Opening up Virginia corporate data.

In Virginia, you can’t just get a list of all of the registered corporations. That’s not a thing. If you dig for a while on the State Corporation Commission’s website, you’ll find their “Business Entity Search,” where you can search for a business by name. But if you want to get a list of all businesses in your county, all businesses that have been formed in the past month, all businesses located at a particular address, etc., then you’re just out of luck.

Except. The SCC will sell you their database of all 1,126,069 companies. It’s not cheap, at $150/month, with a minimum three-month commitment. You have to sign a five-page contract, and the data is a hot mess, of no value to anybody other than a programmer.

So, naturally, I wrote the SCC a check for $450 at the end of April, bought the data, and now give it away for free. (Updated weekly, early Wednesday morning, I automatically transfer the enormous file to https://s3.amazonaws.com/virginia-business/current.zip.) Because it’s not right that people should have to pay for public data. The SCC is already generating this data, and they’re already hosting the file on their website—why sell it? We’ve already paid for it, out of our taxes and out of our business incorporation fees. I FOIAed the list of customers for this data. There are just six, so it’s not like this is a money-making endeavor for the SCC. (Only one of them, Attentive Law Group, is in Virginia.)

Now people can have this terrible file, useful only to programmers. So what are they to do with that file? Well, maybe nothing. So I’ve also written some software to turn that data into modern, useful formats. Named “Crump” (for Beverley T. Crump, the first-ever member of the State Corporation Commission), it is, naturally, free and open source. Crump turns the SCC’s fixed-width text file into JSON and CSV files. Optionally, it will clean up the data and produce Elasticsearch import files, basically allowing the data to be quickly loaded into a database and made searchable. Again, anybody can have the data for free, and anybody can have Crump for free, to turn that data into useful data.

And, finally, I’ve created a website, creatively named “Virginia Businesses,” where non-programmers can access that data and do things with it. I’ve barely gotten started on the website—at this point, one can download individual data files as either CSV or JSON, download the original data file from the SCC, or search through the data. The search results are terrible looking, and not all of the data is loaded in at the moment, but by the time you read this blog entry, perhaps that will all be much improved. I intend to add functionality to generate statistics, maps, charts, etc., to let people dig into this really interesting data. The website updates its data, automatically, every week. Naturally, the website itself is also an open source project—anybody can have the website, too, and can set up a duplicate to compete with me, or perhaps create a similar site for another state.

So, free data, free software, and a free website. There’s no catch.

OpenCorporates, whose excellent work inspired this project, has imported the data into their own system, meaning that Virginia’s corporate data is now available in a common system with 69 million other corporations from around the U.S. and the world.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, a happy surprise: the Shuttleworth Foundation e-mailed me, out of the blue, informing me that they’re giving me $5,000 to support my work in open data, as a part of their “flash grant” program. I can do whatever I want with that money, and I’m going to use a chunk of it to support this work. That means that I’m not out of pocket on that $450 check, and that I can continue to pay for this data for a while, so that others can continue to benefit from it.

I don’t know where this project is going—it’s just a hobby—but even if I stopped doing any more work on it tomorrow, I know I’d be leaving Virginians with much better business data than they had before.

In addition to the Shuttleworth Foundation, my thanks to the ACLU of Virginia and the EFF for providing me with legal advice, without which I couldn’t have even begun this project, and to Blue Ridge InternetWorks, who generously donates the website hosting and server power to crunch and distribute all of this data.

Cloud corporations.

Many months ago, my friend Tim Hwang told me that he’d like to see an API created for corporate registrations, because that would enable all kinds of interesting things. Tim runs the semi-serious Robot Robot & Hwang, a legal startup that aspires to be a law firm run entirely in software. I’ve been chewing over this idea for the past year or so, and I’m convinced that, writ large, this could constitute a major rethinking of the Virginia State Corporation Commission. Or, really, any state’s business regulation agency, but my familiarity and interest lies with Virginia. But first I have to explain Amazon Web Services. (If you don’t need that explained, you can skip past that bit.)

