Category Archives: Personal

My new adventure: The State Decoded.

A little project that I started a year ago now has been eating up a lot of my time, especially in the past eight months or so. I decided that, as Richmond Sunlight improves the display of legislation, I should create a new site to improve the display of the state code. It could hardly look any worse. (See § 18.2-32. First and second degree murder defined; punishment.) By late last fall, I’d spent a lot of time looking at other states’ codes, and realized that they’re all bad—states had put their codes online around 1995, and hadn’t really bothered with them since.

So I applied to the News Challenge, proposing to expand this Virginia-focused hobby into a full-blown project to improve all state codes. The News Challenge is an annual competition held by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, for which they accept thousands of grant applications, and a few are selected as winners on their basis to “advance the future of news [with] new ways to digitally inform communities,” in their words. There were north of 1,600 applications, and mine was one of 16 to win, I learned a few weeks ago.

A bit more detail about my project—“The State Decoded”—is available on their website, and lengthy coverage is available from the Nieman Journalism Lab. In a nutshell, they’re giving me $165,000 to spend a year and a half modularizing this code and making it available to groups in every state in the union to put their codes online. A bunch of that time I’ll spend coding, and a bunch more I’ll spend identifying stakeholders in states across the country, convincing them to deploy this (free) software to make their state codes more accessible.

I spent the whole last week in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the MIT–Knight Civic Media Conference, an invitation-only, all-expenses paid conference at which the News Challenge winners were announced before the audience of a few hundred people. We all made brief speeches about our projects and received trophies, and then got to spend a few days in the company of some awfully interesting people.

Obviously, this is an exciting change for me. My employer, The Miller Center, has kindly agreed to act as the fiscal agent for the grant, so I will continue to work there, although nearly all of my time will be spent on this new project.

I’m working on getting back to Virginia Decoded, the project that spawned all of this, which I’ve (happily) had to delay a bit to get started on The State Decoded. John Athayde has been doing some great design work on it recently, and a couple of dozen people have been alpha testing it for the last month, which has been really helpful. Once I check off a few more features from the feature list, I’ll open it up to all of the beta testers. I’ve personally found the site really useful as a legal reference tool, so I’m eager to see it accessible to a wider audience. I hope you’ll like it, too.

I got an award from the White House.

Yesterday I went to the White House and got a nice award from them. They have an award called “Champions of Change” that they give out to a few people every week. The White House describes it as “a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.” My group might be best summarized as open government technologists, although that’s rather too narrow for some of the interesting things that some of these folks are up to.

Vivek Kundra
Vivek Kundra addresses the audience.

There was a reception at the W Hotel on Thursday night, followed by an all-morning event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is somehow considered part of “the White House” even though it is not, in fact, the White House, perhaps because it is next door, the two are connected by a tunnel, and many White House employees work there. Anyhow, about 75 people were at the event, and speakers included White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips, Deputy Assistant to the President Michael Strautmanis, US CIO Vivek Kundra, and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein. The whole affair was arranged and MCd by US CTO Aneesh Chopra, who was previously Virginia’s Secretary of Technology under Governor Kaine.

We went from there to a smaller room, where it was just the dozen award winners and a few folks from the administration, all crowded around a meeting table. The idea was for each of us to take a few minutes to explain our work and provide some advice as to how the White House could improve transparency or openness to facilitate their work. For every person, Aneesh Chopra created an action item based on their remarks—some new API that an agency would create, some partnership with an agency that will further a national goal, etc. Inevitably, all of us found ways in which we could work with each other, too, whether sharing resources or actually teaming up to do something new—easily done with such an interesting bunch.

It’s a major award.

I was left with the very clear impression that the administration wants to facilitate rapid innovation through public-private partnerships with individuals and businesses who want to capitalize on public data for public good. (Think of NOAA opening up weather data in the 1970s, or the Department of Defense opening up the GPS system in the 1990s. Huge industries have resulted from each of those steps, to enormous public benefit.) Government does a lot of things slowly, and sometimes the best way to overcome that is to facilitate having the private sector accomplish the same goals.

There’s nothing about this on the White House’s Champions of Change sub-site yet, but I’ll post a link when they’ve got it all up. That said, it won’t be very exciting for anybody reading this—a photo of me, video of me talking about my work, and a description of me. No news there. What will be more interesting is the information about all of the other winners—some of them are doing some really exciting work that deserves broader exposure.

A profile of Eddie Cassidy.

My great-uncle Eddie Cassidy—my maternal grandmother’s brother—died Sunday night at the age of 93. The Andover (NH) Beacon recently featured a profile of his service in WWII, the first of a two-part series. (The second is still to come.) The author is the grandson of Uncle Eddie’s lifelong buddy, Don Teschek. Don’t miss the photo of the two strapping lads standing on a Philippine beach, their high-waisted pants all that’s necessary to peg it as a photo from the 1940s.

Weekly spot on “Weekend Virginia.”

