February 28, 2017

Archives for October 2011

Is Insurance Regulation the Next Frontier in Open Government Data?

My friend Ray Lehman points to an intriguing opportunity to expand public access to government data: insurance regulation. The United States has a decentralized, state-based system for regulating the insurance industry. Insurance companies are required to disclose data on their premiums, claims, assets, and many other topics, to state regulators for each state in which they do business. These data are then shared with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a private, non-profit organization that combines it and then sells access to the database. Ray tells the story:

The major clients for the NAIC’s insurance data are market analytics firms like Charlottesville, Va.-based SNL Financial and insurance rating agency A.M. Best (Full disclosure: I have been, at different times, an employee at both firms) who repackage the information in a lucrative secondary market populated by banks, broker-dealers, asset managers and private investment funds. While big financial institutions make good use of the data, the rates charged by firms like Best and SNL tend to be well out of the price range of media and academic outlets who might do likewise.

And where a private stockholder interested in reading the financials of a company whose shares he owns can easily look up the company’s SEC filings, a private policyholder interested in, say, the reserves held by the insurer he has entrusted to protect his financial future…has essentially nowhere to turn.

However, Ray points out that the recently-enacted Dodd-Frank legislation may change that, as it creates a new Federal Insurance Office. That office will collect data from state regulators and likely has the option to disclose that data to the general public. Indeed, Ray argues, the Freedom of Information Act may even require that the data be disclosed to anyone who asks. The statute is ambiguous enough that in practice it’s likely to be up to FIO director Michael McRaith to decide what to do with the data.

I agree with Ray that McRaith should make the data public. As several CITP scholars have argued, free bulk access to government data has the potential to create significant value for the public. These data could be of substantial value for journalists covering the insurance industry and academics studying insurance markets. And with some clever hacking, it could likely be made useful for consumers, who would have more information with which to evaluate the insurance companies in their state.

ACM opens another hole in the paywall

Last month I wrote about Princeton University’s new open-access policy. In fact, Princeton’s policy just recognizes where many disciplines and many scholarly publishers were going already. Most of the important publication venues in Computer Science already have an open-access policy–that is, their standard author copyright contract permits an author to make copies of his or her own paper available on the author’s personal web site or institutional repository. These publishers include the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Springer Verlag (for their LNCS series of conference proceedings), Cambridge University Press, MIT Press, and others.

For example, the ACM’s policy states,

Under the ACM copyright transfer agreement, the original copyright holder retains … the right to post author-prepared versions of the work covered by ACM copyright in a personal collection on their own Home Page and on a publicly accessible server of their employer, and in a repository legally mandated by the agency funding the research on which the Work is based. Such posting is limited to noncommercial access and personal use by others, and must include this notice both embedded within the full text file and in the accompanying citation display as well:

“© ACM, YYYY. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in PUBLICATION, {VOL#, ISS#, (DATE)} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/nnnnnn.nnnnnn”

But now the ACM is trying something new; a mass mailing from ACM’s Director of Publications explains,

ACM has just launched a new referrer-linking service. It is called the ACM Author-Izer Service. In essence, ACM Author-Izer enables you to provide a free access to the definitive versions of your ACM articles permanently maintained by ACM in its Digital Library by embedding the links generated by this service in your personally maintained home-page bibliographies.

With widespread usage of this service, the need to post your author-prepared versions should be alleviated; automatic indexers will point to the article in the DL rather than alternative versions hosted elsewhere without the promise of being permanently maintained.

The ACM has not removed the author’s right to self-post copies of the articles, but clearly the publisher wants to discourage that, and to be the only source for content. Furthermore, authors can use this only if they buy in to the ACM’s “Author Profile” page, a feature that ACM has been pushing but that I suspect most authors don’t bother with. It’s an interesting strategy to capture links, or to reduce the number of copies floating around outside the control of the ACM archive. Whether it works may depend, in part, on how difficult it is for authors to use. I suspect most authors won’t bother, but if you want to see some Author-Ized links in action, click here and then click on “A Theory of Indirection via Approximation.” (I can’t link directly from this article, because the ACM permits this service from only one Web address.)

Unlike some newspapers, which are suffering badly in the Internet age, major nonprofit scholarly publishers such as the ACM are in good financial health, with a diverse array of activities and revenue sources: membership dues, conferences, refereed journals, magazines, paid job-advertisement web sites, and so on. Still, there is a lot of experimentation about how to survive as a publisher in the 21st century, and this appears to be the latest experiment.

Appeal filed in NJ voting-machines lawsuit

Paperless (DRE) voting machines went on trial in New Jersey in 2009, in the Gusciora v. Corzine lawsuit. In early 2010 Judge Linda Feinberg issued an Opinion that was flawed in many ways (factually and legally). But Judge Feinberg did at least recognize that DRE voting machines are vulnerable to software-based election fraud, and she ordered several baby-step remedies (improved security for voting machines and vote-tabulating computers). She retained jurisdiction for over a year, waiting for the State to comply with these remedies; the State never did, so eventually she gave up, and signed off on the case. But her retention of jurisdiction for such a long period prevented the Plaintiffs from appealing her ruling, until now.

The Appellate Division of the NJ court system agreed to hear an appeal, and the Plaintiffs (represented by Penny Venetis of Rutgers Law School and John McGahren and Caroline Bartlett of Patton Boggs) filed their appeal on October 12, 2011: you can read it here.

Plaintiffs point out that Judge Feinberg made many errors of law: she improperly permitted nonexpert defense witnesses (employees of Sequoia Voting Systems) to testify as experts, she improperly barred certain of Plaintiffs’ expert testimony, and she misapplied case law from other jurisdictions. Her misapplication of Schade v. Maryland was particularly egregious: she appropriated testimony and conclusions of Dr. Michael Shamos (defense expert witness in both the NJ and the MD cases) on topics which she had barred Dr. Shamos from testifying about in the NJ case. Worse yet, it’s quite inappropriate to use these out-of-state cases in which DREs were defended, when almost every one of those states subsequently abandoned DREs even when they won their lawsuits. In the case of Schade v. Maryland, Schade claimed that Diebold voting machines were insecure and unreliable; the Maryland court decided otherwise; but soon afterward, the legislature (convinced that the Diebold DREs were insecure and unreliable) unanimously passed a bill requiring a voter-veriable paper record.

Finally, Judge Feinberg made many errors of fact. In a nonjury civil lawsuit in New Jersey, the appeals court has authority to reconsider all factual conclusions, especially in a case such as this one where there is a clear and voluminous trial record. For example, Plaintiffs presented many kinds of evidence about how easy it is to use software-based and hardware-based methods to to steal votes on the Sequoia DRes, and the State defendants presented no witnesses at all who refuted this testimony. Here, by not taking account of these facts, Judge Feinberg made reversible errors.