Category Archives: Politics & World Affairs

Chicago’s Budget for Violence

Mayor Emanuel – Let’s rethink the budget and really cure our violence problem

Chicago_police_panAt my company, Public Good, we look for organizations that are effective at solving the world’s most important problems. We sift through one of the biggest databases ever compiled of nonprofit and NGO information and sometimes we make interesting discoveries. For example, we discovered that the most innovative and effective approach to ending violence has been developed right here in the City of Chicago. Like all great innovations, it sounds crazy until it sound obvious. The idea is treating violence like a disease epidemic.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, a widely respected doctor specializing in infectious disease, first noticed the relationship between the spread of violence and the spread of disease when he returned from Africa where he led a historic reversal of infection trends in cholera and HIV. The key is that the biggest predictor of violence isn’t economic hardship, poor policing, or easy access to guns: it’s other violence. If the cycle of violence and retribution can be interrupted the outbreak can be controlled.

Here in Chicago, Slutkin implemented the idea as a program called CeaseFire, and later replicated his results in dozens of cities worldwide under the moniker Cure Violence. His extensively peer-reviewed data shows reductions in violence in serviced areas starting within months of implementation and reaching 40-70% reductions in fewer than 3 years. It’s been hailed by the World Health Organization as a breakthrough.

So what does it look like? The idea is to find “credible messengers”, individuals with friends, family, and experience in a community blighted by violence. These individuals are given extensive training in de-escalation and conflict mediation and then visit homes, communities, hospital trauma centers, and other key locations. Many of the these “interrupters” are former gang members. Some have done time for violence themselves. They work to cool tempers and show that a cycle of violence helps no one. Because they’re part of the community and don’t wear a badge, they’re trusted and listened to in ways even the best police officer isn’t.

Despite the program’s manifest success here in Chicago and the warm adoption of its methodology by cities like New York and Los Angeles who have watched their rate of violence fall while ours rises, Chicago has cut funding to the program. It isn’t because we can’t afford it – CeaseFire estimates that a “fully funded” program for the city would cost approximately $25 million per year and would bring our level of violence down below that of our peer cities.

To put this in perspective, in addition to hiring 1,000 new police and investing heavily in training, Mayor Emanuel’s 2018 budget calls for a $20 million increase in police overtime to a total of $100 million. And, counter-intuitively, there is no good evidence to support the idea that increasing police staffing will reduce violence levels. So why not put a portion of the budget we are putting towards public safety into a proven, effective program that will make a difference? The State of Illinois has recently stepped up to cover around $5 million of the program cost so the overtime increase alone would cover the difference.

I’m certainly not arguing that a strong police force is not in the interests of the city, nor that funds for reform and training should be reduced. But I am arguing that withholding funding from a proven program that would saves hundreds of Chicagoans’ lives and save thousands more from grievous injury for the benefit of an unproven, more expensive alternative is clearly not the right answer. I hope the mayor will reconsider.


Trains and Planes: The O’Hare Plan

ohareIn a year without a lot to be cheerful about in our hometown, I was excited to hear that Mayor Emanuel is putting a real push behind the idea of high speed rail service from the Chicago loop to O’Hare. This is a really good idea for a few reasons but primarily because it will increase Chicago’s global competitiveness, take a big ding out of traffic, and bring a lot of economy that has sprawled into the suburbs back downtown.

If you are running a global business today, the fact of the matter is that you’ll have a lot of employees spending a lot of time on airplanes. We simply aren’t at the point where most interactions can be done virtually. And those hours really add up. Embarrassingly, not a single US airport makes the global list of best airports and right now Chicago doesn’t make the list even in North America. One big, often cited reason for one airport to outrank another is ease of transportation to and from it. This is one of things that always holds American airports back – we haven’t got anything like the Heathrow Express. Creature comforts are great, but efficiency and predictability are way more important (which is why I’ve previously argued for a service level agreement at customs, guaranteeing 95% of passengers get through in 15 minutes or fewer.)

This matters not just for businesses headquartered in Chicago (and would certainly be a boost to companies like Amazon or GE when they consider locating here), but it also matters a lot for other key Chicago industries: tourism, hospitality, and conventions. We all know Chicago has some of the greatest restaurants, theatre, and entertainment available anywhere and we get more than 50 million tourists a year spending billions of dollars. And many of the jobs in these industries are low skill or entry level but with career paths, which is a major win in an economy increasingly focused on high tech and services.

One way to see directly what a difference better airport transportation would make is to look at Rosemont. Why does it have its own thriving hotels, conference center, offices, etc.? It doesn’t offer a better climate, better amenities, or even appreciably lower prices that downtown. It’s just way more convenient that taking a car ride that could take anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours, or trying to drag luggage (especially convention kits) on the Blue Line. A side effect of high speed service to the loop would be that a lot of that business could move back downtown.

