Archive for ‘Data’

An Announcement

By , 30 September, 2013, No Comment

As you may have noticed, blogging has been light-to-non-existent for a while around here. That’s because I’ve been preparing to make a big life change. Beginning next week, I’ll be working towards a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, which, with luck and coffee, I should finish by 2017.

My research, in its current vaguely defined state, looks at the way multinational corporations function as governing authorities when their business operations take them to places where the writ of the local state is weak.

I’m especially interested in the way corporate land acquisition – a prerequisite of doing business in resource-heavy industries like oil & gas, mining or agribusiness  – shapes the political relations between firms and local communities, placing firms in a position of territorial authority with control over many elements of basic infrastructure that would otherwise be the purview of the state. I’m also interested in the way land use laws in many developing countries reflect colonial legacies, and through this, the structural parallels and differences between the company towns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the colonial corporate fiefdoms of the 18th and 19th centuries.

(Aside: One Day I am going to write an essay entitled, “The British Raj was the First Corporate Bailout.”)

This project grew directly out of my time as a reporter, writing about Chinese mining companies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and Scandinavian agribusinesses in East Africa. Sometime last year, I decided that this was a topic I needed to pursue in more depth than journalism allows for. Around the same time, I discovered that some of my ‘news’ articles were veering off into academic territory, and thought, “Hmm, maybe that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think that’s actually where I want to be.”

I’ve begun by reaching out to sources – activists, corporate strategists, and lawyers who have worked on land use cases – building a rough list of potential cases which I’ll start exploring this year, hoping to combine land and legal records, correspondence, interviews where possible and some data collection on local social and economic development. Because I’m tracking change over time, I’m looking for resource-industry companies with long histories in a particular area and a willingness to let a young researcher inside their archives. Geographically, I’m confining my search to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, both for linguistic reasons and because it’s where I have prior experience looking at these issues.

Methodologically, I’m aware that everything about this is a bit unorthodox. The analysis I do once I have my data and documents is going to be academic, but because so much of this material isn’t in the public domain yet, much of my initial research is going to rely on my journalistic skills. I’m also planning to put as much of my material online as I can, and to build some interactive historical maps of corporate land holdings in the regions I wind up studying.

There has been much chatter about social science research methods since the dustup over NSF funding in the spring – whether political science is too quantitative, not quantitative enough, whether scholars can or should engage in matters of public policy. My small contribution to that debate is to try to do some research that is empirical but not primarily quantitative, policy-relevant while still being theoretically valuable, and critically, as open and transparent as possible.

For the next four years, I’ll be living in Cambridge, but I’m planning to be in London frequently, where I’ll be continuing to oversee my nonprofit Public Business from our U.K. office. I’ll also be writing occasionally, primarily on topics related to my research, and blogging here when I can. But for now, my main hat is going to be an academic one.

Wish me luck!

Some Recent Things Wot I Wrote

By , 26 June, 2012, No Comment

I try to keep this blog up to date with what links to things I write elsewhere, but (as those who follow me on Twitter will know), this site’s been experiencing some downtime of late, and for much of the last week, I wasn’t even able to log in to it to post a status update. So, just in case you’ve missed these pieces, here’s what I’ve been up to during the hiatus:

1. Commenting on a slightly paradoxical hunger crisis in India: more agricultural output, but less food in the hands of the poor. Cause: Corrupt and inefficient government food subsidy program.

2. Examining the economic impact of Title IX, which is 40 years old this week. Short version: it made American women richer and more successful and helped narrow the gender achievement gap.

3. Taking the Atlantic to task for a cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” My take: neither can men (a fact the author overlooks) and who ever said ‘having it all’ was the goal? The piece is touching a nerve with a lot of readers, and I’m getting a lot of fascinating, often critical, feedback which I may revisit in a follow-up post.

I didn’t mention this in my Forbes piece, but the Atlantic does seem to have a penchant for personal essays in which individual writers frame regrets or frustrations about their experiences in critiques of feminism from within feminism. This piece reminded me quite a bit of last year’s ‘All the Single Ladies‘ and the previous year’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in that respect, even though those pieces were about romantic, rather than professional, struggles. There’s an awful lot that’s wrong with being a woman today, but feminism isn’t the root of it. It’s almost always our best shot at making things better. I’m so very tired of the Atlantic suggesting otherwise.

