Announcing GovRank.org

I am one happy project manager! Last week, US Common Sense launched our public finance sustainability website, GovRank.org. We’ve been sweating it out for months and now we’re live. Here’s hoping the site will foster good research, debate about our methods, and more public awareness of the state of local finances!

GovRank-Frontpage

About GovRank: We want all citizens, journalists, and public officials to have greater access to information about their governments’ finances. Recognizing the challenges of data availability, comparability, and transparency, US Common Sense compiled data for over 13,000 local governments and all 50 states dating back to 2008-09… We collected more than 97,000 financial reports and nearly 70,000 budgets; extracted “top line” financial figures; and ranked local and state governments’ relative performance.

And a personal reflection: Several friends have remarked that the site’s data gives ammunition to folks who want to cut public employee pensions and benefits. I firmly believe the data can equally well be used to argue for responsible funding of such benefits. As a humanist, I have to believe making information visible eventually makes the world a better place and act accordingly.

HFT, Michael Lewis, and a Question

The last 2 days of buzz about Michael Lewis’s “expose” of high frequency trading, Flash Boys, has led to a lot of articles and debates. At my house, we’ve been talking about some of the issues for a while now.  In the last 18 months as I’ve learned a little about HFT — very casually, mind you — I’ve started saying that I hope it gets regulated out of existence. But let’s try a little thought exercise.

Someone who loves to play devil’s advocate asked me what the conceptual difference is between what HFT-ers are doing and what telegraphs enabled banks and the owners of the telegraph lines to do: use their privileged position to obtain and act on financial information sooner than the public.

I do not have a pat answer to that question. The best I’ve got so far is something like, “Even if it has always happened, it’s still wrong.” I’m curious to know others’ thoughts.

Separately, it’s unfortunate that it takes a remarkable self-promoter like Michael Lewis to (possibly) spur change. The way he has approached the roll-out of this book is about a marketing opportunity and is setting off a lot of alarm bells for me. I think that gaming of the financial system will always exist, that regulation ought not to depend on the general public’s sense of outrage, and that Michael Lewis may be promoting an overly simple of what’s good, what’s bad, and what ought to happen next.

Can Tech Repair the World?

The blog “Africa is a Country” ran an essay last fall about (white) Bay Area residents and their/our often-tech-related efforts and desire to “save Africa”. As you might well expect, the article dwells on the idea that they/we are repeating the same old patronizing, silencing, colonizing rhetoric and practices of previous generations. While I don’t see anything particularly new in the essay, I think it’s worth reading because it keeps in front of us the idea of technology’s limits for solving social ills, as well as the hubris of some of Tech’s loudest boosters. Here’s the article: UPDATE: Silicon Valley and its Awkward Relationship with “Africa”, by Chad McClymonds.