Filming OpenGov Champions: Waldo Jaquith

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As a part of my job as Video Production Director here at Sunlight, I work on a short documentary video series called  OpenGov Champions. For July’s OpenGov Champion, we chose Waldo Jaquith, whom I’ve heard dubbed an “OpenGov superstar” by some in the field. We wanted to find out what he does to merit this unofficial title. A lot, we found out.

Driving down the country roads outside Charlottesville, VA where Waldo Jaquith lives, I could feel my blood pressure dropping the closer to his house we got. Virginia in May is green and beautiful: The scenery perfect with the white picket fences, red barns, horses (even mini-donkeys) and cattle grazing on the open fields. On the way to his house we saw roads with names like “Pinch ‘Em Slyly” and “Merrie Meadows.” Google Maps gave us no love and of course we took a few detours before finding our way there, which was fine as we got plenty of good footage cruising along the increasingly narrow roads, as you can see in the video. As we got out of the car by Waldo’s house at the end of a winding gravel road, I was stunned by the quietness and tranquility of the place. When some of my coworkers here at Sunlight saw the footage, they declared things like “Ooh, it’s a paradise!” and “I want to live there too.” I have to admit that finding Waldo in the midst of all these adorable farm animals in this idyllic place in the country, tending to his 5-month old baby son forced me to revisit some useless stereotypes I had about OpenGov Technologists. After spending the day in his house with his sweet and hospitable family, I could also completely understand why he had turned down an amazing post at the White House to be able to stay at this lovely place they have carved out for themselves, close to relatives and the beautiful city of Charlottesville.

Finding a good angle for the video was actually quite hard, as Waldo has done so many projects opening up local government data, most of which would deserve its own video. And so we ended up talking quite a while about different projects, and only in the editing phase, after much internal wrenching, I chose to focus on his most recent projects: developing Ethics.gov for the White House and the project he had just started with the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation, called The State Decoded. What I left out were numerous incredible projects, like when, at the age of 16, he decided to open up the city of Charlottesville’s code by manually scanning it and publishing it online, all because he was against a curfew the city had imposed on its young residents. He ultimately lost that battle, but that did not discourage him. He has been working on similar projects ever since. He was also one of the first bloggers in Virginia and continues to run several popular blogs to this day.

Even though he has recently been recognized for his work, (he was nominated “Champion of Change” by President Obama in 2011) Waldo has already been working on opening up his local governments in Virginia on his own initiative for years, working endless hours and often without pay. And now local and state governments have begun to take note. He has been invited to talk to state government officials across the country to help them open up their data. This is one of the things I would have loved to expand upon more in the video, but as any editors out there would know, you have to cut out a lot of things in the interests of time and story. After all, no one will watch a 15 minute video on YouTube. But I was very glad to hear him say that state governments are actually eager to open up their data to their citizens in a meaningful way. They often lack the expertise and capacity to do so rather than the willingness. That’s why they are seeking out people like Waldo to help them get started. And he is no longer the lone geek doing this work on his own. “It was pretty lonely doing open government work in Virginia in the nineties,” he laughs. But now, there is a whole global OpenGov community and he is able to collaborate with other developers across the country, and the world, many of whom he has connected with at TransparencyCamp and through Twitter.

To me, he is a shining example of what being an OpenGov Champion means. His only motives for doing this work have been his love of programming and his passion for transparency in government. He stands as proof that if you do what you love most, the rest follows.

Our OpenGov Champions are remarkable ordinary people who have done extraordinary things to open up our government. Get inspired by their stories and nominate someone in your community to become an OpenGov Champion.

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