Court Data and the 2017 Session of the General Assembly

I’ve written before about how the General Assembly should make Virginia’s court data more accessible and force me to find a new hobby. In the 2017 session, two bills were introduced to do just that.

HB 1794, introduced by Delegate Marcus Simon, aimed to make the state’s case information website searchable across all localities (instead of one at a time) and to make “the entire compilation of records contained therein…available upon request”. I actually lobbied Del. Simon to introduce this bill after he liked a tweet to a blog post analyzing the effects of race and wealth in Virginia’s court system. In an email, I explained that this research was only possible because I had scraped the data from a website that the General Assembly had authorized the state to operate. Del. Simon agreed with my argument that the data should be made available in bulk, and after some back and forth, we had a bill ready to go. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t make it out of committee.

HB 1844, introduced by Delegate Margaret Ransone, faired only slightly better, making it out of committee but dying in Appropriations. This bill was only targeted at expanding the search capabilities of the state’s website and made no attempt to open the underlying records.

While neither of these bills made it very far through the GA, they did force the Office of the Executive Secretary (OES) to generate impact statements that provide some insight into the cost of the state’s website. The findings are grim. OES claimed that it would cost more than $1,600,000 in upgrades to create statewide search and export capabilities, more than $60,000 a year to maintain these features.

HB 1794 Fiscal Impact Statement

These figures are hard to believe, especially since I am currently exporting and hosting these same data for less than $100 a month. Seriously. I use Amazon Web Services. Here’s my bill.

AWS Bill for exporting and hosting downloads for Virginia’s court data

It seems that OES is using outdated technology that is costly to maintain and too expensive to upgrade. In 2017, our government should not be overpaying for technology that underdelivers. Taxpayers deserve better. Unfortunately, this is not a unique problem. Wired recently reported that politicians in Congress are having trouble keeping up with constituent correspondence, despite enormous technology budgets. The OpenGov Foundation estimates that congress spent at least $288 million on technology in 2014.

So what’s the solution? Experiments with agile procurement processes are promising. Last year, “the State of California changed direction on a $500 million IT project for Child Welfare Servicesand the experiment has shown “early signs of success”.

Virginia seems ready to explore some of these options, but it must first complete a separation from it’s sole IT vendor.

I hope my work with Virginia’s court data can be an example of how the state could provide better and cheaper IT services by breaking projects into smaller pieces.