Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Update July 29, 2015: One of the RecordTrac folks has reached out, and I’m pretty badly mistaken on a number of fundamental premises about this. The good news is that the universe is not as bad as I thought. The bad news is that I have added to the number of idiots writing incorrect things on the Internet. Your move, universe.

I spend a lot of time at my day job researching freedom of information laws around the country. I look for the best practices in other states (or cities, I’m not picky), and then try to get those adopted here in New York. Now, I’m not just looking at the text of the laws – those take a long time to change – I’m also looking at the way those laws are implemented.

You know how freedom of information (FOI) laws work, right? You send an FOI request to a government agency for a record in their possession, and they have to give it to you. There are exceptions for medical information and other private stuff, like your cell phone number and so on. But that’s the gist.

One day in my research, I came across this website built by the city of Oakland, California. They’ve got a portal called RecordTrac which people can use to send FOI requests to any agency in the city. City agencies can respond to the FOI requests and send the documents to the user. Most importantly, each request and its response are public by default and searchable. This saves people and agencies the time of re-asking and re-answering the same questions over and over again.

Sidebar: the nerds in the audience are screaming “it’s a bug tracker” at the tops of their lungs. And yeah, this is exactly what RecordTrac is. Smart managers track issues with their projects. Open source projects track their issues out in the open, so they don’t get a thousand emails with “it doesn’t work” in the subject line every day. A freedom of information request is a request to provide data that the government isn’t providing on its own. It’s left as an exercise to the reader to determine whether government should publish this information or not. (Hint: yes.)

Code for America

So Oakland didn’t invent this RecordTrac software themselves; it was built by a team of fellows working for Code for America. Code for America hires nerds and sends them to work in government offices around the country, to show how much better government could work if it had more nerds.

At the time, Code for America fellows were expected to take what they learned the government needs and… start a company to sell that service to governments everywhere. I’m decidedly ambivalent about this model. There are worse things than making a buck from a good idea, and I’m sure plenty of governments would be happy to pay for a service that directly addresses their biggest obstacles on a day to day basis. And government still gets free nerds for a year. That’s a win-win!

But startup culture. I just… I’m as bemused as anyone by the fetishization of start-up culture and the social class of entrepreneurs among my nerdy peers. It’s a joke, and some people make a staggering amount of money on it while most don’t. That makes it no better or worse than starting your own restaurant or lottery collective.

Apparently, Code for America has suspended the practice of embedding nerds for the purpose of creating startups. However, this was its practice for most of its existence, including the Oakland fellows’ time.

Back to Oakland

I’ve had the good fortune to interact to one degree or another with some of the fellows who built RecordTrac. They seem like great folks.

But, uh, they reinvented the wheel. A free and open source software system called Alaveteli has been in use in the United Kingdom since about 2007. It does exactly the same thing that RecordTrac does. It has dozens of contributors and is in extremely active development. Alaveteli had been used for hundreds of thousands of successful requests in the UK before Oakland ever got its Code For America fellows.

The fellows made RecordTrac despite the fact that there was already great FOIL software out there. Instead of taking an afternoon to install and customize Alaveteli, the Code For America fellows wanted to make their own software platform so they could kick off their own startup later.

The fellows had one year to spend on using technology to solve problems, and they spent most of it reinventing a wheel instead of making it go further.

As an intellectual property attorney, there are some grey areas about who specifically owns the code for RecordTrac. I haven’t seen the contracts that the fellows signed with Code For America, or that Code For America signed with Oakland, or Oakland signed with the fellows. Any one of those parties could own the copyright to the source code. According to the source code, Code For America owns at least some of it. Also, given that it’s open source, it might be hard to sell that software to folks when they can install it themselves.

Re-reinventing the Wheel

So the other day, I saw a press release on GovTech from the Oakland Code For America fellows. They’ve rewritten their software from scratch and call it NextRequest. They’ve solved the messy problem of selling open source software by rebranding it as a hosted service.

So they reinvented the wheel once as RecordTrac, and now they’ve re-reinvented it again as NextRequest.

Look, I want smart civic-minded nerds to make a living. There aren’t enough people doing this kind of work in this kind of space, and I firmly believe the world will be a better place for it. But I wish they would have become America’s top Alaveteli platform instead of spending all this time getting to this point. We could have been here years ago, right?

And hey, lest you think I’m picking on these folks, the field of FOI portals seems to be particularly popular for wheel-reinvention. You’ve got FOIA Machine and MuckRock, and the most successful one in the US: FOIA Online, built by the US Environmental Protection Agency for a cool $1.1 million.

Because we’re all friends here: even I was on a hackathon team that build a rudimentary FOIL portal back in 2012. How the time does fly. In forty-eight hours, we reinvented the Alavateli wheel because fixing the actual problem (i.e. solutions for agencies deluged with FOI requests) is much harder than fixing the superficial problem (i.e. it can be a little daunting to make an FOI request for non-lawyers). This sentence represents me waving at everyone from inside my glass house.

It’s just a little bit deflating to know that rather than run this race, we’re all trying on different pairs of shoes at the starting line. Come on, civic technologists. We can do better.

Published on under We Can't Have Nice Things

Prenda used to be a law firm that represented copyright owners suing the pirates who illegally download movies and TV shows and other, shorter films. I say “used to,” because in about 2013, they were sanctioned (i.e. fined) by a judge for repeatedly engaging in egregious behavior. After being fined, the lawyers running Prenda started hiding their assest so they could plead poverty and avoid paying the fines. The judge found out, and held the lawyers in contempt. How delightful.

