NEWS- Waldo's itch: Shining a light on State government
In his latest web creation, blogger Waldo Jaquith has turned his attention to a place where the sun never—okay, well, rarely– shines: the inner workings of the Virginia General Assembly.
His new website, Richmond Sunlight, which debuted last week after five months (and after about 100 people tested it, says Jaquith), allows users to easily find and track legislation, make public comments about it, and even vote on a bill's popularity.
The site, richmondsunlight.com, also features such exclusive web language as "tag clouds," popularized most widely by the photo sharing website Flickr, in which an alphabetical list of words or terms (tags, as they say) most often used by users serves as a kind of visual search engine. The font size of each word indicates the topic's popularity on the site—the fatter words being the more popular. In Richmond Sunlight's case, the bigger the font size on a certain word or phrase, the more bills there are on that topic. For example, the term "commendation" looms like a dramatic cumulous cloud on the page. Sure enough, click on it, and you are presented with a long list of bills seeking to commend someone or something.
"Building this website was mostly a case of scratching an itch," says Jaquith, a 28-year old website developer, and self-styled political commentator whose stable of websites includes local news blog cvillenews.com and Dave Matthews Band fansite nancies.org. "I use the General Assembly's website to keep up with what's going on in Richmond, and I saw so much possibility there. Being a believer in the power of the free market, I figured I could build something better that would be more useful to me and others."
If you've visited the site, you may have noticed the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy's logo and link top right. That's because Jaquith gifted his creation to the self-described "nonpartisan coalition of faith communities," a political advocacy organization that seeks to educate people of faith about their government, help the most vulnerable, and provide a "spiritual presence" in the Virginia General Assembly.
"It seemed to me that the site would benefit from being owned and operated by a nonpartisan organization, rather than me," says Jaquith, mentioning that Interfaith's executive director, Rev. C. Douglas Smith, was a friend and former classmate of his at the Sorensen Institute. "The Center will be around long after I'm sick of running the site; they'll have access to grants and partnerships with groups that otherwise wouldn't be interested, and they remove any question of partisanship."
As far as Smith is concerned, it's a deal that could potential change the political landscape of Virginia.
"This is one way the public can own the process," says Smith, referring specifically to the way it allows the average voter to easily access information. "The website is a really approachable means to track bills and engage in public discourse. For instance, people can search not only by keywords, but thematically. We've already heard from many people around the state about how easy it is to use."
Of course, that's what Jaquith had hoped it would do–make it easier to see what exactly legislators are up to in Richmond. Ultimately, he hopes the site will result in increased governmental transparency, greater citizen awareness of proposed legislation, and more give-and-take between constituents and their legislators.
Smith also has high hopes for the site. "It's our intention, with Waldo's help, to have it become the premiere piece in the lobbyists and general public's toolbox for tracking legislation," he says.
"There's a wealth of information among the populace, those affected by the bills, in particular, and providing a venue to share that information could well prove valuable," says Jaquith.
"Building this website was mostly a case of scratching an itch," says Waldo Jaquith of his new website Richmond Sunlight. "I use the General Assembly's website to keep up with what's going on in Richmond, and I saw so much possibility there.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO