At long, long last, the state is accepting lobbyist registrations and disclosures electronically. I gather that lobbyists must use this—they can’t keep filing on paper. Pssst, Virginia! Don’t make me FOIA these records, just let me download them! →
In perhaps a misguided effort, I started work a few months ago to create a site to round up all of the APIs for government data in Virginia. That inglorious website is Open Virginia. It’s easy to catalog all of them, because right now, I know of exactly two: Richmond Sunlight’s legislative API and my new API for state court decisions. If the state maintains a single API, I don’t know about it.
(Don’t understand this “API” business? Application programming interfaces (APIs) are how software talks to software, and they’re the underpinning of the modern web. For instance, post a comment here, WordPress submits your comment to Akismet, Akismet evaluates the comment to determine if it looks like spam, and returns a score that WordPress uses to decide whether your comment is published or held for me to review. And Richmond Sunlight’s API allows other websites to automatically retrieve information about legislators, the status of legislation, Photosynthesis portfolios, etc.)
So, about that API for state court decisions. Right now it does just one thing: when given a section of the state code, it returns a listing of all published Court of Appeals decisions since May 2, 1995. (Note that it’s liable to be particularly useful when combined with with the Richmond Sunlight API call to retrieve a list of bills that affect a given section of the state code.) Soon enough that’ll include Supreme Court of Virginia rulings. There are all sorts of obvious additional functions that I intend to add soon enough, such as returning information on given decisions, returning a list of cases that match a given keyword, returning a list of cases for a given period of time, etc.
What good does this do you right now? In all likelihood, none at all, unless you know what to do with and have some use for, say, JSON data for cases concerning § 20-107.3. It’s not until this API is pressed into service on other websites that it’ll be of value to virtually anybody. Maybe there’s no audience for this—maybe there are no programmers just waiting for some shiny new APIs, chock full of state government data. But we won’t know unless we create some APIs, will we?
Follow Open Virginia on Twitter to keep up with the opening up of Virginia through the magic of APIs.
- Gratiot County Herald Letters To The Editor
Ithaca, Michigan school superintendent Nathan Bootz wrote an open letter to the governor to ask that his school system be converted to a prison, noting that Michigan spends $30,000–$40,000/year on each prisoner, but only $7,000/year on each student.
- WVEC: Taxpayers foot the bill when the governor flies on state aircraft
I don't think it's inherently bad that Bob McDonnell is using state aircraft more than prior governors, but using a state plane to fly his family to the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival to have his daughter crowned as queen? Less good. More problematic is the governor's office's response to WVEC's FOIA request, trying to figure out how to avoid responding, and offering conceptual excuses—it's a long drive from Virginia Beach to Cumberland Gap, it's a money saver—for which there's no real-world scenarios that support those claims.
- New York Times: Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts
Violent crime is at at forty-year low. Combine this with the recent news that divorce is at a thirty-year low, and you can see how the pervasive claims of alarmists are just foolishness. Those who would have you believe that our country is more dangerous and marriages more disposable than ever are either ignorant or trying to sell you something.
- Letters of Note: On bureaucratese and gobbledygook
This is a delightful memo sent by Civil Aeronautics Board chairman Alfred E. Kahn to the organization's top staff in 1977, begging them to please stop writing in "bureaucratese," and to instead use "straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose." He provides some specific examples that still apply nicely today.
- Wikipedia: List of Guantanamo Bay detainees accused of possessing Casio watches
Just what it says on the tin. (I think I have a Casio in a drawer somewhere. Don't tell the feds.)
- Ezra Grant: Jon Kyl Deletes His Lie From Congressional Record
Here's an insufficiently known fact: the congressional record reflects what legislators wish they'd said, not what they actually said. So if somebody says something stupid—like Sen. Kyl claiming that "abortion [is] well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does" (it's actually 3%)—then they can just have that remark edited out. Once audio transcription improves a bit more, I'm looking forward to somebody (Carl Malamud, I suspect) creating the unofficial—yet more official—congressional record.
- New York Times: A Satisfied Customer, but 50 Times Over?