Amazon Web Services

Not so long ago, if you wanted to have a web server, you needed to actually acquire a computer, or pay a website host to do so on your behalf. That might cost a couple of thousand dollars, and it took days or weeks. Then you had to set it up, which probably meant somebody installing Linux or Windows from CD-ROMs, configuring it to have the software that you needed, mounting it in a rack, and connecting it to the internet. You’d have to sign a contract with the host, agreeing to pay a certain amount of money over a year or more in exchange for them housing your server and providing it with a connection to the internet. That server required maintenance throughout its life, some of which could be done online, but occasionally somebody had to go in to reboot it or swap out a broken part. But what if your website suddenly got popular, if your planned 100 orders per day turned into 10,000 orders per day? Well, you had to place orders for new servers, install operating systems on them, mount them in more racks, and connect them to the internet. That might take a few weeks, in which time you could have missed out on hundreds of thousands of orders. And when your orders drop back to 100 per day, you’ve still got the infrastructure—and the bills—for a much more popular website.

And then, in 2006, Amazon.com launched Amazon Web Services, a revolutionary computing-on-demand service. AWS upended all of this business of requisitioning servers. AWS consists of vast warehouses of servers that, clustered together, host virtual servers—simulated computers that exist in software. To set up a web server via AWS, you need only to complete a form, select how powerful of a server that you want, agree to pay a particular hourly rate for that server (ranging from a few cents to a few dollars per hour), and it’s ready within a few minutes. Did your planned 100 orders turn into 10,000? No problem—just step up to a more powerful server, or add a few more small servers. Did your 10,000 orders go back to 100? Scale your servers back down again. Better still, AWS has a powerful API (application programming interface), so you don’t even have to even intervene—you can set your own servers to create and destroy themselves, control them all from an iPhone app, or let software on your desktop start up and shut down servers without any involvement on your part.

There are other companies providing similar cloud computing services—Rackspace, Google, and Microsoft, among others—but Amazon dominates the industry, in part because they were first, and in part because they have the most robust, mature platform. There remain many traditional website hosts, which you can pay to house your physical servers, but they’re surely just a few years away from being niche players. Amazon did it first, Amazon did it best, and Amazon is the hosting company to beat now.

Cloud Corporations

Imagine Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) using the Amazon Web Services model. Virginia Business Services, if you will. One could create a business trivially, use it for whatever its purpose is, and then shut it down again. That might span an hour, a day, or a week. Or one could start a dozen or a hundred businesses, for different amounts of time, with some businesses owned by other businesses.

Why would you do this? This is actually done already, albeit awkwardly. Famously, the Koch brothers maintain a complicated, sophisticated web of LLCs, which they create, destroy, and rename to make it difficult to track their political contributions. This probably costs them millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees alone. Doing so is perfectly legal. Why should that only be available to billionaires? Or perhaps you want to give a political contribution to a candidate, but not in your own name. Wealthy people create a quick LLC to do this. Maybe you want to host a one-off event, or print and sell a few hundred T-shirts as a one-time thing—a corporate shield would be helpful, but hardly worth the time and effort, except for the wealthy. There’s no reason why the rest of us shouldn’t be able to enjoy these same protections and abilities.

Cloud corporations would be particularly useful to law firms who specialize in managing legal entities. Right now, they spend a lot of time filing paperwork. Imagine if they could just have a desktop program, allowing them to establish a corporation in a few minutes. Instead of charging clients $1,500, they could charge $500, and make an even larger profit. Although surely Delaware would remain attractive for registering many corporations, due to their friendly tax laws, the ease of registering a corporation in Virginia would surely make it attractive for certain types of business.

So what would the SCC need to do to make this happen? Well, right now, one can register for an account on their site, complete a form on their website, pay $75 via credit card, and have a corporation formed instantly. From there on out, it costs $100/year, plus they require that an annual report be filed. Both of these things can be done via forms on their website. (Note that these dollar values are for stock corporations. There are different rates for non-stock corporations and limited liability corporations.) All of which is to say that they’ve got the infrastructure in place for purely digital transactions.

But to support to an AWS model, they’d need to make a few changes. First they’d have to expose the API behind those forms, to allow programmatic access to the SCC’s services. Then they’d have to add a few new services, such as the ability to destroy a business. And they’d need to change their pricing, so that instead of being billed annually, pricing would be based on units of weeks, days, or even hours. (That pricing could be elevated significantly over standard pricing, as a trade-off for convenience.) The SCC has some antiquated regulations that would need to be fixed, such as their requirement that a business have a physical address where its official documents are stored (“Google Docs” is not an acceptable location). Finally, to do this right, I suspect that the Virginia Department of Taxation would need to get involved, to allow automated payment of business taxes (something that Intuit has spent a great deal of money to prevent) via an API.

