Web slinger: Waldo's new site takes aim at federal corruption

When it comes to building websites that promote government transparency, Waldo Jaquith has built a strong reputation– and it'll likely only be bolstered by the March 8 launch of www.ethics.gov, a website that Jaquith spent the last four months building, working several days a week inside the White House.

"The mission came from a campaign promise made by Obama," Jaquith explains, "to provide a single location where people could enter the name of a person, agency, or business and pull up federal ethics records pertaining to them."

When it came time to fulfill that promise, the White House didn't have to look far to find Jaquith, a programmer who previously created Richmond Sunlight, a website that makes sense of the General Assembly. In June, he was invited to the White House as a "Champion of Change" for his work on that site, and when he arrived in D.C. to receive the award, that's when he got the job offer.

"They offered me a position as 'entrepreneur in residence'," says Jaquith, who says he loved the idea– but not the move to D.C. it might have entailed. He turned it down, and another offer followed right away– this one to build the ethics website Obama had promised voters.

Despite working 12-hour days with a newborn child at home, Jaquith– who in 2011 also received a $165,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to build a website to help citizens understand the Virginia state code– says he enjoyed the experience of working alongside some high level players in the Obama administration including United States Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel and the recently resigned Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra.

"This is the stuff I do for fun: make information more accessible, valuable and interesting," he says, noting that the public now has a tool to uncover relationships and money exchanges between the federal government and the private sector that might be unethical.

"There could be scandals lurking in there," says Jaquith. "Now it's up to individuals to use this data to connect those dots."

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25 comments

Is this the guy UVa denied admission? Bet they wished a different outcome....

Congratulations! I had the opportunity to meet Waldo Jaquith a few years back during the Commonwealth Attorney election and I was impressed with this young man's demeanor and ideas! Glad to see he's at the center of this important new venture!

UVA denied Waldo admission? I doubt it.

But if they did, aren't they quite the fools!

I'm sure that no one at UVA either tracks or cares about the career trajectories of the thousands of applicants who have been denied admission to the school.

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Yes, UVa turned Waldo down when he tried to transfer in. He went to Tech instead. John Casteen famously later mistakenly claimed Waldo as a UVa grad after he'd attained some local prominence.

I don't doubt Waldo Jacquith's commitment to the general notion of being a "Champion for Change."

But I am wondering about his commitment to promoting "government transparency" at all levels of government, especially local government.

For example, when The Hook published its investigative piece on SchoolNet, the expensive technological failure in the county schools (see link below), Jacquith said nary a word about it on his cvillenews.com website, although he did give much fanfare to far less significant "stories." Nor has Jacjquith uttered a word about the county superintendent's withholding of 268 SchoolNet-related e-mails.

http://www.readthehook.com/100248/no-school-administrator-left-behind

Jacquith gave considerable attention to a blogger who won a free speech case against Fluvanna County for using the county seal in his blogs (http://cvillenews.com/?s=September+15%2C+2011#search=September+15,+2011). Yet when the county school superintendent tried to withhold teacher survey comments from public scrutiny, claiming inaccurately that they were "exempt"from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Jacquith said nothing about it.

One has to wonder if he was simply unaware of these efforts to avoid transparency (although that seems unlikely), or if there was something else that caused him to fail to "make information more accessible" to the public.

If Waldo Jacquith honestly believes that "the public" has a right to be informed on matters of government so that citizens can "uncover relationships" and "exchanges" by leaders in government –– at all levels –– that "might be unethical," then why has he been so silent about the shenanigans in the county schools? Just sayin'.

I searched his site on the term "Jacquith" and didn't see any record of any "Jacquith" from Charlottesville visiting the White House.

@John Walton...
I would not call him a moron, just a Dem (like, for example, he donated $300 to Deeds for Guv) who is only to happy to do some useless work for Obama. Garbage in, garbage out...does anyone really think that lists on this website--like "Visitors to the White House"--will be posted verbatim from the WH Visitors database? If Waldo actually thinks Obama is for "transparency," he has Kool-Aid running through his veins.

Does anyone find it smashingly humorous that a pol who was weaned and devolved from the culture of Chicago Dem politics is preaching "ethics in government?"

Nothing more than a super-cute article promoting a local hack made good.