Though if you really want the full Prenda experience, Ken White of Popehat has chronicled every delicious moment of Prenda’s demise, including a wonderful blow by blow commentary of a hysterical appellate hearing. I do suggest watching it.

The story gets even better today, because TorrentFreak has evidence that the FBI is investigating Prenda’s attorneys for copyright infringement. Prenda was apparently the pirate providing illegal copies of the videos in the first place, and then running to copyright holders to say “hey look all these people are downloading your movie; we can sue them for you!”

The crucial evidence to back up this allegation came from The Pirate Bay, who shared upload logs with TorrentFreak that tied a user account and uploads to Prenda and its boss John Steele.

This serious allegation together with other violations piqued the interest of the FBI. For a long time there have been suspicions that the authorities are investigating the Prenda operation and today we can confirm that this is indeed the case.

The confirmation comes from Pirate Bay co-founders Peter Sunde and Fredrik Neij, who independently informed TF that they were questioned about Prenda during their stays in prison.

Oh, honeys.

Published on under Motion to Point and Laugh

America’s having a conversation about whether a Confederate flag ought to fly over government buildings. I liked the perspective of Markus Feldenkirchen, a commentator from the German news outlet Der Spiegel:

How is it that for many politicians and American citizens, this flag has only now become a little embarrassing? Why are people only now asking whether it is really a good idea to name streets and public spaces after the greatest generals in the fight for slavery? They may have been brave soldiers, but if they were fighting for a despicable cause, they should not have monuments built in their honor. Unless, of course, we believe that what they stand for is not really so reprehensible.

This is basically how I’ve felt watching this conversation. The Confederacy was treasonous, and it doesn’t seem like they faced an awful lot of consequences for their actions. Now, a century and a half later, not nearly enough people see this as a traitor’s symbol.

Published on under Hail Hydra

Remember that time Stephen Colbert ran a years-long piece of performance art about the ridiculous election laws in America? He called it the Colbert Super PAC, it was eye-opening. Colbert’s show won a Peabody for excellence in journalism for that. On Comedy Central!

But one presidential candidate is out to prove the election laws are an even bigger joke than that:

Back in April, the executive director of the super PAC backing Carly Fiorina dared the Federal Election Commission to sanction the organization for calling itself “Carly for America,” which violated rules prohibiting using a candidate’s name in the name of a legally unaffiliated PAC.

“It could be Carly for Puppies, it could be Carly for Freedom,” Mr. DeMaura said then. “There’s no legal prohibition against the type of name that we use. I think the reason that many don’t do it is for practical political reasons not based in legal fact.”

The fact that the guy running a super PAC – ostensibly barred from coordinating with the candidate – didn’t know he couldn’t use the candidate’s name? Kinda funny. The comeuppance is a little funnier:

It took the FEC less than three weeks to send a formal letter of reprimand to Carly for America.

So after some deliberation, on Monday the Fiorina super PAC changed its name. It’s no longer Carly for America. It’s now Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America – though it will be known by the acronym CARLY for America.

The legal term for this is a “giant middle finger” to FEC.

Published on under Not The Onion

Lots of people apparently think the government is looking out for their interests online. These are some impressive numbers:

49% of American adults who use the Internet believe (incorrectly) that by law a supermarket must obtain a person’s permission before selling information about that person’s food purchases to other companies.

69% do not know that a pharmacy does not legally need a person’s permission to sell information about the over-the-counter drugs that person buys.

65% do not know that the statement “When a website has a privacy policy, it means the site will not share my information with other websites and companies without my permission” is false.

55% do not know it is legal for an online store to charge different people different prices at the same time of day.

62% do not know that price-comparison sites like Expedia or Orbitz are not legally required to include the lowest travel prices.”

Published on under Eyeballs For Hire

Barry Ritholz on the Amtrak derailment from last month, titled More Proof Of America’s Inadequate Infrastructure:

The details are still being sorted out on the deadly Amtrak crash that killed at least six people earlier this week and injured 100s more. But what we do know is that the stretch of track where the train derailed did not have the latest automated speed control system.

Oh, sure. It didn’t have the latest Bluetooth hands-free throttle or some crazy space age nonsense. Nobody is going to pay $900 a ticket for a deflector dish and inverse tachyon beam trains or whatever.

The NTSB has been pushing for this safety system to be put in place since 1970. That is not a typo, the need for this system has been known for literally 45 years. Following a commuter train(s) head-on collision near Darien, Connecticut, the NTSB began urging the development and implementation of positive train control systems.

<Spit take noise goes here> 1970?!

The bad news is that the train industry, through the Association of American Railroads, has been lobbying against this. The Unions are no better, fighting implementation for fear it will cost jobs.

My favorite kind of sci-fi dystopia might be the one where the machines are trying to kill us. Someone invents a robot that ends up flipping out and tries to kill all the humans. Then people of all races, colors, and creeds unite against our common metal foe. We triumph.

In this case, we invented a machine to save lives 45 years ago, and both labor and capital have united in a horrifying attempt to keep those machines from saving us from the machines that humans use to accidentally kill hundreds of people.

Congress, that bastion of partisan gridlock, got together in 2008 to say that by December 2015, almost all passenger rail tracks will have these safeguards in place. As a country, we’re almost at a place where easily-preventable accidents will be… well, prevented.

It is unlikely that the industry will meet the deadline set 7 years ago.

Oh, come on.

Published on under We Can't Have Nice Things