Asking hackers to play around with the law is not exactly something most lawyers would encourage, but in the case of V David Zvenyach, a former general counsel with the District of Columbia, it is exactly what he has done. And received plaudits for it.
But why and how did this come about, exactly?
The ABA Journal reported on the 33 year old’s initiative who had learned that legal hackers in D.C. were upset that there wasn’t a free electronic version of the District of Columbia Code accessible to the general public. The legal hackers hoped to use a digital copy to create websites and apps that would allow users to have a better understanding of local laws.
Copyright was behind the reason no electronic version was available. The official code was published initially by Westlaw and subsequently by LexisNexis, and their annotations and citations were protected as intellectual property.
Zvenyach, however, recognized the value of an informed citizenry. “I was enthusiastic that people were interested in the code itself,” he says. “It’s not often that you get a lot of people talking about our legal documents.”
After he started to understand the issues better, he became convinced that the government could and should embrace the open data movement, both as a public good and as a means to make things run more efficiently.
To that end, Zvenyach stripped out all the copyrighted annotations and citations in the D.C. Code and put the unofficial code online. He even invited members of the civic hacking community to play around with it, and he found himself learning how to use computer programming code.
“In my own experience, the moment the D.C. Code was in searchable form, I found myself using it more, and on a daily basis,” he says.
Zvenyach had almost no background or history with computers when he enrolled at the George Washington University Law School in 2003. “I took a comp sci class in college,” he says. “And I remember playing around with an old Commodore as a kid. But that’s about it.”
His bachelor’s degree was in mechanical engineering, and he came to law school to be a patent attorney. Instead, he joined the D.C. government in 2008 after a two-year federal clerkship.
Despite having no experience in politics, he served as chief of staff to D.C. council member Mary Cheh, his former law professor at GW. As chief of staff, he devoted himself to making things run more efficiently and transparently.