Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Corporate Officers

People create corporations to encourage investment by shielding their personal assets from the business venture. Ordinarily, when you go into business (with a couple of partners, for example), if your business racks up $300,000 in debt, the business is liable for the $300,000, but so is each partner. With a corporation, debtors can only collect the assets of the corporation; so if you, Mister Partner, only invested $100,000, that’s all your debtors get from you. Limiting your risk like makes you more likely to invest; at least, that’s the idea.

Here’s a fun fact: government agencies create corporations, too. As they’re not investing or trading any stock, you have to wonder what exactly the purpose is. Sometimes, they’re created because a state constitution regulates borrowing by agencies. But corporations aren’t agencies – they’re people! – so the government, through agencies, can just keep borrowing money. That’s lousy, but that’s not what this post is about.

Via the Washington Post, the American Civil Liberties Union’s new report on police SWAT teams is a little eyebrow-raising. What they’ve found is almost as interesting as what they can’t find. Take Massachusetts:

Published in gov 2.0 on

Violent Savages

Seriously, the white-on-white crime in this country is out of control:

Back in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, a staggering 83 percent of white murder victims were killed by fellow Caucasians. […] To understand the level of cultural pathology at work here, it’s important to understand that 36 percent of those killed by whites are women — a far higher share than you see with black murderers.

A superb look into an epidemic. I hope someone can help those poor people.

Published in Jest, Mostly on

The Internet is Appalling

The Internet has had, for some time, plenty of places to find photos of naked women uploaded without their consent. The term we’ve settled on as a society is somehow “revenge porn,” which is absurd. Uploading photos of someone else is not revenge unless she uploaded photos of you first. (If you can find a single instance of that happening, I’ll eat a unicorn.) It’s also not pornography because pornography requires consent and participation and all those other considerations human beings (i.e. not A Woman On Internet) are afforded.

In my ignorance, I assumed that these kinds of photos were published by resentful exes, not organized rings of perverts. But, the Internet is always finding ways to surprise you and let you down.

Surprise!

Over the weekend, some celebrities had their private photos published online by creeps. This wasn’t accomplished by a small army of cranky ex-boyfriends, just your run of the mill script kiddies. Most of the coordination for this effort was apparently done on a small handful of public message boards. If you’re looking for a retelling of how it happened, the Official Lookout Blog has you covered:

This weekend close to 700 highly personal photos of more than 25 celebrities were leaked publicly. We looked into the origins of this dump and the files inside it to shed some light into how they got there, particularly to understand how best to protect users against this sort of crime in the future.

Published in The Digital Age on

Private vs. Public

I’m catching up on my Marginal Revolution backlog. Tyler Cowen highlights a study on the effectiveness of public schools compared to private schools in Korea. The abstract:

We show that private high school students outperform public high school students in Seoul, South Korea, where secondary school students are randomly assigned into schools within school districts.

That’s a bold claim. I mean, there are lots of secondary factors that co-

Both private and public schools in Seoul must admit students randomly assigned to them, charge the same fees, and use the same curricula under the so-called ‘equalization policy’.

All right. You reeled me in with a three-hit combo. Bring it on home, study co-authors Youjin Hahn, Liang Choon Wang, and Hee-Seung Yang. Why do private schools outperform their virtually identical public school counterparts?

[…] Private schools enjoy greater autonomy in hiring and other staffing decisions and their principals and teachers face stronger incentives to deliver good students’ performance. Our findings suggest that providing schools greater autonomy in their personnel and resource allocation decisions while keeping school principals accountable can be effective in improving students’ outcomes.

Caveat

Now, these performance results are based on standardized tests, which I touched on a bit last week. I’m not sure to what extent “resource allocation” is code for “can afford to buy textbooks from the standardized test companies” or if that’s just not a concept they really have in Korea.

But still. This is fascinating, if there’s really a statistically meaningful difference in student performance when principals have autonomy in personnel matters. I can’t help but draw parallels with how difficult it is to fire teachers in America, and how there’s basically no meaningful way to tell if a teacher is bad and needs firing.

The double secret caveat is that the performance improvements from the study were on a series of standardized tests. And from where I’m sitting (read: the peanut gallery), evaluations on standardized test scores alone don’t seem super useful. At least not on this side of the Other Pond.

Vaguely Meaningless

For example, this 2012 report from the Annenberg Institute studied teacher evaluation data in New York. The results were inconclusive, to say the least:

[F]or all teachers of math, and using all years of available data, which provides the most precise measures possible, the average confidence interval width is about 34 points (i.e., from the 46th to 80th percentile). When looking at only one year of math results, the average width increases to 61 percentile points.

That is to say, the average teacher had a range of value-added estimates that might extend from, for example, the 30th to the 91st percentile. The average level of uncertainty is higher still in ELA. For all teachers and years, the average confidence interval width is 44 points. With one year of data, this rises to 66 points.

For reference, a 66-point spread on the SAT is the difference between scoring a 700 and a 430 on the math section. If the SAT folks couldn’t determine your performance any more precisely than that, I don’t think many colleges would use it for admissions.

Hopefully, someone devises (devised?) a better way to evaluate teachers than that.

Published in Gee Gee Baby Baby on

Forging Ahead

By way of James Grimmelmann comes this yarn of how far one company will go to keep people from leaving negative reviews for its products online. Matt Haughey, the founder of MetaFilter (think: Reddit for people with graduate degrees) has had an odd back and forth with the people at Sundance Vacations:

In January of 2013, I was contacted by Sundance Vacations over this 2010 question at Ask MetaFilter. The company appears to be a time-share vacation company and it seemed they were trying to chase down every negative mention of their company online.

The question at Ask MetaFilter doesn’t necessarily tarnish their company, as someone asks if a vacation sales pitch they have to attend to win a free trip is worth the trouble. Most of the answers mention general stories of having to sit through strong-arm timeshare sales pitches and how to get out of them quickly.

tl;dr: this company wants to lawyer up on bad internet press.

Now, most companies have figured out that 47 USC §230, better known as the Communications Decency Act, makes it pretty damned hard to go after sites like MetaFilter for the things their users say. From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

The Bloggers’ FAQ on Section 230 Protections discusses a powerful federal law that gives you, as a web host, protection against legal claims arising from hosting information written by third parties.

Occasionally, some companies will go after the individual reviewers. (Or, if you believe the rumor mill, some sites monetize their §230 immunity.) Sundance Vacations is apparently one of those companies. But they need a little help to find users sometimes. They enlisted Matt to help locate his user, and then it got … dumb.

Published in Motion to Point and Laugh on

Open Data and Elk Theory

In my day job, I’ve researched and written a lot about data sharing by governments, or “open data”. The “how” is pretty well-settled. If you’re an agency and you want to share data with the public, you either get yourself a nice open data portal, or maybe you just have a page on your web site with a bunch of CSV files. Doesn’t really matter, to be honest.

As for the “why,” well, the important part of open data (and management generally) is that you, as an agency or department or bureau or city or whatever, have access to this data in a form that is useful to you. Yes, releasing it so nerds can make apps is nice.

But frankly, I care more about the governments’ nerds having meaningful access to this information than nerds hunting for the next big startup. Open data is information that you’ve busted out of some vendor-locked-in silo is information that everyone at your agency can use.

If only one person in your office can actually access that information, your institutional wisdom suffers. Your agency’s ability to improve its performance suffers, as does your ability to manage (read: regulate) what you’re supposed to be managing; that can mean potholes or crime or bank loans or anything.

What? Why? Elk?

So the “why” is almost as straightforward as the “how.” But there’s a bit of a struggle when government agencies are deciding the “what” in open data. It’s complicated and inextricably linked with the “why” from above.

What do we publish on our open data portal? Why do we publish it? It’s the most important data, right? But what’s important? How do we know? What data do we even have?

And that last one is the biggest question. If you don’t have a clear view of your institutional knowledge when you’re deciding what to publish, how are you even doing your day job? Are you hoping that the right people have access to the right information? Are you assuming that spreadsheets migrate from desktop to desktop as they’re needed? Are they like elk?

The idea here is that open data is perhaps most useful as an exercise in institutional epistemological self-reflection. What do you know, how do you know it, where is it written down, and why is it known? What is unknown? Why don’t you know it? You cannot manage what you do not measure. If you can’t produce a list of what you measure, or what you know (i.e. what data your agency collects), you’re not managing so much as guessing.

A Vivid Example

A recent article in The Atlantic delves into this kind of scenario. It starts out kind of puffy, as a parent attempts to use Big Data Analytics to help her child overachieve on standardized tests. It sounded pretty comical.

In order to crunch the numbers to game those tests, the author and data whiz Meredith Broussard needs to know the names of the curricula to put into her spreadsheets.

That’s where things go pretty spectacularly wrong:

The first challenge came when I asked the School District of Philadelphia for a list of which curricula were being used at which schools. If you want to know which books should be in a school, you need to know the name of the curriculum the school uses. (Using a branded curriculum like Everyday Math allows a school to place its orders more efficiently and negotiate a bulk discount.)

“We don’t have that list,” an administrator at the Philadelphia Office of Curriculum and Development told me. “It doesn’t exist.”

“How do you know what curriculum each school is using?” I asked.

“We don’t.”

There was silence on the phone for a moment.

“How do you know if the schools have all the books they need?”

“We don’t.”

Okay. Pause. Time out. Wow. The article covers how standardized tests are basically asking students to regurgitate answers from specific textbooks. The same companies that make the tests make the books. Seems like a nice racket if you can get it.

And Philadelphia (and virtually every other large urban school district) doesn’t know what books what schools are using. They don’t know what each school is studying.

So you can figure out the implications of this pretty quickly. Test scores are inextricably linked to access to specific textbooks. The school doesn’t measure (and therefore cannot manage) what books go where. Fill in the blanks.

Even worse implications

It actually gets a lot worse than that in the article. It’s simply horrifying. Of course, in the absence of anything resembling effective management, teachers do what teachers do best:

Urban teachers have a kind of underground economy, [math teacher] Cohen explained. Some teachers hustle and negotiate to get books and paper and desks for their students. They spend their spare time running campaigns on fundraising sites like Donors Choose, and they keep an eye out for any materials they can nab from other schools.

Philadelphia teachers spend an average of $300 to $1,000 of their own money each year to supplement their $100 annual budget for classroom supplies, according to a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers survey.

For the last decade, federal funding for school districts has been based on standardized test scores. So here’s how it works. If your kids don’t get the books, they don’t pass the tests. If they don’t pass the tests, your district doesn’t get the money to buy the books so next year’s kids can pass next year’s tests.

Okay, This Looks Bad

What happens when the school district runs out of money? If your soul hasn’t been ground into dust and ashes by reading the article already, I guess one more look can’t hurt.

Take a deep breath. We’re going back in.

The Elements of Literature textbook costs $114.75. However, in 2012–2013, Tilden (like every other middle school in Philadelphia) was only allocated $30.30 per student to buy books—and that amount, which was barely a quarter the price of one textbook, was supposed to cover every subject, not just one.

My own calculations show that the average Philadelphia school had only 27 percent of the books required to teach its curriculum in 2012-2013, and it would have cost $68 million to pay for all the books schools need.

Oh. Well, the Philadelphia school system actually has a $2.4 billion budget. $68 million for books is nothing. It’s less than 3% of your total budget, and this is obviously an essential part of a budget. I mean, I’m just some guy with a law blog. Surely they know they have to buy textbo-

Philadelphia schools were allotted $0 per student for textbooks. The 2015 budget likewise features no funding for books.

OH COME ON.

Are you people even trying? Your entire school district is run on some guy’s overworked copy of Excel, and your funding depends on kids guessing the right answers from textbooks their teachers have never even seen. Frankly, it’s surprising that only one school has taken matters into its own hands and started cheating like crazy.

And apparently, this isn’t a sign that Philadelphia is some anomalously abysmal school system. This is just how most urban school districts go. They’re gigantic and they’re not getting the funds they need to implement the kind of systems to manage the textbooks they need to get the funds they need to etc etc. It’s beyond sad.

The Moral

What have we learned? If you’re not measuring it, you can’t manage it. If you’re collecting data but it’s not in useful formats, you’re not measuring it. If you’re sharing data as part of an open data initiative, you are by definition keeping data in a useful format.

Oh, and our schools are screwed and this is is un-American and it’s just bad policy because kids eventually become adults and if you completely neglected their development you stole their opportunity to participate in society and that seems horrifying and wrong and how is this not a giant problem for everyone.

But also spreadsheets.

Published in The Digital Age on