Patrick Ball on the Perils of Misusing Human Rights Data

By , 17 February, 2011, No Comment

Belated post at Foreign Exchange on a talk I attended last week about problems in human rights data collection. A snippet:

In his lecture, Ball presented a number of cases like this, from Kosovo, Guatemala, Sierre Leone and Timor-Leste, where sound and verifiable data was used effectively to answer a small question, then stretched to answer a broader question for which it was not suited. The researchers in each case, Ball argued, had confused ‘what was observable’ with ‘what was true,’ failing to acknowledge the existence of all the data they hadn’t collected or hadn’t thought to ask for.

The second half of Ball’s talk focused on ways to work around this, starting with some quick math. A short, 7th grade example: Two NGO projects in a country report widely differing figures for killings over the same period, call then result-set A and result-set B. They have some overlap in the list of names, call that subset M. What’s a rough estimate for the total number of killings, N? [Solution at the bottom of the post.]

More on Ball, and the solution, in the post.

Covering the Wikileaks

By , 29 November, 2010, No Comment

The latest at Foreign Exchange on the way news organizations are handling the Wikileaks:

as we come to see Wikileaks as just a source, news organizations are having to decide whether to cover them at all, and–as we often do with delicate subject matter–how to balance the scoop against the risk to those implicated. I have very minimal sympathy with Wikileaks’ overall agenda, which seems increasingly to be about embarrassing the US government for the sake of it rather than to advance any particular cause, but I do think that news organizations have an obligation to cover these leaks in some fashion once they’ve occurred. They can pick and choose what to include on the basis of what’s really significant, and they can avoid reprinting the actual documents if they see a risk to someone’s life, but they can’t just choose to ignore the whole development.  That’s why I think it’s deplorable that two major news organizations–the Wall Street Journal and CNN–chose to turn down access to the documents altogether, because, in essence, they were afraid of being compromised. National security reporting is inevitably compromised and risky, and to run from that challenge is unjournalistic, and wrong.

Go read the whole thing.

Too Little Too Late

By , 19 November, 2010, No Comment

Regulators in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada and the European Commission are finally getting serious about privacy. First, there’s the bevy of cases and crackdowns recently introduced against Google’s Street View. Secondly, there’s the EC’s new privacy proposal, mandating that in the future companies ask such consent for all the data they take, and (more radically) make it possible for users to have it deleted at any time. They’re calling this the ‘right to be forgotten.’ [A direct response to Eben Moglen, perhaps?]

This is comforting news for those of us who have been talking about data and digital rights for some time, to be sure. But I am wondering it’s ultimately too little too late.

See, most of the major holders of user data online are–or are close to becoming–monopolies within their niche: Google in search and advertising, Facebook in social, etc. And it seems to me that the history of monopolies is that once they get in place, it’s very difficult, legally, to break them up and almost impossible to muster the political will for radically restricting their business practices when a massive majority of the populace are their customers. [Can you see I've been reading Tim Wu?] That’s one reason that I’ve been arguing for two years that the way to best Google on privacy was to take it to task on antitrust issues early on, before it became unbeatable.

But given we haven’t done that, it now seems to me that the best possible scenario is [and I can't believe I'm saying this] NOT to sue Google’s more offensive services out of existence, or to try and take it apart, but to essentially acknowledge it as a legitimate monopoly, and then slap it with a huge list of monopolist’s burdens: forbid it from further M&A activity, say, forbid them from collecting things like payload data, and mandate that all data-collecting services become voluntary, not at the individual level, because that’s now untenable, but at the municipal level. If the majority of a town’s population votes to be mapped, Google can photograph in the town. I think the municipal level is basically the smallest level that is still feasible, and the largest level that is still democratic. Is this a crazy idea?

As for the right to be forgotten, I regard it as pretty sound when I think of individuals and companies like Google or Facebook, but I am less convinced about how it might extend to other types of websites. Jeff Jarvis has correctly pointed out that a very broad reading of such a clause could lead to the idea that people can demand takedowns of news stories about them. Which is something that doesn’t make any sense to me, not least because news coverage is NOT something you consent to have written about you. It is not data YOU give away (and therefore own) but data which we as a society have decided can be collected involuntarily so long as you have the right to correct the record, and to extract a pound of flesh when the journalist is wrong. I’m inclined to say that the right to be forgotten should apply to everything except IRS and other federally mandated disclosures, and stories about you in the press. But I must admit that my sense of surety about these issues has declined the more I learn about them, so, please, sound off.

