The very first State Decoded site went into public beta this morning: Virginia Decoded. This site was the initial one that snowballed into the State Decoded project, and proved to be a good testing ground for the software and, indeed, the concept. Virginia Decoded isn’t so much done as it’s done enough. There’s so very much more to be done, but the site has reached a point where it will benefit strongly from having actual people use it, and where actual people will—hopefully—benefit strongly from using it.
Virginia provides its code as SGML (which they, in turn, are provided by LexisNexis), making it relatively easy to extract the laws and store them in the State Decoded. Many states do not provide bulk downloads at all, so extracting their laws requires the laborious work of screen-scraping. Virginia is ahead in that regard.
More helpful than anything else was the Virginia Code Commission. That’s the official body that oversees the laws of the commonwealth, and they proved to be hugely helpful in testing the site. They provided invaluable information about how bills really become laws (it’s not as simple as you might think), and obsess about the details of the code the same way a great programmer obsesses about the details of…er…code. Without their input, Virginia Decoded would be a very convincing-looking but ultimately inaccurate website.
The process by which this website was put together is one that will be replicated in other states. We’ll find partners in states throughout the nation and, whenever possible, work with the state agency that oversees the state’s laws to craft a site that is the best fit for that state and its code. It will be a laborious process, but that’s what it takes to create a good, long-lasting network of state-level open government websites.