Wall Street Journal: “Hedge Funds Are Using FOIA Requests to Obtain Nonpublic Information From Federal Agencies…When SAC Capital Advisors LP was weighing an investment in Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., the hedge-fund firm contacted a source it knew would provide nonpublic information without blinking: the federal government.
An investment manager for an SAC affiliate asked the Food and Drug Administration last December for any “adverse event reports” for Vertex’s recently approved cystic-fibrosis drug. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency had to hand over the material, which revealed no major problems. The bill: $72.50, cheaper than the price of two Vertex shares.
SAC and its affiliate, Sigma Capital Management LLC, snapped up 13,500 Vertex shares in the first quarter and options to buy 25,000 more, securities filings indicate. The stock rose that quarter, then surged 62% on a single day in April when Vertex announced positive results from safety tests on a separate cystic-fibrosis drug designed to be used in combination with the first.
Finance professionals have been pulling every lever they can these days to extract information from the government. Many have discovered that the biggest lever of all is the one available to everyone—the Freedom of Information Act—conceived by advocates of open government to shine light on how officials make decisions. FOIA is part of an array of techniques sophisticated investors are using to try to obtain potentially market-moving information about products, legislation, regulation and government economic statistics.
“It’s an information arms race,” says Les Funtleyder, a longtime portfolio manager and now partner at private-equity firm Poliwogg Holdings Inc. “It’s important to try every avenue. If anyone else is doing it, you need to, too.”
A review by The Wall Street Journal of more than 100,000 of the roughly three million FOIA requests filed over the past five years, including all of those sent to the FDA, shows that investors use the process to troll for all kinds of information. They ask the Environmental Protection Agency about pollution regulations, the Department of Energy about grants for energy-efficient vehicles, and the Securities and Exchange Commission about whether publicly held companies are under investigation. Such requests are perfectly legal.”
See also “Making FOIA More Free and Open” (Joel Gurin)
“In this report, Drs. Lael Keiser and Susan Miller examine the critical role of non-governmental outreach organizations in assisting government agencies to determine benefit eligibility of citizens applying for services. Many non-profits and other organizations help low-income applicants apply for Social Security, Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).
Some outreach organizations help veterans navigate the complexity of the veterans disability benefits program. These organizations include the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as state government-run veterans agencies. Drs. Keiser and Miller interviewed dozens of managers from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and outreach organizations about their interactions in helping veterans. They found “there is indeed effective collaboration” and that these organizations serve a key role for veterans in processing their claims. These organizations also help lighten the workload of VA benefit examiners by ensuring the paperwork is in order in advance, as well as serving as a communications conduit.
Drs. Keiser and Miller found variations in the effectiveness of the relationships between VA and outreach organization staffs and identified best practices for increasing effectiveness. These lessons can be applied to other agencies that interactive frequently with outreach organizations that assist citizens in navigating the complexity of applying for various government benefit programs.
Listen to the interview on Federal News Radio.”
“MyUSA (formerly known as MyGov) is creating a new service that helps Americans find the information and services they need across the Federal Government. Rather than organizing services around the agencies that deliver them, as most Federal websites do today, MyUSA organizes services around people and the specific tasks they need to complete. Building on the work of the inaugural class of MyUSA Presidential Innovation Fellows, motivated by President Obama’s call for a smarter, leaner government, and inspired by innovative models of collaboration in the private sector, the Round 2 MyUSA Fellows will take the MyUSA service to the next level.
In particular, small businesses and exporters have a fundamental problem navigating the Federal Government’s myriad resources. It can be difficult to locate information about government assistance programs or find and complete the correct forms for taxes or business operations. MyUSA is working to solve these problems. The project team will build and beta-test new features and tools for entrepreneurs and businesses with the purpose of cutting red tape, increasing efficiency, and supporting American businesses and American jobs.
MyUSA will save people and businesses time when transacting with the government, increase awareness of available government services, and speed up notifications and updates. MyUSA has the potential not only to save Americans time and money, but to reshape how they interact with and view their government.”
Official Google Blog: “Constitutions are as unique as the people they govern, and have been around in one form or another for millennia. But did you know that every year approximately five new constitutions are written, and 20-30 are amended or revised? Or that Africa has the youngest set of constitutions, with 19 out of the 39 constitutions written globally since 2000 from the region?
