New website, SunshineStatutes.com, makes Florida laws accessible …

A more user-friendly way to read and understand Florida’s complicated law books just launched online.

SunshineStatutes.com has features that the state’s official website, Online Sunshine at leg.state.fl.us, does not. For example, there is an easy-to-understand description of each law’s history and hyperlinked text that shows the definitions of terms in other parts of the law.

Florida’s Statutes cover 951 chapters separated into 48 “titles.” Eventually, the Sunshine Statutes website will allow people to trace laws back to bills and court cases that reference them. One day, it could even be possible to link a law back to the lobbyist who supported the issue.

“The idea is to make the statutes more accessible to the citizens and to make it more meaningful and understandable,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. Her organization worked with the Florida Society of News Editors to assist in the site’s development.

Florida is the second state to have its law books simplified by Waldo Jaquith, who first worked on Virginia’s.

Jaquith, who calls himself as an “open government technology” advocate, had already developed a website that tracks bills filed by Virginia’s General Assembly. He was also contracted by the White House to help create a website that allows for easier tracking of lobbying, campaign finance and other ethics-related data.

As he was working on the Virginia site, he got an idea: If he had more money, he could develop coding for other states.

The Knight Foundation, an organization that supports journalism and innovation, awarded Jaquith a Knight News Challenge grant worth $165,000 in 2011. He instantly attracted the attention of Miami Herald managing editor Rick Hirsch. “Right after the ceremony where I got the money, that is when Rick Hirsch came up to me and said we want to be first, Florida wants to be first,” Jaquith said.

Sunshine Statutes is currently in “public alpha” testing, meaning the site is live and accessible but still being updated.

Illinois, Alaska and Maryland have inquired about sites. Jaquith hopes to complete at least a half-dozen states before his grant money runs out.

The Florida Society of News Editors and the First Amendment Foundation will share responsibility for keeping the site updated and for maintenance once Jaquith moves on.