Virginia Courts Now Provide Statewide Search
UPDATE: The state is still running the other websites that make bulk collection possible — so I will continue.
I was shocked to see this tweet today… I had no idea this was in the works. I quickly browsed to the court’s website where, as promised, I found OCIS 2.0.
The updated website allows users to quickly search a single name across almost every court in Virginia, eliminating the need for VACircuitCourtSearch.com, a website I built in 2014 that allowed a name to be searched across all 118 circuit courts.
Additionally, OCIS 2.0 no longer supports hearing date searches. This was a feature that I relied on to scrape every court case in the state for VirginiaCourtData.org. Even if the feature was still available, the new TOS explicitly forbids scraping.
So I’m shutting down VACircuitCourtSearch.com and will probably never update VirginiaCourtData.org again — and I couldn’t be more excited.
I’ve been dreaming of a moment like this for over seven years. When I build an app like this, I do it because there’s a gap that the government hasn’t filled. But I’m not trying fill the gap, I’m trying to prove that it’s a gap worth filling. The technique is to take an idea, build a minimum viable product — the simplest thing that could work, and get it in the hands of users. And hopefully proving the idea out makes it easier for government to justify building the real thing.
In this case, there were a number of people pushing for more open court data in Virginia long before I had heard of the issue. Journalists like Jeff Sturgeon and Dave Ress knew how useful these data could be. When they asked me to help them prove it by scraping OCIS, I was excited to do it. As it turned out, the data were useful to more people than I ever expected. The state-wide circuit court search tool was getting up to 100 users a day and requests for bulk data came in from academic and non-profit researchers all over the country.
I don’t know whether the tools I built had anything to do with the release of bulk data or updates to OCIS. For the most part, it was FOIA warriors like Marisa Porto and state delegates like Mike Mullin who got those things accomplished. I am so thankful for their work and I hope that I made it a little bit easier. I celebrate with them by finally shutting down the stopgap tools I built five years ago.
As I mentioned in my story about the court releasing bulk data, there is still some work to do, but I’m excited to focus more on those advocacy efforts and shutdown the web scraper for good.