New website helps decipher state code

Posted: October 8, 2012

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — The code of Virginia has thousands of laws and definitions, and the language is often vague and complicated to the point only a lawyer can decipher it.

A new website helps to change all that.

Virginia Decoded launched in March and aims to make the state code accessible to an average person, according to site creator Waldo Jaquith, an open government technology advocate.

“Laws are really collections of definitions,” said Jaquith, who also created ethics.gov, a site that puts various public records databases in a centralized location, including White House Visitor Records, lobbyist disclosure records, and campaign finance reports.

Virginia Decoded allows a user to hover the mouse over words that are key to the meaning of the law and see how the word is defined.

Jaquith, who lives just outside Charlottesville, gave an example of a hypothetical law in Winchester.

“Imagine a law that says you can’t play loud music in downtown Winchester on a weeknight when it’s late,” he said.

But the law could be interpreted in different ways depending on the definitions in the law, Jaquith said.

“What’s considered loud?” Jaquith asked. “What is the boundary of downtown? What is late?”

Virginia Decoded defines these terms.

Jaquith envisions the site as tool to open up the understanding of the law to more people than lawyers.

One example would be someone who’s illegally thrown out of their apartment by their landlord and can’t afford a lawyer, he said.

Jaquith, who also created he Richmond Sunlight website, which tracks the Virginia General Assembly, has now turned his sights on expanding the decoded model to other states.

He doesn’t receive any money for the site. He’s working to expand the site to other states on a News Challenge Fellow with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Visit Virginia Decoded at vacode.org.

— Contact Conor Gallagher at cgallagher@winchesterstar.com