If you haven’t seen the 2011 documentary Chasing Madoff or read Harry Markopoulos’ book that the film was based on, No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller, you might not appreciate the risks and costs of his whistleblower heroism. Knowing that the dragon was slain and Mr. Markopolos and his family survived – he went on to testify before a US Congressional panel, wrote a book and was featured in a documentary, Madoff landed in jail for 150 years – all this doesn’t change that he endured eight years of ever growing frustration and fear in his unsuccessful pursuit of SEC and judicial visibility into the Madoff Ponzi scheme. Clearly in hindsight, an SEC investigation of the Madoff empire earlier than 2008 – ultimately precipitated by the 2008 global financial crisis – would have saved millions of dollars of investors’ money, some of those investors their lives, and all the potential benefits that legitimate use of investors’ funds might have provided.
Markopolos was chasing a dragon with available data, the requisite expertise and logically documented that the Madoff portfolios could not be legitimate. So why didn’t it all end sooner? Would open government catch a Madoff? Do open government, open data and social media all provide platforms that could prevent this regulatory inertia in the future?
David Eaves, a public policy activist, writes on his blog Case Study: How Open data saved Canada $3.2 Billion, that “government data – information that should be made more accessible and open in an unfettered and machine readable format – helped reveal one of the largest tax evasion scandals in the country’s history.” He proposes that if more government data were to be made publicly available then external viewers of the data, you and I global citizen, with a new context and different resources, would be able to help detect this type of fraud earlier.
The same can be said for the dreamers, more later. We know governments need to be responsible as well as responsive; we will tackle the gnarly topic of privacy and data security in a future blog.
So, maybe, just maybe, open government and open data can help slay dragons, but where are the open data dreamers?
The 10,000 hour January babies
Open data, so what? What is the good stuff that can come from open governments? What can open data do to increase the public value of government, beyond detecting fraud, waste and abuse? I am a fan of Malcolm Gladwell (if you haven’t noticed a trend, I am Canadian) and appreciate his efforts to explore patterns, often leveraging publicly available data sources for his analyses. One of my favourite of his discussions is the “10,000-Hour Rule”, from Outliers (uber successful people have at some time in their lives put in over 10,000 hours in their field to achieve their success – think Bill Gates and the Beatles). Another from the same book explores the reasons behind the predominance of elite hockey players in Canada that are born early in the calendar year. How do they relate? The way I see it, we know that there are people out there, right now, diligently accumulating their 10,000 hours, investing in pursuits that interest them. Some will ultimately emerge as highly successful experts in areas that we don’t even know now need experts. They are probably younger than us and are texting and posting on Facebook and Twitter from mobile devices as we speak. They live in a completely different context than the creators of the data governments are generating at the same time. Gladwell illustrates how birth month can impact hockey success and tries to understand why. Regardless of whether this changes elite hockey recruitment, having the interest in the topic and the data readily available to analyze, lead Gladwell to a previously undocumented conclusion that could possibly lead to new opportunities for December-born hockey hounds. A good thing.
Creating better communities to live in, from local to national, will be in the hands of those unknown souls that are currently well on their way to accumulating 10,000 hours of expertise. We should be giving them access to everything they need to help solve the problems that they will inherit. Job creation, sustainability solutions, health and safety advancements, we need all hands on deck, because we don’t have the answers and cannot predict how and when they will happen.
Open governments with open data is the right start to arm the dragonslayers and let the dreamers do what they need to do.