Next Steps

I regret that this is unlikely to happen in Virginia. The State Corporation Commission is like its own mini-government within Virginia, with its own executive, legislative, and judicial functions, and seems accountable to nobody but themselves. FOIA doesn’t even apply to them. They’re not known as a forward-thinking or responsive organization, and I’m dubious that either the legislature or the governor could persuade them or even make them do this.

But I am confident that some state will do this (I hope it won’t be Delaware) and that, eventually, all states will do this. It’s inevitable. Whoever does it first, though, will enjoy a first-mover advantage, perhaps on the scale of Amazon Web Services. I’ll enjoy watching it. Maybe I’ll even register a few corporations myself.

Modern tools of business.

The last time I started a business was over a decade ago. Good news: it’s gotten a lot easier. There was a lot of overhead in startup costs that have been reduced to little or nothing, due to the rise of internet-based tools. I had to do some research and try a lot of tools before I settled on the basic suite. Here’s what I’m using at the U.S. Open Data Institute:

CRM

Contactually watches my e-mail and serves as a repository for notes after meetings and phone calls. I associate each contact with a given project and classify them based on the nature of our relationship (client, funder, employee, vendor, colleague, board member, etc.) Based on those criteria, it reminds me when I need to get in touch with somebody. $20/month.

Task Management

The Asana group task management software is almost like using native Mac OS X software. Everything I need to do goes in here, attached to a given project and categorized. As the US ODI adds more employees and contractors, the group functionality will start to pay off. Free for teams of up to 15 people.

Assistant

I’d included an assistant in my budget, and the cost was non-trivial. In reality, the amount of assistance that I’ll need is going to fluctuate over time, and at this point my need is so minimal that I don’t even know how to meaningfully employ a competent person for, say, 4 hours a week. Then a friend suggested Zirtual. Now I have an assistant in North Carolina, who I can call or e-mail when I need some help. (Admittedly, I’m still figuring out how to work with an assistant, accustomed as I am to doing everything myself, but that’s not Zirtual’s fault.) $200/month for 8 hours of work.

Teleconferencing

Most teleconferencing systems are terrible, and I’ve generally relied on the folks on the other end of phone line to arrange something. Now I use UberConference. It has a simple web-based interface, allows selective muting of participants’ phones (that one guy with the barking dog), it doesn’t require a PIN, and it’ll even call the participants when the conference starts, rather than vice-versa. Free, $10/month for a bunch of nice features, or $20/month for those nice features and a toll-free number.

Phone/PBX

There was no way I was going to pay for a landline. And I’ve already got a mobile phone, of course, so I didn’t need a second one of those. But I needed an organizational phone number, voicemail, an employee phone directory, etc. That’s where Grasshopper comes in. They host the PBX, and connect calls to my phone. Voicemails are e-mailed to me, or available via an iPhone app. Starts at $12/month.

E-Mail

Like most everybody, I host organizational e-mail via Google Apps. Not only is it drop-dead simple, but their support of two-factor authentication gives me one less thing to worry about. $5/month/user.

Office Suite

The days of having to shell out a few hundred bucks for Microsoft Office are over thanks to, again, Google Apps. $5/month/user.

Website Host

The US ODI’s website is hosted on GitHub Pages. Cost: $0. I’ve got an Amazon Web Services account should I need to host anything that won’t work there, which I can just drop some files into S3. Cost: literal pennies.

The grand total is $279/month, with $200 of that for Zirtual. The equivalent services a decade ago would have been a great deal more expensive, or more crude. I’m not sure what’s been more powerfully beneficial to entrepreneurship: the shift towards internet-hosted business services, or the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps we’ll know in a few years.

Announcing the U.S. Open Data Institute.

