I publicly launched Richmond Sunlight five years ago this week. Upon its launch I gave it to the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy because, as I wrote, “they’re non-partisan, they have an attention span longer than a housefly, and they have access to resources that I don’t.” I concluded: “I’ll run it for them for the next six months, while we train an editor and a webmaster to take it over. Then I can move on to my next project.” Richmond Sunlight is something that I want to exist, but not something that I actually want to be my problem. But nothing ever changed: the website was Virginia Interfaith’s in a legal sense (on a handshake deal), but in all other practical senses, it was mine. Every bit of the website was mine to run, from stem to stern…which was the opposite of my goal. It occupied enough of my time I couldn’t move onto that next project. In March, I informed the Virginia Interfaith Center that I had just worked my last session—they’d need to finally hire that webmaster. And I walked away from Richmond Sunlight, which is what enabled me to get started on Virginia Decoded. (Which is on hold briefly while I’m working for the White House.)
A few weeks ago, the Virginia Interfaith Center decided that they couldn’t operate Richmond Sunlight. The cost of paying somebody with the appropriate skill set would be too high and, besides, they’re between executive directors, and have more important things going on. So I asked for them to give it back, which they did cheerfully.
So I seem to have this website. Now I’m trying to figure out what to do with it. Giving it away hasn’t worked out, so now I need to chart a course that will allow it to grow and thrive, and also be financially sustainable.
Perhaps I could start a 501(c)3 to house Richmond Sunlight, Virginia Decoded, Open Virginia, and my other nascent efforts towards open government in Virginia? But then what—where does the money come from? I worry that advertising could make Richmond Sunlight appear disreputable. I think I could get some grants, but that’s ultimately not a business model. Maybe a few site sponsors (advertising lite), though I don’t know that anybody would be willing to pay enough to hire somebody to run the site during session. I do have a mostly completed “pro” version of Richmond Sunlight, but I’ve hesitated to launch it because I can’t provide the support that customers would deserve. (“Sorry it’s broken for you, but I’m at work now. And I’m busy tonight. How’s Saturday for you?”) While there’s a bit of a horse-and-cart problem there, the revenue from that could well make it possible to hire somebody to provide that support and also run the website. Perhaps there’s a partnership waiting to happen—some organization with whom the site could have a mutually beneficial relationship?
I’m soliciting ideas. What should I do with Richmond Sunlight? How do I ensure that it continues to exist, fulfills its potential, but doesn’t keep me from moving onto other projects?
Have you talked to the folks over at VPAP? It seems like this would fall right into their bailiwick of government transparency and accessibility. Plus, their website works and whatever so I assume someone over there has some technical skills.
I had the same thought but I know that VPAP has it’s own fiscal challenges also… and they’re still trying to expand their coverage to all local elections in Va (some day).
I give money to VPAP and I would to sunlight if there were a PayPal button.
VPAP has a type of “honor role” of supporters.
but without slathering it on too much… Sunlight is nothing short of brilliant in functionality and elegance!
I’m reminded of that every time I try to use the “official” Va GA website which probably has a team of highly paid folks but still has a strong whiff of CF at times. I especially get frustrated with them on how they do searches….
but I digress.. I fear that Sunlight left in someone else’s hands who does not appreciate the simple elegance of it’s design and functionality may not do it justice.
So I would hope that whatever happens that Waldo play a big role in deciding who is qualified to operate it and stay close enough to mentor and tutor…
Waldo apparently thinks that Sunlight is a simple thing that has now become perhaps “boring” (probably wrong word)… at any rate.. I do not think caring and feeding for it would be “boring” except for the most bright and capable …. and again.. I do not consider Waldo’s job truly finished until he finds that person to take over the helm.
Thank you Waldo and please don’t go running off until it is in good hands (and put that PayPal button on it and shame those guys in the GA to support it).
How much work are we really talking about here? The idea to post videos online was brilliant for fundraising… and I’m having a hard time even thinking of a good non-profit to hand this off to.
The Virginia Interfaith Center was perfect. Maybe they’ll reconsider?
Aren’t there other websites similar in purpose? How are they run?
Richmond Sunlight is unique when you think that it was basically done by one guy. Most States, perhaps none others have anything like it as far as I know.
there is a National Sunlight website started with a $3.5 million contribution from co-founder Michael Klein and it has a staff of 38!
Actually, yes—they were interested in taking this on, though didn’t have the capacity to do so just now. But VPAP has a very different approach to data than I do. They don’t have an API. They don’t allow comments. For perfectly reasonable reasons, they see their role as taking information, filtering it, and rebroadcasting it via their website. I, on the other hand, see my role (and Richmond Sunlight’s) as the facilitator of a huge conversation about government, where people can apply tags and create portfolios and debate the merits of legislation, and other sites can take all of that data and use it—every bit of it—for whatever they want.