Those interested in hearing a little state politics discussion on the radio, who are in the western half of the state, may enjoy listening to Weekend Virginia on WVTF. Jim Hoeft and I are each guests on each week’s show, which is only three weeks old at this point. It airs on Saturdays at 6:00 AM on WVTF, and on Saturdays at 2:00 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM on their all-talk sister station, Radio IQ. It’s really quite a good show. I hadn’t realized how badly it was needed until I first heard it a couple of weeks ago. I avoid plugging my own media appearances, but this is frequent enough and interesting enough that I hope it will be tolerated.

“Motion to Compel” in Garrett subpoena

In response to my Motion to Quash, the complainant’s attorney sent back a Motion to Compel yesterday, which is basically their response to my arguments as to why I shouldn’t have to comply with the subpoena. There are two bits about the Motion to Compel that are noteworthy.

The first is the claim that bloggers are not and cannot be journalists, and as such receive zero privileges under the law. This should be frightening to those of us who run community news blogs or political blogs, and perhaps doubly so to those who work with bloggers as they would journalists. I routinely communicate with sources for stories to whom I assure anonymity. My opposition argues that that veil can be pierced for the most slight of reasons. That’s a disturbing proposition.

The second is the attack on me for the comments that have been posted to Garrett complains that the comments are “tawdry, sophomoric, and spiteful.” The enormous irony is here is that the comments that fit that description were posted by Garrett himself (or, at least, somebody who says that he’s Garrett and demonstrates an extraordinary amount of knowledge about the man), all of which were pretty nasty attacks on me, libelously accusing me of committing criminal acts. And in an effort to claim that I have contempt for the legal process (as a reader of my blog, you understand that precisely the opposite is true), Garrett’s attorney cites a comment left by James Young, in which he recites a joke about judges told to him by a judge. (James, as you may know, is an attorney who recently argued a case before the Supreme Court.) Of course, I disagreed with everything that Garrett wrote, and I generally disagree with just about everything that James writes on my blog (and his). But their comments stood, because I believe that’s necessary in a healthy democracy. It’s enormously chilling to claim that bloggers are implicitly in agreement with the comments left on their blog by third parties and, worse still, hold them liable for that agreement.

The next step is a court date. That will take place sometime in the first week of March. I assume that both sides will get up before the judge and argue over the merits of each of our claims. Having never done such a thing, it appears that I’ll be a bit busy for the next few weeks, studying for my oral exams, as it were. I’ve approached a pair of Virginia legal groups who specialize in free speech cases, to ask if they would provide me with counsel for the occasion. We’ll see if either have the resources.

Harvard’s CMLP has got my back.

Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project, a part of the Berkman Center, is my new best friend:

In perhaps the most blatant misuse of the subpoena power we’ve seen since the subpoena served on Kathleen Seidel of Neurodiversity last March, a lawyer for Thomas Garrett of Virginia has served a patently overbroad subpoena on blogger Waldo Jaquith, who publishes,
a community news blog about Charlottesville, Virginia.

They go on. And on. And on. It’s just a joy to read. Working on my motion to quash this week, I was wondering if I was just delusional in thinking that the facts in this case area really, really clearly on my side, and that this subpoena is abusively broad. Turns out that I was onto something.

This is not the first time that the Berkman Center has helped me out. I’m a big fan of their work. Let’s see if Tommy Garrett sues the Harvard Law School now. I’d pay good money to see that.

I got subpoenaed.

I got subpoenaed. An area fabulist got nailed by the local weekly for trading on an invented story of his life. I wrote about it on my blog about Charlottesville, siding with the weekly, since the guy’s clearly been living a lie. Presumably as a form of intimidation, the guy’s subpoenaed me, and the subpoena is incredibly overbroad. In fact, under the terms of the subpoena, I have to turn over this blog entry, along with any comments that people post to it, possibly with identifying information for everybody who comments. A bad subpoena: it’s the gift that never stops giving.

Unfortunately, “hiring a lawyer to quash a subpoena” doesn’t appear in our household budget, so this is my crash course in the procedural end of law. It’s actually been fun, big dork that I am.

My top 2008 listens.

My ten most-listened-to artists in 2008:

  1. They Might Be Giants
  2. Hayes Carll
  3. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
  4. Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis
  5. Tom Waits
  6. Dave Matthews Band
  7. Mike Doughty
  8. Cake
  9. Suzanne Vega
  10. Vince Guaraldi Trio

I accidentally stopped using my tracking software for the middle half of the year, so this isn’t perfect. (This is based only on what I listen to at home. While I listen to gospel, country, and western at work all day, that’s not included here. But that’s via Pandora, which gives me a big enough cross-section of artists that it probably wouldn’t affect this listing.) I’m a little surprised to find Suzanne Vega on there, and to see TMBG as #1.

Who is already sick and pale with grief.

New life goal: Arrange my existence such that I don’t need to wake up routinely before dawn or get home in the dark. Just last week the sun started coming up late enough to necessitate waking in the dark. (Where I live, an eastward-looming mountain range delays sunrise by 35 minutes.) And it will be just a few weeks until darkness begins to fall in the late afternoon.

By putting this on the same list as “orbit Earth” and “ride a motorcycle around the world,” it’s sure to happen.