months recruiting workers, students and volunteers to come up with a free software toolkit to create similar websites.
Virginia Decoded isn't yet online; final fixes are under way, and Jaquith hopes to open it to the public for free at the end of summer.
"My hope is that in that period I will have a half-dozen to a dozen states that have signed up and are at some phase of deploying the software. What they get is my time as a programmer and somebody who can connect them with other resources in that state to help them out," Jaquith said.
Early interest has come from Florida; Jaquith met last week with members of a journalism organization who "are looking into taking this on and are already fired up about it," Jaquith said. "That's basically a done deal. They want to convince neighboring states to do this."
Jaquith's interest in opening up state laws led to his earlier creation of the website Richmond Sunlight, which tracks legislation in the General Assembly. He's turned that project over to a non-profit organization, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, where he still serves as an adviser.
Richmond Sunlight's success led to an invitation to the White House last month. Jaquith and 15 other people were honored at a "Champions of Change" event, a weekly White House program that recognizes citizens who make improvements in their communities.
While Richmond Sunlight's design is not the model for Virginia Decoded, its attractive display, easy-to-use format and searchable database provide an example of what Jaquith and his future team of associates hope to do for people hunting down existing state laws.
Virginia laws already are on the Internet, and the specific page for Virginia code was updated earlier this month. But Jaquith hopes that Virginia Decoded makes it much easier to find specific laws, with a more precise search function and a sidebar showing a law's history and updates, including summaries of court decisions.
"It is really helpful to be able to see how is this really applied," he said. He also expects to add a comment section, along with links to the Richmond Sunlight site to see how newly proposed legislation would change existing law.
With the foundation grant, Jaquith hopes to hire a programmer to work alongside him and a designer to come up with attractive and appropriate typography. "So much of this is taking boring text and making it look beautiful," he said.
He also might be able to customize the site for mobile devices like the iPhone and Android-based tablets, and include social media links for Twitter, Facebook and the like.
"It really is an attempt to create what should be a pretty slick software package," Jaquith said, which he would then provide to groups in other states at no cost and with free support. And if some states wish to sell advertising from attorneys and others on their pages to support their new sites, that's fine with Jaquith.
About that traffic stop: He received a warning, but not a ticket. He came away from the incident with a renewed commitment to safer driving – and the motivation to make state law easier to understand.