The difference, of course, is that VPAP is financially healthy, has multiple employees, and will probably be around for years. Richmond Sunlight doesn’t have a penny. :)
That’s a good point. When I asked for contributions last year for video (which I need to do again this year), dozens of people stepped up to the plate—including you, Larry, as I recall—and in less than two days, all of the costs were covered. When a need was identified, people addressed it. If I don’t ask for money, none will be provided. :)
Heavens, no! I enjoy the heck of out it, I really do. I bet I’ll be up until 1 AM tonight working on a fun new feature—promoting legislation to people based on their physical location. You’re in Henrico, so here are some bills that specifically mention Henrico. But I really need to tear myself away from it, because there are so many other needs for such websites. It’s a bit like pushing a baby bird out of the nest. He’s a great kid, but he’s got to fly on his own now.
When the legislature is in session, it really needs somebody working 20 hours/week. That’s just for basic maintenance, community management, answering e-mails, etc. Done properly, it would benefit from somebody full-time, who can use that period to enhance the website with new offerings, since there’s never quite as much raw material and inspiration as when the site is alive with legislation. The rest of the year, of course, the needs are much simpler.
It was just too expensive for them, and really has no connection to the rest of what they do, in terms of technology and mission. When Doug Smith was the executive director, they at least had somebody running the show with tech experience. (He had a .com startup in the nineties, IIRC.) For nearly anybody else who would come on, this website is just a total disconnect for them. If they couldn’t capitalize on it in five years, I don’t think they’re liable to start now. :)
That’s a great question Malena. I really should make a study of that. There are dozens of open government websites that are at least similar in spirit. Some of them are funded by deep-pocketed grant-making organizations (like my fairy godmother, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, who is funding The State Decoded), others are labors of love in the manner of Richmond Sunlight. I think to really be sustainable, there has to be a business model. Something of value must be provided, for which money is provided. That might sound obvious, but that’s different than hoping for grants. That might be advertising, that might be a product/service that’s sold, that might be an NPR-style pledge drive.
This is a perfect lab project for one of Virginia’s university political science departments – giving students experience with legislation monitoring, analysis, and discussion. I suggest an offering to all state universities, and delivery to the most earnest, responsive, and deserving. Frankly, I am surprised that some innovative faculty member isn’t beating on your door. Gold in a box, ready to go!
Thank you for your service Mr. Jaquith. Well done.
I agree – try one of the universities, either a poli sci dept or journalism department. A friend of mine, Jeff South, teaches at VCU and is interested in data analysis, so maybe he might know where to start.
well.. I agree with the university idea but Sunlight is a computer tool and needs someone or a team that is capable with computer applications.
Just out of curiosity Waldo – what are the primary software components of the guts of Sunlight?
most really good computer tools these days require dual-discipline skills. 1. computer software/programming skills and 2. – content knowledge
put the two together in the right way and you get really valuable tools.
and FYI – I went back to the States Legislative Info system and tried to do some fairly simple things that are just incredibly easy to do on Sunlight and trying to replicate those things on the State’s site is just atrocious.
that’s what is truly incredible about Sunlight. It’s very, very well done especially when you compare it to other efforts.
Put that Paypal button up and I’ll step up and I bet others will also.
I just went to Bearing Drift for unrelated reasons to Sunlight and saw what they’ve done for donations and it’s really COOL! http://bearingdrift.com//
Basically – they show the last 20 donors AND they have a separate list for the latest elected official donors then a third category for donor over $140.
they say than imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…. just saying…
What about coalition on open government? http://www.opengovva.org/
You’ve created a monster, Waldo. Something that is absolutely essential to those of us interested in the machinations of the General Assembly. And something that, as others have pointed out, requires the operator to have both the technical skill and the content know-how to operate.
Seems to me that there would need to be at least a two-person operation to replace you: a techie with vision, and a GA observer. Perhaps you do need a non-profit entity, in order to raise the funds to hire and train these people.
And then some kind of subscription model, perhaps.
Honestly, I don’t see it happening any other way.
Just on the point of advertising, I’ve never had any substantial negative responses to the advertising on GovTrack. (There have been a few people here and there who are unhappy seeing political advertising, not understanding that the ads aren’t selected by me, but it’s been a very small number.)
If this were 1998, you could have taken it public and been a billionaire….at least for a couple of years. But you’ve started the ball rolling in the right direction. I can’t imagine mid-winter without RS.
in terms of advertising, I really don’t have a problem with Va Corporations doing it. I would see that as an endorsement of what RS stands for… at it’s core good government, more transparent government… more accountable government.
some corporations would love to have their name associated with this idea.
so maybe what Waldo needs is someone to help with finding corporations and perhaps trusts that would help support it.
I actually think money won’t be as hard as finding talented staff who understand what a valuable resource RS is to people who depend on it to understand what the GA is doing (or not).
I have few of the skills needed myself as a heavy-duty retired geezer but I’m certainly willing to do my part to help fund RS (as I also do with VPAP).
I can only imagine what Va would be like without RS.
I brought Jeff into the loop a few weeks ago on this, Derek. He and I teamed up last year to provide his students’ Capital News Service articles on Richmond Sunlight, a partnership that I’m really happy with. You’re right, though, I should talk to him about this further—will do.
There’s no standard CMS or anything behind it—I built it all out of PHP and MySQL, but it is based on a series of standard, common open source libraries. Any decent LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) hacker would have no trouble understanding it.
How about the Virginia Press Association?
How about the folks at Charlottesville Tomorrow?
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