Crisis response needs to be a science, not an art


Jimmy Whitworth in the Financial Times:”…It is an imperative to offer shelter, nutrition, sanitation and medical care to those suddenly bereft of it. Without aid, humanitarian crises would cause still greater suffering. Yet admiration for the agencies that deliver relief should not blind us to the need to ensure that it is well delivered. Humanitarian responses must be founded on good evidence.
The evidence base, unfortunately, is weak. We know that storms, earthquakes and conflicts have devastating consequences for health and wellbeing, and that not responding is not an option, but we know surprisingly little about how best to go about it. Not only is evidence-based practice rare in humanitarian relief operations, it is often impossible.
Questions about how best to deliver clean water or adequate shelter, and even about which health needs should be prioritised as the most pressing, have often been barely researched. Indeed, the evidence gap is so great that the Humanitarian Practice Network has highlighted a “dire lack of credible data to help us understand just how much populations in crisis suffer, and to what extent relief operations are able to relieve that suffering”. No wonder aid responses are often characterised as messy.
Good practice often rests on past practice rather than research. The Bible of humanitarian relief is a document called the Sphere handbook, an important initiative to set minimum standards for provision of health, nutrition, sanitation and shelter. Yet analysis of the 2004 handbook has revealed that just 13 per cent of its 346 standards were supported by good evidence of relevance to health. The handbook, for example, recommended that refugee camps should prioritise measles vaccination – a worthwhile goal, but not one that should clearly be favoured over control of other infectious diseases.

Also under-researched is the question of how best to provide types of relief that everybody agrees meet essential needs. Access to clean water is a clear priority for almost all populations in crisis but little is understood about how this is most efficiently delivered. Is it best to ship bottled water to stricken areas? Are tankers of clean water more effective? Or can water purification tablets do the job? The summer floods in northern India made it clear that there is little good evidence one way or another.

Adequate shelter, too, is a human essential in all but the most benign environments but, once again, the evidence base about how best to provide it is limited. There is a school of thought that building transitional shelter from locally available materials is better in the long run than housing people under tents, tarpaulins and plastic, which if accurate would have far-reaching consequences for standard practice. But too little research has been done…
Researchers also face significant challenges to building a better evidence base. They can struggle to secure access to disaster zones when getting relief in is the priority. The timescales involved in applying for funding and ethical approval, too, make it difficult for them to move quickly enough to set up a study in the critical post-disaster period.
It is to address this that Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance, with the support of the Wellcome Trust and the UK Department for International Development, recently launched an £8m research programme that investigates these issues.”

Crowdsourcing: Patient-Focused Drug Development Initiative


Press release: “Genetic Alliance and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) announced an initiative to explore the use of a technology-enabled, crowd-sourcing approach to patient engagement as a complement to ongoing patient-focused drug development efforts under the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA V).
As part of the reauthorization of PDUFA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) committed to gain the patient perspective on 20 disease areas in public meetings to be held between 2012 and 2017.
After issuing a Request for Proposals, Genetic Alliance chose advocacy organizations representing three disease areas that will be the focus of FDA patient-focused drug development public meetings in 2014 and 2015. The patient communities in these three disease areas will pilot a crowd-sourcing, technology-enabled approach to gathering input from a diverse set of patients on key benefit-risk questions.
“Using the Platform for Engaging Everyone Responsibly (PEER), there is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of a secure, crowd-sourced approach to provide additional insight into patients’ experience with a disease or condition,” stated Sharon Terry, President and CEO of Genetic Alliance. “The organizations we selected are expert at broad and diverse engagement from the very people that have a vested interest in patient-focused drug development. We are excited to engage these communities.”
For more information about this initiative, visit http://www.geneticalliance.org/pfdd.
 