Less discussed, but probably also top of mind for Kennedy commuters is the fact that this rail service would take some load of the highways and even off the Blue Line. That would lead to fewer delays, longer lasting roads, and less crowded el cars. It would also make it easier for O’Hare freight service, since it would need to compete with a lot fewer cars on the roads.

There has been a tendency to think of the high speed airport link as just a concession to rich businesspeople, but I believe it’s anything but that. It would be a major factor in boosting the economy and increasing the quality of transportation even for people not themselves going to the airport. It’s a worthy project and one we should pursue.

Political and Civic Data Sources

As I’ve begun to dive back in to building political and civic applications, a frequent question is where to find sources of useful and interesting data. The following is a list of some of the resources I’ve come across along with some notes. Where possible, I list originating or value-added data sources rather than aggregators. There are a gazillion small scale mashups and those are too numerous to list.

I hope you find it useful and please let me know if you come across any more than I should know about. This post will be a work in progress.



  • Open Civic Data Division Ids is a set of CSVs that seeks to definite political geography in a standardized, hierarchical, composable and decomposable format.

Election Data

  • BallotReady is an expensive commercial product, but offers one of the more complete lists of elections and candidates as either APIs for CSVs. Data isn’t standardized and is hard to work with, but at least it exists.
  • Democracy Works appears to be the inheritor of the Voting Information Project, the first big effort to combine election data (and the data the powers the Google Civic API.) I have not used this product yet.
  • Google Civic API is from Google, so it’s robust, well-documented, and relatively affordable for small usage levels. However, don’t let the fact that it’s from Google fool you into thinking the data is complete. It has enormous holes (e.g. no Florida state representatives) and doesn’t seem to be maintained between cycles.
  • TargetSmart while better known for their voter files, TargetSmart also has a great tool for getting the districts for a given voter.

Candidate and Financial Data

  • Open Secrets provides APIs and bulk data particularly related to financial contributions to politicians.
  • ProPublica Congress API is a roll-up of some of the other data sources listed here, but if you want a quick way to get data on US congress members in one place at low volume, it’s pretty nice.
  • BallotPedia is a commercial API that has a lot of data on current and former members of congress. So far, it seems to have the most of this kind of data in one place.

Supporter Data

  • Open Supporter Digital Interface (OSDI) is a set of standards for exchanging supporter data. It’s out of date in some respects (like no graph data), but it’s a good way to jump start your schema.

I am not getting into voter files here – those are too dependent on your purpose.

Thanks to Ramon Tarango for some suggestions.

Women of the Valley

In the wake of the resignations of Dave McLure (500 Startups), Justin Caldbeck (Binary Capital), and, of course, Travis Kalanick (Uber), I think it’s incumbent on everyone in the tech industry to not just take a pledge, but to take an active stand on the issue of sexism in the tech industry and, in particular, in Silicon Valley. This isn’t because it’s something new, it’s because the issue is finally being taken seriously and there is momentum that needs a few more pushes to really get rolling downhill. I’d like to see more people both sharing stories to show what a big deal this is as well as making suggestions for fixing it. So with that, here’s my experience.

First, let me say that there is undeniably a serious and endemic issue here. I’ve given hundreds of pitches to investors in the course of my career both as the principal and in the best supporting role for both male and female CEOs. I’ve seen the difference in how these executives were received. I’ve been asked to effectively put a pre-nuptial agreement into investment documents (literally, not figuratively) when I’ve presented with a female executive. And I’ve seen an entire sector (online childcare) – which now supports billions in market capitalization – belittled as a “babysitters club”.

The numbers alone tell a striking story. A priori, any industry that is only 7% women clearly in decision-making roles has some kind of gender gating. And it’s true at the engineering level as well. Phrases like “engineering culture” often get conflated with “brogramming” and for investors “pattern recognition” has become a euphemism for profiling and outright sexism. If you only fund or partner with entrepreneurs who look like the ones you’ve seen before, you just get more 20-something Asian and white guys.

Dean Kamen’s wise aphorism that you get what you celebrate applies here as well. The zeitgeist  of the tech industry has become about celebrating the indefinite prolonging of adolescence. Sometimes that becomes explicit as in the eulogies to some of the fallen – for example Kalanick was celebrated for his ability to spend 12 hours in a hot tub. Sometimes it is more visible in the products that are being created. But until that changes, it’s unlikely to be a welcoming place for women.