I’ve joined a new endeavor this week—the U.S. Open Data Institute. Today is just day #2 for me, and for the organization. The US ODI is modeled on the UK-based Open Data Institute, a year-old organization that’s bridging the gaps between government and the private sector. That’s what we intend to do at the US ODI—help government, businesses, non-profits, and individuals make more effective use of the data being produced by governments and, in some cases, businesses. That’ll be done largely through facilitating collaboration between existing organizations and government agencies, and also by working one-on-one with government agencies who need help opening up their data. Neither is particularly glamorous—basically playing matchmaker and running a free IT help desk—but it’s what needs to be done to unlock the annual $3 trillion in economic value that’s waiting to be capitalized on. A whirlwind of activity has surrounded the establishment of this organization, to which I’ve largely been a stunned witness, with particular credit going to the Knight Foundation, the Aspen Institute, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Open Data Institute, Daniel X. O’Neil, and Max Ogden, although dozens of other people and organizations played important roles.

For  a lot more detail, see the Knight Foundation’s announcement of their $250,000 in funding, my blog entry on their site about the US ODI, the White House’s blog entry, US ODI board chair Daniel X. O’Neil’s blog entry, or Robinson Meyer’s especially fun and detailed Atlantic article.

“I put Algernon’s body in a cheese box and buried him in the backyard. I cried.”

I’m a smart guy.

I’m not bragging. It’s not like I deserve any credit for being smart. I didn’t do anything to make that happen. I’m also tall, but nobody compliments me on that. (Good job being tall!) Intelligence is an immutable characteristic that I have at times capitalized on and at other times let go to waste. So it goes.

It’s not easy to understand what it’s like to be smarter or dumber than one is. I have some friends who are much smarter than me, and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to experience the world as they do. Like height, intelligence is a privilege, in that we live in a society that places value on both. And although I don’t know what it’s like to be of a different intelligence, I do know what it’s like to be short; we all started out short. Although I have brown hair now, I bleached my hair a couple of times as a teenager, so I know what it’s like to be blond. If I really wanted to, I could probably fake my way into at least being perceived as of a different race, sex, or sexual orientation.

Interestingly, I have come to find out what it’s like to be dumb. I am, at this moment, rather stupid.

On September 1 I returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. During the 14 hours that I spent waiting around the Atlanta and Charlotte airports that day, I became progressively more sick, until I had a full-blown case of influenza. (It’s flu season in the southern hemisphere, after all.) Ten days later, I was still sick. The fever was gone, and my symptoms were muted, but I still felt sick. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t care about eating, I just wanted to lie around and watch TV.

So I went to the doctor, starting to doubt my self-diagnosis. After explaining my symptoms, both physical and mental, he came to a conclusion quickly: I have Lyme disease. (A pending blood test may help to confirm that, but they’re famously unreliable.) I was bitten by a tick this spring—one of many ticks that I find embedded in my skin each spring, summer, and fall—that was bearing Lyme spirochetes, which it injected into me. The immune-suppressing tick saliva allowed  the bacteria to establish an infection there. That initial infection raised a nickel-sized welt on my back, which I presented to my dermatologist, who assured me it was nothing to worry about. (In fact, this may well have been a borrelial lymphocytoma.) Gradually, those spirochetes reproduced, spreading throughout my body, through my bloodstream. Some of those spirochetes have hijacked my own cells, persuading them to produce nerve toxins that disrupt my brain’s neurotransmitters.

In short, Lyme has made me tired, listless, depressed, and stupid.

This is a fascinating experience. Or, at least, it would be fascinating, if the symptoms themselves didn’t prevent me from caring. Other than short bouts while ill—when I’ve actually had the flu—I’ve never been listless or unmotivated. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve never been depressed. And I’ve never been stupid. I’m pretty much neurotypical.

So I want to explain, briefly, the bits about depression and stupidity, if only to capture the experience for Future Waldo.

Depression isn’t at all what I thought it would be like. I don’t feel depressed, by which I mean that I don’t feel sad or despairing or anything like that. I just feel less. Mostly, I feel like I couldn’t be bothered. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t eat much, if anything. I doubt that I’d shower or shave. I’d mostly watch television and nap. My preferences are largely gone. (Should we have chicken or fish for dinner? I just don’t care.) I have a very short attention span; like a puppy chasing a butterfly, I’m happy to pursue whatever shiny thing presents itself, until a new shiny thing comes along. With substantial, headache-inducing effort, I can fake being normal-ish, but not for long. Depression, at least as I’m experiencing it, is the absence of emotion, rather than negative emotion. I don’t mind it, not yet, but maybe depression is what keeps me from minding depression.