New U.S. Open Government National Action Plan


The White House Fact Sheet: “In September 2011, President Obama joined the leaders of seven other nations in announcing the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a global effort to encourage transparent, effective, and accountable governance.
Two years later, OGP has grown to 60 countries that have made more than 1000 commitments to improve the governance of more than two billion people around the globe.  OGP is now a global community of government reformers, civil society leaders, and business innovators working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms and advance good governance…
Today at the OGP summit in London, the United States announced a new U.S. Open Government National Action Plan that includes six ambitious new commitments that will advance these efforts even further.  Those commitments include expanding open data, modernizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), increasing fiscal transparency, increasing corporate transparency, advancing citizen engagement and empowerment, and more effectively managing public resources.
Expand Open Data:  Open Data fuels innovation that grows the economy and advances government transparency and accountability.  Government data has been used by journalists to uncover variations in hospital billings, by citizens to learn more about the social services provided by charities in their communities, and by entrepreneurs building new software tools to help farmers plan and manage their crops.  Building upon the successful implementation of open data commitments in the first U.S. National Action Plan, the new Plan will include commitments to make government data more accessible and useful for the public, such as reforming how Federal agencies manage government data as a strategic asset, launching a new version of Data.gov, and expanding agriculture and nutrition data to help farmers and communities.
Modernize the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA):  The FOIA encourages accountability through transparency and represents a profound national commitment to open government principles.  Improving FOIA administration is one of the most effective ways to make the U.S. Government more open and accountable.  Today, the United States announced a series of commitments to further modernize FOIA processes, including launching a consolidated online FOIA service to improve customers’ experience and making training resources available to FOIA professionals and other Federal employees.
Increase Fiscal Transparency:   The Administration will further increase the transparency of where Federal tax dollars are spent by making federal spending data more easily available on USASpending.gov; facilitating the publication of currently unavailable procurement contract information; and enabling Americans to more easily identify who is receiving tax dollars, where those entities or individuals are located, and how much they receive.
Increase Corporate Transparency:  Preventing criminal organizations from concealing the true ownership and control of businesses they operate is a critical element in safeguarding U.S. and international financial markets, addressing tax avoidance, and combatting corruption in the United States and abroad.  Today we committed to take further steps to enhance transparency of legal entities formed in the United States.
Advance Citizen Engagement and Empowerment:  OGP was founded on the principle that an active and robust civil society is critical to open and accountable governance.  In the next year, the Administration will intensify its efforts to roll back and prevent new restrictions on civil society around the world in partnership with other governments, multilateral institutions, the philanthropy community, the private sector, and civil society.  This effort will focus on improving the legal and regulatory framework for civil society, promoting best practices for government-civil society collaboration, and conceiving of new and innovative ways to support civil society globally.
More Effectively Manage Public Resources:   Two years ago, the Administration committed to ensuring that American taxpayers receive every dollar due for the extraction of the nation’s natural resources by committing to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).  We continue to work toward achieving full EITI compliance in 2016.  Additionally, the U.S. Government will disclose revenues on geothermal and renewable energy and discuss future disclosure of timber revenues.
For more information on OGP, please visit www.opengovpartnership.org or follow @opengovpart on Twitter.”
See also White House Plans a Single FOIA Portal Across Government

Making government simpler is complicated


Mike Konczal in The Washington Post: “Here’s something a politician would never say: “I’m in favor of complex regulations.” But what would the opposite mean? What would it mean to have “simple” regulations?

There are two definitions of “simple” that have come to dominate liberal conversations about government. One is the idea that we should make use of “nudges” in regulation. The other is the idea that we should avoid “kludges.” As it turns out, however, these two definitions conflict with each other —and the battle between them will dominate conversations about the state in the years ahead.

The case for “nudges”

The first definition of a “simple” regulation is one emphasized in Cass Sunstein’s recent book titled Simpler: The Future of Government (also see here). A simple policy is one that simply “nudges” people into one choice or another using a variety of default rules, disclosure requirements, and other market structures. Think, for instance, of rules that require fast-food restaurants to post calories on their menus, or a mortgage that has certain terms clearly marked in disclosures.

These sorts of regulations are deemed “choice preserving.” Consumers are still allowed to buy unhealthy fast-food meals or sign up for mortgages they can’t reasonably afford. The regulations are just there to inform people about their choices. These rules are designed to keep the market “free,” where all possibilities are ultimately possible, although there are rules to encourage certain outcomes.
In his book, however, Sunstein adds that there’s another very different way to understand the term “simple.” What most people mean when they think of simple regulations is a rule that is “simple to follow.” Usually a rule is simple to follow because it outright excludes certain possibilities and thus ensures others. Which means, by definition, it limits certain choices.

