Open-Government Laws Fuel Hedge-Fund Profits

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)

Collaboration Between Government and Outreach Organizations: A Case Study of the Department of Veterans Affairs

“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.”

Data Swap

GlobeLab @ The Boston GlobeData: “Data swap 2013 is an exclusive opportunity to work on complex, real-world problems, with rich and large-scale datasets and individuals with diverse skills and backgrounds from research, government, and civic organizations throughout Boston.
This isn’t your mother’s hackathon.
There’s no conference room full over over-caffeinated and under-deodorized engineers, no 72 hour time limit, and no room for shoddy prototypes. This is an opportunity for a select number of gifted researchers to join interdisciplinary teams to work on the pressing and meaningful problems facing Boston communities.
Unlike hackathons, meant to generate quick ideas and prototypes in a short period of time, DataSwap is about forging and supporting long-term collaborations between researchers, communities and data guardians. Groups sharing common interests and complementary skills will collaborate around specific problems. Each problem will be proposed by the owners of one of the datasets who present. On day one at The Boston Globe, you’ll learn more about that dataset and others to help you in your research. You’ll be given a community facilitator to help you craft useful research that is relevant outside the bounds of academia. Then, it’s up to you! Over the next several months, you and your team are challenged to craft a presentation around the problem you were given. At the conclusion of the time frame, we’ll reconvene to share our findings with one another and choose a winner.”


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.”

Embracing Expertise

Biella Coleman in Concurring Opinions: “I often describe hacker politics as Weapons of the Geek, in contrast to Weapons of the Weak—the term anthropologist James Scott uses to capture the unique, clandestine nature of peasant politics. While Weapons of the Weak is a modality of politics among disenfranchised, economically marginalized populations who engage in small-scale illicit acts —such as foot dragging and minor acts of sabotage—that don’t appear on their surface to be political, Weapons of the Geek is a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged actors who often lie at the center of economic life. Among geeks and hackers, political activities are rooted in concrete experiences of their craft—administering a server or editing videos—and portion of these hackers channel these skills toward political life. To put another way hackers don’t necessarily have class-consciousness, though some certainly do, but they all tend to have craft consciousness. But they have already shown they are willing to engage in prolific and distinct types of political acts from policy making to party politics, from writing free software to engaging in some of the most pronounced and personally risky acts of civil disobedience of the last decade as we saw with Snowden. Just because they are hackers does not mean they are only acting out their politics through technology even if their technological experiences usually inform their politics.
It concerns and bothers me that most technologists are male and white but I am not concerned, in fact I am quite thrilled, these experts are taking political charge. I tend to agree with Michael Shudson’s reading of Walter Lippman that when it comes to democracy we need more experts not less: “The intellectual challenge is not to invent democracy without experts, but to seek a way to harness experts to a legitimately democratic function.
Imagine if as many doctors and professors mobilized their moral authority and expertise as hackers have done, to rise up and intervene in the problems plaguing their vocational domains. Professors would be visibly denouncing the dismal and outrageous labor conditions of adjuncts whose pay is a pittance. Doctors would be involved in the fight for more affordable health care in the United States. Mobilizing expertise does not mean other stakeholders can’t and should not have a voice but there are many practical and moral reasons why we should embrace a politics of expertise, especially if configured to allow more generally contributions.
More than any other group of experts, hackers have shown how productive an expert based politics can be. And many domains of hacker and geek politics such as the Pirate Parties and Anonymous are interesting precisely for how they marry an open participatory element along with a more technical, expert-based one. Expertise can co-exist with participation if configured as such.
My sense is that hacker (re: technically informed) based politics will grow more important in years to come. Just last week I went to visit one hacker-activist, Jeremy Hammond who is in jail for his politically motivated acts of direct action. I asked him what he thought of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s blanket surveillance of American citizens. Along with saying he was encouraged for someone dared to expose this wrongdoing (as many of us are), he captured the enormous power held by hackers and technologists when he followed with this statement: “there are all these nerds who don’t agree with what is politically happening and they have power.”
Hammond and others are exercising their technical power and I generally think this is a net gain for democracy. But it is why we must diligently work toward establishing more widespread digital and technical literacy. The low numbers of female technologists and other minorities in and out of hacker-dom are appalling and disturbing (and why I am involved with initiatives like those of NCWIT to rectify this problem). There are certainly barriers internal to the hacker world but the problems are so entrenched and so systematic unless those are solved, the numbers of women in voluntary and political domains will continue to be low.
So it is not that expertise is the problem. It is the barriers that prevent a large class of individuals from ever becoming experts that concerns me the most”.

Explore the world’s constitutions with a new online tool

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.”

Open Data 500 gives voice to companies using government data

Fedscoop: “Federal agencies have been working toward a Nov. 1 deadline to unlock their data, as mandated by an executive order issued in May. But what has yet to be examined is how useful those data sets have been to companies and the economic value they have created.
Enter the Open Data 500 – a project that gives companies the opportunity to provide feedback to government about which data sets are most useful and which type of data demand exists.
The initiative is part of a broader effort by the New York University’s Governance Lab’s research of how government can work more effectively with its constituents, said Joel Gurin, GovLab’s senior adviser and director of Open Data 500.
“We hope this will be a research project that illuminates the way government open data sets are being used by the private sector and help people gauge the economic impact and also help to make open data more effective, more useful,” he said.

Companies participating in Open Data 500 submit their responses via a survey to give insight into which data has been easiest to use and which type of data they would like to see made available. The survey also ranks agencies’ data sets on how useful they are.
What the project won’t do is score companies based on their use of federal data, but instead gives them a chance to interact with government and express which data they want.”

Social media: its emerging importance and impact on citizen engagement

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.”

Prizes and Productivity: How Winning the Fields Medal Affects Scientific Output

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.”

Open Data’s Road to Better Transit

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.”