I Fixed the Deficit

By , 14 November, 2010, No Comment

What do econo-wonks do for fun on the weekends? We play interactive deficit-fixing games online. Really. Felix Salmon has a good post explaining why some of the options the game provides–especially the Medicare cap–are unrealistic and why many of them are regressive. But the solution Salmon proposes (gutting the Pentagon budget completely) seems just as unlikely. My version is harsher, in that I take a scalpel to entitlements. But it gives a 60-40 tax increases-spending cuts balance that I’m more comfortable with the 70-30 Salmon has going. You can see my version, and make your own, here.

Updated 11/15 5:20PM: Also worth playing is the CEPR budget deficit calculator. A very different–ie more left-wing–set of choices are in place there. It’s pretty hard to get far on that calculator, for example, without a complete re-do of health care reform and two energy taxes–both at the producer and the consumer levels. That seems ridiculously implausible to me, but still fun to play with.

More About Grizzlies

By , 3 November, 2010, 15 Comments

I’ve got a post about GOP women up at Forbes right now: basically, I took a look at how GOP candidates fared with women voters. And interestingly, in this so-called year of the GOP woman, it was GOP men who got the women’s vote, while GOP women were successful with a more traditional Republican base of white men. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m inviting theories from you, so please, go read the data and comment.

The Stiff Upper Lip and Its Discontents

By , 22 October, 2010, 1 Comment

I’ve just written the longest blog post ever at Foreign Exchange. It filled about 6 pages in Microsoft Word as I was working on it. I don’t think bloggers are actually allowed to be so verbose, but I couldn’t help myself, as the subjects touched on in the post triggered too many of my wonkish fetishes:

On Wednesday, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in the U.K. unveiled its mammoth austerity program, aiming to take £81 billion off the deficit over four years. There are a few major sources of cuts: a reorientation of British foreign policy that should take 24% out of the Foreign Office and 8% out of the Ministry of Defense; a welfare reform program  that should yield close to £20 billion in savings; a push towards privatization and localism on everything from low-income housing to law enforcement; and across the board cuts–mostly efficiency savings and staff reductions–in all departments with a few notable exceptions: education, health and foreign aid spending will all keep growing.

The plan has taken a heavy beating in the first 48 hours. First, there are criticisms of the way the Spending Review plays fast and loose with data: leaving off half the cuts in order to claim that the overall effect is more progressive than it really is, conflating real and nominal figures or cash figures and percentages or departments’ capital ceilings and their actual expenditures. I can’t tell if that kind of fuzzy math is intentional obfuscation or just economic incompetence, but it’s a problem with the Review and one reason it took me a long time to develop a solid analysis of my own. Second, there are criticisms of the policies on the merits, in particular of the changes in taxes, disability and child benefits and housing. The most aggressive critique has come from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a series of Power Point presentations that are getting a lot of positive play in the British press, but of which I’m a bit skeptical.

The rest of the post is a detailed analysis of the review, followed by an assessment of just how regressive it is. The figures I ended up with show that the Review is regressive in the broad sense (worse for the bottom half than the top half) but when it comes down to specifics, is actually going to squeeze the middle more than the absolute poor.

For more scintillating details, read the whole thing.

Introducing Public Business

By , 8 October, 2010, No Comment

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been swamped with a very exciting new project, and it’s now ready to introduce to you. Along with a Columbia classmate and BBC journalist, Damian Kahya, I’m launching a nonprofit dedicated to filling in a key gap in the emerging media model: in-depth, original, public interest reporting about business. That means reporting about how the decisions made at companies affect the rest of us: about the wider economic, environmental, and social implications of business activity. Once upon a time, this kind of journalism was a core part of every business newsroom, and indeed in some high profile examples, like Fortune’s big Enron scoop or the BBC’s documentary about Nike sweatshops, it has helped change the course of events and sparked public debate about important issues. There are still great reporters doing this work, but they are fewer in number and have less resources at their disposal. Our goal is to partner with news organizations to put more funds and more people behind this kind of reporting. To do that, we need support. We’re looking for donations large and small and we’re hoping to build a membership community around our work. To learn more about what kind of work we support, how we intend to do it, and what it will mean to be a member, visit our website.

There, you’ll find a blog post I wrote about the troubles in journalism and why we’re doing this. Here’s what it says:

Some Thoughts on the Wikileaks

By , 18 August, 2010, 5 Comments

When the massive data dump that was the Wikileaks Afghan War Logs showed up on my screen three weeks ago, I did what–apparently–no one else had yet done: read the whole thing. At the time, this seemed like Journalism 101. But by the time I finished [at the end of the week], I was more bored and overwhelmed than stimulated or enlightened. Because, as others had concluded by then, there really isn’t that much that’s earth-shattering in the logs. And I’ve been pondering what to say ever since .