As a tech founder and CEO myself, I am proud that Public Good is 44% female including a woman cofounder/executive and women in every functional area. We’re a small team, but it’s difficult to correct a bad course later than it is to focus early on. I believe that one critical aspect to achieving and maintaining that is understanding that a lot of what has driven women out of the industry can seem to many men to be subtle. For example, many engineers like to talk about their beards. While it may seem trivial, this clearly isn’t something women can really relate to. When the problem in many cases is, as Cheryl Sandberg points out, women not having the confidence to lead, these things really matter. An inclusive culture encourages that confidence so focusing on that and starting early are certainly keys to success. I welcome more advice and suggestions and hope these ideas are useful to someone as well.

To paraphrase Bill Gates, if you’re not fully utilizing half the taken in the country it’s not clear how America’s tech industry will continue to lead the world.

An Autonomous Civic Network


The more I have engaged with supporter-driven organizations – political and nonprofit – the more I am convinced that the way they interact with their supporters is fundamentally wrong. So much of it comes from the sales and marketing world.

Each organization seeks to build its own base. The less sophisticated ones treat this base as a simple sales funnel, an audience to be solicited frequently with the goal of raising more dollars. The more sophisticated ones go beyond that and try to engender genuine concern in their bases about the issues the organizations are addressing. They often build some kind of ladder of engagement to get people to care, but that ladder too often represents a simple sales funnel: the only goal is for each piece of communication to get a user to level up or get out.

All of this is reflected both in the culture and tools of these organizations. Tools for nonprofits and tools offered for campaigns are essentially customizations of corporate CRM tools. But the problem of supporter engagement is fundamentally different than a sales funnel for a variety of reasons.

Many have written thoughtfully on this topic, notably Marshal Ganz, and may of my coworkers from Obama for America. In various places we implemented ideas of snowflake organizing – the notion of a semi-hierarchical structure that devolves down from headquarters through regional, state, and city levels to ultimately create action through neighborhood teams. Each neighborhood team is large enough to do meaningful work, but small enough to create accountability.

But one thing that each of these organizations have in common is that address the big, hairy issue in people’s lives. While there are multiple elected offices in the United States, none has the power to motivate people like the presidency. And while there are multiple community issues that need to be solved urgently, none are as holistic as people’s livelihoods. It is hard to get people to engage continuously around worthy but less all encompassing issues whether they are congressional elections or food banks.

This makes me question a fundamental idea of all supporter engagement. That it should be owned.

Let me pick that apart. One common thread in all of the supporter engagement approaches that I’ve seen is the idea that they roll up to an organization with an agenda and fixed leadership. Ultimately, that is a big constraint. What if, instead, the organization could be federated and self-governing, more like Bitcoin than like

As a thought experiment, consider how it might work.

First, you would form a legal entity. Fortunately, US law allows for a legal entity without ownership. It’s called a nonprofit. Since nonprofits don’t have owners, they are controlled by a board of directors. If the organization had bylaws allowing those directors to be directly elected by a constituency, we’d have a framework for a participant-managed organization where power could be transferred much as it is in government.

Second, the organization’s structure, bylaws, and voting could all be modeled in a software tool. Much like the snowflake model, their would be neighborhood teams and a hierarchy, but unlike the snowflake model, each layer of the hierarchy would be elected by the members of the layer below it. So the ten or so people on a team would elect a captain, the captains in a city would elect a city manager, the city managers would elect a county representative, the country representatives would elect state representatives, and the state representatives would elect the slate of directors (or might themselves be the directors) and a chief executive.

Broadly, the organization would engage in a few tasks: setting policy, directing action, and raising and distributing money.

Anyone on the network would be about to push ideas up vertically (so a team captain can send things to the city manager, the county manager, etc., hypothetically all the way up the chain) or down to everyone who is “below” them in the hierarchy (so a state representative could message everyone in the state). Broadly, this would apply not just to messaging, but to authority generally. Anything can be suggested up, anything can be decided and directed down.

This same structure would apply to policy making. It could be as simple as a wiki with cascading editorial rights. And it would certainly apply to information distribution and actions people could take. For example, the organization could decide to support a slate of candidates for office (not just a single one). Then the network would take action in support of those candidates even though individuals would be free to dissent.

On the issue side, the network could decide at each level of the hierarchy what issues matter to them and adopt organizations relevant to those actions. For example, the Chicago group might be most concerned about combatting violence while the Los Angeles group might be most concerned about immigrant right. These priorities could change, but they’d change democratically and people could have confidence that through their own involvement they could make the case for their own issues.

Smaller actions could work through such a network as well. Neighborhood watches, alley cleaning, even school board meetings could be coordinated.

One critical facet would be that teams could also connect regularly in the real world and they’d get some sort of credit for their level of engagement. It is simple enough to pick a spot in each neighborhood (the local Starbucks or McDonalds) and a time every week or few weeks for such meetings to occur.

If a network of this kind could gather momentum, it would ultimately become a highly democratic but autonomous civic network. Organizations and candidate could effectively put their cases to the participants and, if they prevail, get a meaningful level of support even though each person may not be able to contribute much individually. The organization could also take meaningful actions between elections and between fundraising cycles: town hall meetings, calls on policy issues, and so much more.