R.I.P.: Jeffrey Hyman

Nothing in, nothing out. How will this bring transparency to secret deals or shell games played by politicians? Yawn.

If Waldo Jacquith honestly believes that "the public" has a right to be informed on matters of government so that citizens can "uncover relationships" and "exchanges" by leaders in government –– at all levels –– that "might be unethical," then why has he been so silent about the shenanigans in the county schools? Just sayin'.

I'm really sure what sort of a conspiracy you imagine that I'm involved in that would prevent me from writing anything about what looks like a pretty clear FOIA violation on the part of county schools, but the explanation is, I'm afraid, not nearly so exciting. I've been aware of this story in the abstract for a few months, and every time there's been some news about it (I recall something juicy in the Crozet Gazette), it has cropped up in my RSS reader at a time when I've been far too overwhelmed to actually familiarize myself with the story and write something, and I have to resign myself to catching it next time it crops up. (I have an infant son—three months old today—a mother-in-law who has been hospitalized for over two months, for whom my wife has been the primary caretaker, this is the high season for Richmond Sunlight, and, of course, working for the White House since last fall has been something that's occupied most of my waking hours. Any one of these things is enough to neglect things like blogging; combined it's been overwhelming.) Look at the dates of the recent stories on the front page of cvillenews.com right now—you'll see huge stretches of times with nothing posted. I wasn't "silent about the shenanigans [that took place in December]"—I just had more important things going on.

I always welcome story submissions to cvillenews.com. Write up a summary of the story in a couple of paragraphs, with relevant links, send it to me, and I'll publish it. If you don't, then I'll accuse you of being mysteriously and suspiciously silent about the shenanigans in the county schools. ;)

And, with that, my son is angry about having been left on his play mat for so long.

@ democracy, your link seems to be wrong. I looked there hoping to find considerable attention being paid to a blogger who won a free speech case against Fluvanna County for using the county seal in his blogs and found only a few paragraphs by Waldo and 6 comments total. Could you fix that please?

Actually, Waldo, the FOIA violation was some time back, long before your child was born...so having a child is not much of an excuse.

And The Hook story on the SchoolNet fiasco was on-going. The Hook ran several stories on it. To the best of my knowledge, cvillenews.com had no mention of it whatsoever, nor anything about the 268 e-mails withheld by the superintendent. Those stories also predated the birth of your child...and the General Assembly session. But it is nice to see that you have time to read this article about you in The Hook.

@b17: At the cvillenews.com link I provide there are two stories and 7 paragraphs about the Fluvanna blogger...and that's two stories and 7 paragraphs MORE than anything reported on SchoolNet OR the past efforts in the county to withhold teacher survey comments from public scrutiny. It doesn't seem to me that there's anything to "fix" about the link.

It DOES seem to me that someone is a bit defensive.

I can't say it enough—if you want me to run a story, submit it to the site. This isn't hard. People do it all the time. If you don't, then—subscribing to your line of thinking—clearly you don't actually think that this issue is important.

Also, your logic is just wretched. For instance, I have noticed that you have not denounced child rapists here. I conclude, based on your silence, that you support child rapists. If that's not the case, then you should immediately write a comment denouncing them, explaining why you think they're terrible people. If such a demand strikes you as rude and unreasonable, then you're starting to get the picture.

Touchy, touchy, Waldo. Sounds like something struck a nerve. Not only defensive, but derisively so. The issue I raised was about commitment to promoting "government transparency.” Not “child rapists.” Talk about sophomoric logic.

When cvillenews.com was launched on March 28, 2001, the introduction promised “we’ll link to the best and most useful content...serving as a central source of discussion of Charlottesville news.”

Yet, as I point out, that website had nothing (and linked nothing) about the attempt by county school leaders (central office and elected) to avoid releasing teacher survey comments filed under a Freedom of Information Act request. They obfuscated, and claimed those comments were “exempt” from disclosure (they weren’t). This transpired during Sunshine Week, a “national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” an initiative you’ve blogged about (see below).
http://cvillenews.com/2011/03/17/make-foia-request/#comments

Nor did cvillenews.com carry anything about – or link to –– the SchoolNet fiasco in the county schools. As The Hook reported (in several stories), SchoolNet was a glitchy system (at best) that cost about $2 million. A Hook reporter noted that when he asked questions “getting answers hasn’t been easy.” Worse, “the county school board...clammed up as well.” And The Hook was charged $2000 for FOIA-requested information. And, the school superintendent withheld, apparently with the Board’s approval, 268 SchoolNet-related e-mails. These kinds of actions deserved no mention?