Lucas Fayne is a very, very satisfied customer. On over fifty businesses’ websites, he praises the quality of their work. In fifty different cities. For fifty different home improvement projects. For fifty different homes. What's the story here?
As I watch the first of the results of the election come in, I’m struck by the wide variety of options of websites offering data. Until this election, we’ve been left obsessively reloading the SBE’s website, hopping around from precinct to precinct, district to district, trying to remember what the numbers were when last we checked. With the SBE having established XML feeds of election results numbers, updated simultaneous as their own website, everybody from Politico to VPAP to the Charlottesville Daily Progress is reusing these data in mapping and databases. There’s no doubt I’m going to put them to work on Richmond Sunlight. We’ve got our pick among mapping apps and, by next election, no doubt people will be putting these numbers to use in far more interesting ways than we can envision right now.
All of this comes of the SBE simply opening up their data feed. I don’t mean to trivialize the work that likely went into that, but there’s no doubt that the time and effort required is less than the work that would have been required for them to put together their own mapping, etc. applications. That’s the kind of government I suspect we all like.
Del. Chris Saxman (R-Staunton) is doing something impressive—he’s reporting every single contribution he receives, including $1 from one Richard A. Hotz. (I see that NBC-29 weatherman Eric Pritchett contributed $50.) Under Virginia campaign finance law, the only contributions that need to be reported are those that exceed $100, though a contribution of any size may be reported. (First-time candidates’ first campaign filing often lists all contributions, because they don’t yet know better, or at least their treasurer doesn’t.) So a small fish like me that gives a lot of $25, $50, and $100 contributions doesn’t have much of a public contribution trail. I wouldn’t object to them being reported, but I have to wonder if some donors—like Pritchett—anticipated that the size of their contribution would allow them to remain anonymous, and might now be surprised to find that their support of Saxman is public.
Virginia law should require that contributions of any size be disclosed, and I think that filings should be required far more frequently, perhaps as often as every couple of days. But no candidate would want to be the first to do that voluntarily, or so you’d think, and yet here we have Saxman kicking that off. I hope that other candidates rise to this implicit challenge.
The implementation instructions for the stimulus bill requires all agencies to provide an RSS feed of spending. That’s transparency you can believe in.
I’m a proponent of overhauling the lobbyist disclosure statements used in Virginia. Lobbyists—and, more important, legislators—get away with having to provide vanishingly little information about who is seeking to influence legislation, who they’re trying to influence, and how they’re doing it.
Del. Sam Nixon’s HB1883 proposes to fix this, though my understanding is that the bill is functionally dead. A friend recently wrote this hypothetical script to demonstrate to me one reason why this bill is necessary:
A senator and lobbyist enjoy a quiet evening in a fine restaurant. The waiter places the check, which comes to $150, on the table.
Senator: (Reaching for the check) Let me get this…
Lobbyist: (Snatching the check). My treat.
Senator: Thank you for the nice dinner.
Lobbyist: My pleasure. Only it was not a dinner; it was five dinners.
Senator: (Tugging at his waist) And I thought it was the cannoli.
Lobbyist: No, I have five clients and I’ll split the tab.
Senator: So, that comes out to, what, like thirty bucks each?
Lobbyist: You got it. This meal never happened.
Senator: (Chuckles) What meal?
Senator: Let’s NOT do it again soon.
HB1883 is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Rules Committee tomorrow, and they’re actually meeting, which sounds good. But Rules committees seem to exist as a sort of a Siberia for bills—they’re not dead, but they’re definitely not coming back. That, unfortunately, is bound to be HB1883’s fate.
Republican and former candidate for Virginia governor Wyatt Durrette is puzzling over the tone deafness of House Republicans, looking specifically at their deeply foolish move of holding a 7:00 AM subcommittee meeting on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to kill two “good government” bills that have broad public support. House Republicans might have wised up on providing video of their sessions and recording their subcommittee votes, but they’re apparently just going through the motions. Y’all have heard me prattle on about this for years, but it’s nice to see somebody like Durrette write about this from a fresh perspective.
The LoC’s THOMAS has added permanent URLs for all bills, replacing the URLs of Death that they used to use. These little steps do wonders for open government.