VCOG's annual open government award winners

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government is pleased to announce the winners of its 2015 open government awards. The three winners represent the public, government and media, and all have worked on the same issue: access to court-case information.

Dave Ress, a veteran reporter at the Daily Press in Newport News, has been pressing the Office of Executive Secretary for more than a year to gain access to a database of court case records that would shed light on the way cases are concluded. It’s a database the OES used to distribute and that supports the office’s online case-by-case search, but in 2014, the office changed course and refused, claiming the office wasn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act and insisting the data belonged to the clerks of court anyway. Ress and the Daily Press filed a lawsuit to gain access to the database; the case is still pending.

Meanwhile, Ben Schoenfeld, a so-called “civic hacker” with Code for New River Valley, wrote source code to have a computer code "scrape" the case data from the OES website. He wasn’t able to get all of the database’s data, but he got enough for Ress to analyze it. Ress discovered troubling trends in the way race influenced the way a case was handled.

Schoenfeld, the Laurence E. Richardson citizen award winner, has also worked with reporters at The Roanoke Times to develop, a site that searches all localities for cases pending against an individual, an much quicker and easier process than the one offered by the court system’s locality-by-locality search.

Jack Kennedy, the Clerk of Court for Wise County and the City of Norton, was one of only a handful of court clerks to freely give Ress the data his locality sent to the OES for inclusion in the state database. Not only that, Kennedy pleaded with his fellow clerks, a majority of whom did not want to turn over the data through a FOIA request, to release the data because “the insights to be learned from the analytical measurements will benefit all parties wittingly or unwittingly.” Kennedy has consistently been an early adopter of technology and methods to improve public access to the court case and other records maintained in the clerks’ office.

The winners will be presented with plaques at VCOG’s annual conference, Nov. 12, at Gari Melchers Home and Studio Pavilion of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. For details about the conference, visit Coverage of the conference as a news event is welcome.

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