The case against “kludges”
This second definition of simple plays a key role in political scientist Steve Teles’ excellent recent essay, “Kludgeocracy in America.” For Teles, a “kludge” is a “clumsy but temporarily effective” fix for a policy problem. (The term comes from computer science.) These kludges tend to pile up over time, making government cumbersome and inefficient overall.
Teles focuses on several ways that kludges are introduced into policy, with a particularly sharp focus on overlapping jurisdictions and the related mess of federal and state overlap in programs. But, without specifically invoking it, he also suggests that a reliance on “nudge” regulations can lead to more kludges.
After all, non-kludge policy proposal is one that will be simple to follow and will clearly cause a certain outcome, with an obvious causality chain. This is in contrast to a web of “nudges” and incentives designed to try and guide certain outcomes.

Why “nudges” aren’t always simpler
The distinction between the two is clear if we take a specific example core to both definitions: retirement security.
For Teles, “one of the often overlooked benefits of the Social Security program… is that recipients automatically have taxes taken out of their paychecks, and, then without much effort on their part, checks begin to appear upon retirement. It’s simple and direct. By contrast, 401(k) retirement accounts… require enormous investments of time, effort, and stress to manage responsibly.”

Yet 401(k)s are the ultimately fantasy laboratory for nudge enthusiasts. A whole cottage industry has grown up around figuring out ways to default people into certain contributions, on designing the architecture of choices of investments, and trying to effortlessly and painlessly guide people into certain savings.
Each approach emphasizes different things. If you want to focus your energy on making people better consumers and market participations, expanding our government’s resources and energy into 401(k)s is a good choice. If you want to focus on providing retirement security directly, expanding Social Security is a better choice.
The first is “simple” in that it doesn’t exclude any possibility but encourages market choices. The second is “simple” in that it is easy to follow, and the result is simple as well: a certain amount of security in old age is provided directly. This second approach understands the government as playing a role in stopping certain outcomes, and providing for the opposite of those outcomes, directly….

Why it’s hard to create “simple” regulations
Like all supposed binaries this is really a continuum. Taxes, for instance, sit somewhere in the middle of the two definitions of “simple.” They tend to preserve the market as it is but raise (or lower) the price of certain goods, influencing choices.
And reforms and regulations are often most effective when there’s a combination of these two types of “simple” rules.
Consider an important new paper, “Regulating Consumer Financial Products: Evidence from Credit Cards,” by Sumit Agarwal, Souphala Chomsisengphet, Neale Mahoney and Johannes Stroebel. The authors analyze the CARD Act of 2009, which regulated credit cards. They found that the nudge-type disclosure rules “increased the number of account holders making the 36-month payment value by 0.5 percentage points.” However, more direct regulations on fees had an even bigger effect, saving U.S. consumers $20.8 billion per year with no notable reduction in credit access…..
The balance between these two approaches of making regulations simple will be front and center as liberals debate the future of government, whether they’re trying to pull back on the “submerged state” or consider the implications for privacy. The debate over the best way for government to be simple is still far from over.”

Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism


New and forthcoming book by Cass Sunstein: “Based on a series of pathbreaking lectures given at Yale University in 2012, this powerful, thought-provoking work by national best-selling author Cass R. Sunstein combines legal theory with behavioral economics to make a fresh argument about the legitimate scope of government, bearing on obesity, smoking, distracted driving, health care, food safety, and other highly volatile, high-profile public issues. Behavioral economists have established that people often make decisions that run counter to their best interests—producing what Sunstein describes as “behavioral market failures.” Sometimes we disregard the long term; sometimes we are unrealistically optimistic; sometimes we do not see what is in front of us. With this evidence in mind, Sunstein argues for a new form of paternalism, one that protects people against serious errors but also recognizes the risk of government overreaching and usually preserves freedom of choice.
Against those who reject paternalism of any kind, Sunstein shows that “choice architecture”—government-imposed structures that affect our choices—is inevitable, and hence that a form of paternalism cannot be avoided. He urges that there are profoundly moral reasons to ensure that choice architecture is helpful rather than harmful—and that it makes people’s lives better and longer.”