The process of redesigning and drafting a new constitution can play a critical role in uniting a country, especially following periods of conflict and instability. In the past, it’s been difficult to access and compare existing constitutional documents and language—which is critical to drafters—because the texts are locked up in libraries or on the hard drives of constitutional experts. Although the process of drafting constitutions has evolved from chisels and stone tablets to pens and modern computers, there has been little innovation in how their content is sourced and referenced.
With this in mind, Google Ideas supported the Comparative Constitutions Project to build Constitute, a new site that digitizes and makes searchable the world’s constitutions. Constitute enables people to browse and search constitutions via curated and tagged topics, as well as by country and year. The Comparative Constitutions Project cataloged and tagged nearly 350 themes, so people can easily find and compare specific constitutional material. This ranges from the fairly general, such as “Citizenship” and “Foreign Policy,” to the very specific, such as “Suffrage and turnouts” and “Judicial Autonomy and Power.”
Our aim is to arm drafters with a better tool for constitution design and writing. We also hope citizens will use Constitute to learn more about their own constitutions, and those of countries around the world.”
New article by Victoria Burton in International Affairs Forum that “examines the impact of social media which not only provides citizens alternative avenues to express themselves about government policies but presents new challenges and means for government to provide services to the public. An example is the CovJam online venture presented by Coventry City and IBM that used social media as part of a three-day brainstorming event about the city. Social media have facilitated government programs to carry out surveys and fine-tune services but perhaps the greatest aspect is that of greater public participation. Moving forward, it will be important to address social media across public sectors and establish strategies to leverage its advantages and benefits.”
New NBER working paper by George J. Borjas and Kirk B. Doran: “Knowledge generation is key to economic growth, and scientific prizes are designed to encourage it. But how does winning a prestigious prize affect future output? We compare the productivity of Fields medalists (winners of the top mathematics prize) to that of similarly brilliant contenders. The two groups have similar publication rates until the award year, after which the winners’ productivity declines. The medalists begin to “play the field,” studying unfamiliar topics at the expense of writing papers. It appears that tournaments can have large post-prize effects on the effort allocation of knowledge producers.”
Stephen Goldsmith in GovTech: “Data is everywhere. It now costs less to capture, store and process data than ever before, thanks to better technology and economies of scale. And more than ever, the public expects government to use data to improve its services. Increasingly, government’s problem is not capturing the data, but having sufficient resources to clean and analyze the information in order to address issues, improve performance and make informed decisions.
In particular, public transit not only produces an immense volume of data, but it also stands to benefit from good analysis in the form of streamlined operations and a better rider experience. More than 200 transit agencies worldwide — from Buffalo to Budapest — are well on their way. They are publishing their schedules, fares and station locations to Google’s TransitDataFeed in a common format and for free. Such information is called open data, which is any data that’s publicly shared.
Open data allows anyone to download and use the information for his or her purposes, particularly software developers who can use it to create mobile and Web-based applications. Google, for example, incorporates the information into its Maps application to help riders plan trips and learn about service updates across bus, rail and bike systems. Other third parties have built successful apps on top of open transit data.
Innovations like these allow transit agencies to leverage external expertise and resources, and have also reduced customer service costs and increased ridership levels. In fact, some members of the American Public Transportation Association believe that open data initiatives have catalyzed more innovation throughout the industry than any other factor in the last three decades….
In Philadelphia, the City Planning Commission is using text message surveying to capture the opinions of transit riders across the demographic spectrum to determine the usefulness of a proposed rapid transit line into downtown. Philadelphia uses the transit information to inform its comprehensive city plan, but this digital citizen survey mechanism, created by a company called Textizen, is a platform that can be used by any government that wants to solicit feedback or begin a dialog with its citizens.
In 2012, Dubuque, Iowa, collaborated with IBM to run a Smarter Travel pilot study. The pilot used a mobile app and RFIDs to collect anonymous travel data from volunteer transit riders. The city has already used the data to open a new late-night bus line for third-shift workers and college students, and by next year will incorporate data into more route planning decisions.”