Required Reading, First Week of November 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

Someday, Tech Will End Our Dumb Two-Party Systemvia Wired.com—Drew Curtis, founder of the irreverent news website Fark.com, offers his perspective on running a (losing) campaign for the Kentucky gubernatorial seat. Regardless of how the race turns out, he’s a smart and engaged citizen who deserves to be listened to:
Most politicians start with a theory, and then use that to determine their policies. For example, candidates are routinely asked to weigh in on charter schools. Most start by stating their theoretical approach—I’m broadly in favor of or opposed to charter schools. That immediately tells voters where you stand, but it does nothing to find actual solutions. As soon as you’ve signaled which camp you belong to, both sides start yelling at each other, accomplishing nothing.

I always tried to answer questions on issues pragmatically, either: 1) I’ve seen an implementation that works and we should copy it or 2) I have yet to see an implementation that works but do you have one you could share with me? If you read a campaign 101 primer it will tell you not to do this, but I found that voters responded very strongly to this strategy. It allowed people who didn’t agree 100 percent with my viewpoints to realize that even though we weren’t entirely aligned, all ideas had a place at the table. Any idea that was provable was worth looking at, regardless of the source.

The good news is, if you understand technology at all, you have access to new tools and ways of thinking that might change the discussion around public policy. For example, in northern Kentucky there’s an argument around tolling on a proposed bridge between Kentucky and Ohio. One idea is to charge locals $1 and everyone else $5. Right now, everyone is arguing about who should be considered local—how far out are we talking? My solution is to use technology to decide. Offer transponders and give drivers the opportunity to buy them. People who drive over the bridge regularly will pick them up. (I have a transponder for Chicago even though I don’t live there, because it makes my twice-yearly visits much more manageable.) Others can get charged a higher rate using license plate photo technology, like they have in Denver. Throw in Los Angeles-style fast lane surge pricing on top of this. Then turn all the tolls off once the bridge is paid for.

The advantage here is you get a huge leg up on the career politicians by demonstrating you’re thinking outside of the box, when in reality you’re just taking decades-old technology and applying it to government. Which I guess actually is thinking outside the box from a public sector perspective.

The Value of Universityvia The Economist—Not only does this article provide different results than most college ranking lists, it also gives a detailed breakdown of how they arrived at their results: 

A well-known economics paper by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that people who attended elite colleges do not make more money than do workers who were accepted to the same institutions but chose less selective ones instead—suggesting that former attendees and graduates of Harvard tend to be rich because they were already intelligent and hard-working before they entered college, not because of the education or opportunities the university provided.

On September 12th America’s Department of Education unveiled a “college scorecard” website containing a cornucopia of data about universities. The government generated the numbers by matching individuals’ student-loan applications to their subsequent tax returns, making it possible to compare pupils’ qualifications and demographic characteristics when they entered college with their salaries ten years later. That information offers the potential to disentangle student merit from university contributions, and thus to determine which colleges deliver the greatest return and why.

The Economist’s first-ever college rankings are based on a simple, if debatable, premise: the economic value of a university is equal to the gap between how much money its students subsequently earn, and how much they might have made had they studied elsewhere. Thanks to the scorecard, the first number is easily accessible. The second, however, can only be estimated. To calculate this figure, we ran the scorecard’s earnings data through a multiple regression analysis, a common method of measuring the relationships between variables.

Data Mining Reveals the Extent of China’s Ghost Cities and Facebook App Can Answer Basic Questions About What’s In Photosvia MIT Technology Review—The first of these articles is about the deserted infrastructure built up during China’s ill-founded real estate boom (perhaps a symptom of that inflated growth rate that crashed and caused that market scare here in America a few months back). The other one details an impressive technological breakthrough: a computer program that can recognize what is happening in a picture. Combine this with Facebook’s face recognition algorithm and you can know what everyone is doing all of the time.

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