And Data for All: On the Validity and Usefulness of Open Government Data


Paper presented at the the 13th International Conference on Knowledge Management and Knowledge Technologies: “Open Government Data (OGD) stands for a relatively young trend to make data that is collected and maintained by state authorities available for the public. Although various Austrian OGD initiatives have been started in the last few years, less is known about the validity and the usefulness of the data offered. Based on the data-set on Vienna’s stock of trees, we address two questions in this paper. First of all, we examine the quality of the data by validating it according to knowledge from a related discipline. It shows that the data-set we used correlates with findings from meteorology. Then, we explore the usefulness and exploitability of OGD by describing a concrete scenario in which this data-set can be supportive for citizens in their everyday life and by discussing further application areas in which OGD can be beneficial for different stakeholders and even commercially used.”

Crowdsourcing Mobile App Takes the Globe’s Economic Pulse


Tom Simonite in MIT Technology Review: “In early September, news outlets reported that the price of onions in India had suddenly spiked nearly 300 percent over prices a year before. Analysts warned that the jump in price for this food staple could signal an impending economic crisis, and the Research Bank of India quickly raised interest rates.
A startup company called Premise might’ve helped make the response to India’s onion crisis timelier. As part of a novel approach to tracking the global economy from the bottom up, the company has a daily feed of onion prices from stores around India. More than 700 people in cities around the globe use a mobile app to log the prices of key products in local stores each day.

Premise’s cofounder David Soloff says it’s a valuable way to take the pulse of economies around the world, especially since stores frequently update their prices in response to economic pressures such as wholesale costs and consumer confidence. “All this information is hiding in plain sight on store shelves,” he says, “but there’s no way of capturing and aggregating it in any meaningful way.”
That information could provide a quick way to track and even predict inflation measures such as the U.S. Consumer Price Index. Inflation figures influence the financial industry and are used to set governments’ monetary and fiscal policy, but they are typically updated only once a month. Soloff says Premise’s analyses have shown that for some economies, the data the company collects can reliably predict monthly inflation figures four to six weeks in advance. “You don’t look at the weather forecast once a month,” he says….
Premise’s data may have other uses outside the financial industry. As part of a United Nations program called Global Pulse, Cavallo and PriceStats, which was founded after financial professionals began relying on data from an ongoing academic price-indexing effort called the Billion Prices Project, devised bread price indexes for several Latin American countries. Such indexes typically predict street prices and help governments and NGOs spot emerging food crises. Premise’s data could be used in the same way. The information could also be used to monitor areas of the world, such as Africa, where tracking online prices is unreliable, he says.”

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.”

Mapping the Twitterverse


Mapping the Twitterverse

Phys.org: “What does your Twitter profile reveal about you? More than you know, according to Chris Weidemann. The GIST master’s student has developed an application that follows geospatial footprints.
You start your day at your favorite breakfast spot. When your order of strawberry waffles with extra whipped cream arrives, it’s too delectable not to share with your Twitter followers. You snap a photo with your smartphone and hit send. Then, it’s time to hit the books.
You tweet your friends that you’ll be at the library on campus. Later that day, palm trees silhouette a neon-pink sunset. You can’t resist. You tweet a picture with the hashtag #ILoveLA.
You may not realize that when you tweet those breezy updates and photos of food, you are sharing information about your location.
Chris Weidemann, a graduate student in the Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) online master’s program at USC Dornsife, investigated just how much public was generated by Twitter users and how their information—available through Twitter’s (API)—could potentially be used by third parties. His study was published June 2013 in the International Journal of Geoinformatics
Twitter has approximately 500 million active users, and reports show that 6 percent of users opt-in to allow the platform to broadcast their location using global positioning technology with each tweet they post. That’s about 30 million people sending geo-tagged data out into the Twitterverse. In their tweets, people can choose whether their information is displayed as a city and state, an address or pinpoint their precise latitude and longitude.
That’s only part of their geospatial footprint. Information contained in a post may reveal a user’s location. Depending upon how the account is set up, profiles may include details about their hometown, time zone and language.”