The key point is that the network isn’t owned. It isn’t locked into a single person, a single cause, or a single organization. It should be self-healing (unlike a campaign when a candidate leaves office), perpetual, and provide ways for people to make a difference. It could also be a binding layer for communities.

The software to support it is easy enough to build and maintain (I built a prototype while I was thinking through this that I might opensource.)
I curious about if people think such a network might work in reality?

RISE with us.


Since I had the opportunity to work on President Obama’s 2012 campaign, it may be taking me longer than most to process the fact that the inauguration of the 45th president has just taken place. I’m trying to buy in to President Obama’s optimism about the future, but as he said, the future is in our hands only if we work for it and only if we organize for it.

With this in mind, since election day Genevieve and I have worked with a team of amazing volunteers to build RISE. Our goals are to create coordination among groups with an agenda of resistance to the most toxic incoming policies and to address many Americans’ real economic insecurity. We know that the country benefited hugely under President Obama with 8 years of economic growth, wages which are finally rising, a government budget in primary surplus, and so much more. But we also can see from the fact that the 45th president was elected that there’s a long way to go.

People no longer feel like the American Dream is working for them. Though wages are finally growing, middle class incomes have stagnated for a long time. We have huge issues around the impact of automation, climate change, and globalization. But we need answers that take us forward, not ill conceived ideas that try to take us back to a nostalgic history that wasn’t real, sustainable, or good for many groups of people like women and minorities. RISErs have many ideas for this and will work to engage new voters and persistent non-voters as well as the progressive base on these issues. We will do it by engaging thought-leaders and by listening to people’s individual concerns by building a permanent grassroots movement. We are also a political organization and will work directly to support like-minded candidates and policies as well as to oppose regressive ones. Our structure is a hybrid of tech startup and permanent campaign.

If you are as disturbed as I am by the direction the country has taken, please come and check out what we’re doing. RISE is only 60 days old so it’s a work in progress, but to be successful we need your support, your contributions, and your ideas. We need you to help us spread the word. Help us shape RISE and help us be a powerful voice for both resistance and change.

Genevieve is also touring the country to build support. Sign up to find out when she’ll be in your area (Cleveland, Philly, Milwaukee, Detroit, SF, and Denver are all coming soon.)

The Collins Proposal

Today Senator Susan Collins introduced a compromise gun proposal to limit gun sales to people on certain terrorist watch lists. I support the proposal, even though I don’t think it goes far enough and even in spite of several seemingly reasonable arguments against it. I want to explain why.

First, there is the argument that this proposal would not have prevented Orlando or Newtown let alone the violence plaguing big cities like Chicago. That may be true, but it is not a reason to oppose the proposal for several reasons. The most consequential public policy victories of the last few decades were won not with a single sweeping piece of legislation but through incrementally building up smaller pieces to build a foundation and to make it clear that the fear, uncertainty, and doubt associated with a big change is unfounded. Examples of this include gay marriage rights and health care reform. If this policy is a good policy, opposing it on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough is wrongheaded and simply allows the great to be the enemy of the good. It’s not my opinion that we should pass this compromise and move on, but that we should use it as a starting point and build towards other sensible reforms. Even a small bill with bipartisan support would help build trust for further discussions. It would also help eliminate the fear that passing any reform whatsoever is equivalent to stepping on the political third rail.

A more interesting challenge to the proposal is the argument that using a government list (like the terror watch lists) as the basis for exclusion from a constitutional right (like the second amendment) is a slide down the path to tyranny. This sounds sensible until you pick it apart. Virtually all constitutional rights have exclusions (e.g. you can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater nor can you utter hate speech.) If the concern is that due process may not be observed, that can be resolved by allowing for an appeals process from the list. While that may seem tantamount to being considered guilty until proven innocent, that opens the whole issue of the legitimacy of the lists to restrict other rights like free travel. In fact, I don’t think it’s that different from someone being declared mentally ill (which virtually everyone accepts as a reasonable basis for exclusion from the right to buy a gun). The analysis is done by a professional and is either accepted or not accepted by a court. I may be wrong on this, but these kinds of decisions are what the Supreme Court is for.

The last point – that more guns make us safer and therefore any restriction is bad – simply flies in the face of the data. There are good reasons why people want to own guns (I own one myself) but this one doesn’t pass muster. And while I agree that not all policies make us safer, I still support this one for the reasons above.

Speaking of the courts, it’s still important to add that the scope of the second amendment has been subject to different interpretations (including skeptics of all political stripes ranging from John Paul Stevens to Robert Bork.) To simply throw up our hands and say there is no possible restriction that is constitutional is simply incorrect.