At a civic media conference last summer at MIT you were described as an “open government technologist.” The MIT Center for Civic Media, the conference sponsor, promotes “community empowerment.” It notes that knowledge is critical to civic action, and both are essential in a democracy. It says that “the most delicate and important information can often focus on leaders and institutions that abuse the trust of the communities they serve.”

I wonder openly why there was no mention of survey comments or SchoolNet (or those 268 withheld e-mails) on cvillenews.com, and you respond with being “overwhelmed”...and “child rapists.” I can grasp the “overwhelmed” part, although to be fair, at the same general time those topics took place you were blogging about other issues. And you are reading and commenting here.

The issue is not about me writing a story. I’m not the one talking about “scandals” and "connecting dots.” You are. I’m simply wondering –– if "the public" has a right to be informed on matters of government so that citizens can "uncover relationships" and "exchanges...that might be unethical" –– how two of the most relevant and related local stories escaped any mention on cvillenews.com. Yet. But, hey, its your blog.

And congratulations on the birth of your son.

.

Civility seems in short supply here as is the case in many other forums. Debating issues does not begin or end with name calling. Is it necessary in some fashion to demonize those with whom you don't agree?

As a fairly regular visitor to cvillenews.com, I wanted to invite anyone who enjoys civil and generally well-evidenced discussions of local news to check it out. Just be aware, though, that it's not the kind of blog where someone else does all the work for you and you just kick back and read. Waldo's not an investigative journalist. It's a community blog; that's what it has always said in the "about" section. Sometimes Waldo starts a story, but often the other visitors do. Sometimes there are quiet stretches, sometimes it starts to hop. I've submitted stories that interested me, and usually what follows is a lively and interesting discussion. But if there's a story of local importance, I don't sit around fretfully waiting and waiting for someone else to submit it for me. The "submit" link is really, really easy to click on.

Waldo is not an investigative journalist. My observation is that he mostly picks up stories from other sources .

We are fortunate that the Hook does investigate local stories and will go places others fear to tread.

@ Did...welcome to "The Hook". Many of the posters here add nothing but negativity to the discourse. They don't appreciate the work of others. Their job is to find fault in every possible place...I think it somehow validates them. I'll stop now so I don't join their ranks.

Cvillenews is a blog. It's free and I appreciate the fact that Waldo is offering yet another place for public debate...so there's that. I don't recall reading anywhere that Waldo would solve ALL of the problems facing C'ville or offer commentary on EVERY story. Thanks for what you do, it's enough. You just can't make some people happy.

Waldo, ignore the folks who will not look at anything with an open mind, they are not worth the effort. I went to the site and all I can say is I can see how this could not only give the general public info but also businesses and nonprofits info on donors, individuals etc. If they want to investigate more fully. If it is public info, the public now has one site that we can obtain that info without having to Google it and dig through it all. That is the goal, correct? If so - great job. I also commend you for doing all this with an infant son around. They are more demanding little creatures and their criticism is quite loud but their smiles are truly worth all the sleep deprivation and anxiety. Just remember that parenting is 99% instinct!

@Waldo, you think things get petty here you should check out the Daily Progress blogs...democracy is part of that crowd.

With little more work than "democracy" put into writing a ridiculous comment here, he or she could have started a blog devoted to the subject of SchoolNet if it's that important. Far simpler would be to do as Waldo suggested and submit it to C'ville News.

I've submitted several things to C'ville News and almost always had some attention paid to what I've submitted. Some tips have been ignored, but Waldo is essential an editor, or a curator, or some odd hybrid and typically pretty busy as well so I don't expect everything to make the cut or to interest him as much as it interests me.

Ranting about what Waldo hasn't covered might make a little more sense if he had rebuffed a request to cover something important, but that doesn't seem to have been the case. Even if he had, it's still his blog to do with as he pleases.

