Blogger of the Month: Richmond Sunlight
The state of Virginia's online coverage of its own legislature's annual session in Richmond wasn't doing it for Waldo Jaquith. So instead of griping and ranting about the inadequacies of the official site, as most bloggers might, Jaquith put aside his own popular Virginia politics blog and devoted his nights and weekends to creating the most wonderful tool any state government could ever wish for.
Richmond Sunlight, the result of Jaquith's many hundreds of hours of programming wizardry and editorial sense, is an encyclopedic, non-partisan baedeker to the happenings in the state capital, with a light touch, a bit of humor and all sorts of cool apps--heck, you can even comment on the bills as the legislators do their magic. You can annotate bills, share your notes with other readers, even check out which bills other folks are tracking--hey, it's almost a Facebook for state politics junkies. All this makes Waldo Jaquith our Blogger of the Month here on Raw Fisher.
Unlike most states' legislative websites, Richmond Sunlight is open to citizens to talk about the sausage making, and to track bills as they move through the process. Jaquith, 29, launched Sunlight a little more than a year ago and he's still madly adding features (in his day job, he's web editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, a literary journal in Charlottesville.) The result is a site that is quickly becoming the semi-official guide to Virginia lawmaking--several legislators have added Jaquith's material to their own sites, and the Virginia Interfaith Center has taken over maintenance of the project from its father. Soon, a professional programmer will take over, allowing Waldo to return to more hours of work on his own blog.
Jaquith was thrilled to give the site to someone more neutral. "The problem I had was I'm a Democrat, a partisan and I want people to know they can rely on this data and not think about a liberal blogger running the site," he says.
"I've never like the General Assembly's site and being a big geek, I thought I could just write my own," Jaquith tells me. So he asked the state government for access to all of its data, and the bureaucrats were happy to help. Jaquith started by adding all the tools he wanted for himself--he wanted to be able to click on the names of any legislator who sponsored a bill and see more about that lawmaker and his past votes. He wanted to add campaign finance data and got the Virginia Public Access Project to provide that. Jaquith had a version of the site ready before last year's session and he asked 100 people to test his creation. They came up with a slew of suggestions, many of which Jaquith has now added. Next on his list: A tool that will let visitors find substantially similar bills, so that if you're interested in abusive driver fees, you can instantly find all of the many bills that legislators have proposed, without combing through long lists of legislation.
Traffic is soaring on the site, up to more than 1,000 visitors a day, and readers are now visiting an average of more than eight pages on each trip to Richmond Sunlight. The Daily Press in Newport News has incorporated the site into its own news offerings--something Jaquith hopes other newspapers in Virginia might do.
It's a sad reflection of our times that the initiative for this project came from a solo blogger rather than one of the state's many big newspapers. Jaquith says he's a huge fan of The Post's Congress tracker and yet he wonders why no Virginia paper decided to create something like Richmond Sunlight. "This is the sort of thing that fits wonderfully with what newspapers should do," he says.
But Jaquith is happy to have taken the time from his own political blogging to get this done: "For me to spend time telling people what I think is just so much less valuable than creating something where everyone can say what they think and find out about the legislative process," he says.
And now that the site is up and running, he can go back to blogging, where he gets into everything from politics to fitness to his choice finds, such as this lovely bit from H.L. Mencken on Virginia politics, written in 1917:
Politics in Virginia are cheap, ignorant, parochial, idiotic; there is scarcely a man in office above the rank of a professional job-seeker; the political doctrine that prevails is made up of hand-me-downs from the bumpkinry of the Middle West-Bryanism, Prohibition, all that sort of filthy claptrap; the administration of the law is turned over to professors of Puritanism and espionage; a Washington or a Jefferson, dumped there by some act of God, would be denounced as a scoundrel and jailed overnight.
By Marc Fisher |
January 30, 2008; 7:49 AM ET
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