What I find interesting is, considering the power of new media, White House is placing an emphasis on organizing information so it can be used in an effecient and effective manner and turning to a successful local blogger/ programmer/ citizen journalist (perhaps?) to get the job done. Waldo, congrats on your new project and your family! Good to see a Cville resident getting a nod from the president.

I think some commenters here have completely missed the point. I haven’t said Waldo Jaquith is a “bad” guy. I don’t think he is. I questioned his commitment to governmental openness and transparency at the local level.

Jaquith created Richmond Sunlight, which helps citizens track legislation in the General Assembly. It’s a valuable tool. He worked on a project at the White House that’s described as a “commitment to promoting ethics, transparency, and accountability across government.” Indeed, the purpose of Ethics.Data.gov is to make available to citizens “records and data” that allow “citizens to hold public officials accountable.” Another valuable tool. Kudos. I admire that body of work.

Jaquith describes himself as an “open government technologist.” The White House Champions of Change website says he’s an “open government activist.” I’m with him on the concept of open government, at the federal, and state, and local levels. It’s important.

That’s why I’ve asked how it is it that two local stories – both involving the county schools, and both concerning efforts to suppress information, the antithesis of open government – escaped the cvillenews.com blog. Two commenters note that Jaquith is not an “investigative journalist.” Fair enough. Nobody said he had to investigate and report the stories, only that they were important enough to be referenced. It’s not likely he was unaware of either one, much less both. He links often enough to The Hook or cites Hook reporters on other issues. And his friend –– whom Jaquith called “extremely-competent” in a blog post –– was on the school board when it hired the current superintendent, when SchoolNet was purchased (and was an advocate for it), and served as its chair at the time of one of the incidents. Jaquith is a very talented technophile, active in a variety of venues. It’s hard to imagine he took no or only faint notice of a $2 million technology glitch in a district where he attended school and his friend sat on the school board.

One commenter says its easy to submit information to cvillenews.com, but simply assumes that if it is, then it gets published. That’s not necessarily true. As another person noted, “Some tips have been ignored.”

Another commenter apparently thinks that issues concerning fair and open government are “petty” (another implies they aren’t “important”). This comes from someone who’s written that “every government agency ever created... are [sic] going to abuse their authority.” I would think this self-described “republican” who says “I believe in personal responsibility” might actually favor making people aware when government officials try to hide records and data. It seems to me that efforts to obfuscate and suppress teacher comments on school division leadership, a $2 million technology fiasco and hundreds of withheld e-mails related to it, are neither unimportant nor petty.

This is Sunshine Week, a national event to highlight the importance of open government and transparency. As Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center writes, “government at every level resists disclosure. If you can track government activities, you can ask tough questions...Public records compiled by public officials should be fully available to the public.” I agree.

And that really is the message. All of us are better served if the process of government – at all levels – is open and transparent. An informed citizenry is not “petty.” It’s the essence of democracy.

Once again, people confuse the role of a private citizen with the role of the government. For example, a government cannot censor speech based on content; a private citizen -- whether a newspaper, a blog, or any other mechanism of private speech -- can. The rest of us as citizens have a right to expect, and to insist on, certain standards of disclosure and transparency from government; those standards do not apply to private publishers. And to illustrate the problem with "democracy"'s argument, let us analogize to the publication "City Notes" that the City of Charlottesville publishes on line, sends to its e-mail list, and mails with the gas and water bills. If government has an affirmative duty to print all of the news, a Charlottesville resident might have cause to complain that they failed to put a blurb in City Notes about, say, the $20,000 artificial Christmas tree of about 5 years ago. But it is clear legally (U.S. Supreme Court precedent) that no one has a right to insist that a government publication publish a particular story. If there is no legal duty on the part of a government to publish a particular story, there is surely no legal duty on the part of a private citizen to publish a particular story.

So put down the can of snark and let's look at what you are really saying -- not that Waldo has some duty to publish a particular story, but that he is a wimp, or a sell-out, or he is covering up something, for failing to do it. The possibility that he might be a private guy trying to have a private life and a job and a family while running a freebie site doesn't seem to enter into the equation. But none of that matters to "Democracy" -- because Waldo didn't cover the story that "Democracy" wanted exposed.

And all I can say, "Democracy," is that if I were you, I'd demand my money back from Waldo. Every penny that you paid him for access to his site should be refunded.