Stupidity is also different than I’d thought. Part of my stupidity stems from the depression, I think. My curiosity is muted, my ambition to learn more or consider options more deeply has vanished. But part of it is just straight-up stupidity. I can’t really think about more than one thing at once. When a new thought enters my head, the old one simply vanishes. (Thanks to the depression, though, I don’t really mind.) I have no critical thinking skills, little ability to string together a cohesive argument, and a poor recall of long-held facts. I’ve been stuck at this point in this paragraph for at least ten minutes, unable to think of the other ways in which I’m stupid, or to spend more than five consecutive seconds trying to think of them. Yes, I’m too stupid to explain how I’m stupid. Do me a favor and pause to let the irony of that sink in, because if I pause, I’ll start forget what I’m supposed to be thinking about.

The good news is that this isn’t permanent. I started on an aggressive, two-week round of antibiotics yesterday, and I intend to find an infectious disease specialist with experience in Lyme to chart a more aggressive path to wellness. In theory, once the antibiotics start to kill off those spirochetes, I’ll stop feeling sick and stupid. (Unfortunately, the antibiotics will also kill off many of the bacteria that my body needs, so I’ll be having lots of homemade pickles and sauerkraut, coincidentally ready to eat this week, plus yogurt and kimchi, which will help to repopulate my gut’s microbiota.) I don’t know how long it’ll be until I start to feel better. Again, thanks to the depression, I don’t really care, although I know that I’m supposed to.

I hope that, in retrospect, this will have been a positive experience. It’s very difficult to understand how somebody else’s brain works. It’s hard to sympathize with those who did less well in mental aspects of that great genetic lottery, because usually one can’t really know what another person’s experience is like. Learning to understand depression and a different level of intelligence is a rare opportunity, and I’m optimistic that this is an chance to become a better person.

McDonnell’s Rolex.

I want to emphasize a small but crucial point about Bob McDonnell’s defense in this unfolding scandal. His defense is that all of the gifts—$15,000 for one daughter’s wedding, $10,000 for another daughter’s wedding, $70,000 to his business, $50,000 to his wife, etc.—weren’t to him, but to his family members and his business. One of the gifts was a $6,500 Rolex, purchased by Jonnie Williams at the request of first lady Maureen McDonnell. A men’s Rolex, it’s engraved “71st Governor of Virginia,” and it is worn by the governor.

We’re to believe that this “71st Governor of Virginia” men’s Rolex, worn by the governor, was a gift to the governor’s wife? The very suggestion is ludicrous.

As is so often the case, The Simpsons did it first. In “Life on the Fast Lane” (season 1, episode 9, 7G11), Homer has completely forgotten to get a birthday present for Marge. He rushes out to the mall and buys a bowling ball. He has it drilled and engraved “Homer.” When Marge opens it, of course she realizes immediately that Homer intends this for himself. A few minutes later, she’s pondering an affair with a Frenchman who is providing her with bowling lessons.

Marge Simpson knew better. The grand jury will, too.

Déjà vu.

I’ve watched the drip-drip-sploosh of revelations about Bob McDonnell’s with a sense of recognition. As the charges become more serious (daughter’s wedding yields to Rolex yields to $50,000 to McDonnell’s wife yields to $70,000 to McDonnell’s business), it’s feeling a lot like the financial improprieties that accompanied his 2005 campaign for attorney general.

In 2005, McDonnell got 1/3 of all of his campaign’s funding—over $2 million—from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a federal organization that had just been implicated in Jack Abramoff’s money-laundering scheme. McDonnell wouldn’t disclose his donors, despite having declared that every donor to his campaign should be public. I knew full well who the donors were—big tobacco, big oil, casinos, and payday loan companies—as, indeed, ultimately proved to be the case. Never mind the truth, McDonnell went on the radio to denounce me, accusing me of being part of a “grand conspiracy.” McDonnell’s actions were universally condemned by editorial boards. Just a few months later, after I’d been proven correct, McDonnell had a bill introduced to close the hole he’d exploited, and the law now reflects that. So, McDonnell skirted the law, then lied about it, then confessed to it, and finally—having no further use for the loophole—called for the law to be amended.

Bob McDonnell is going through the same steps now as he did eight years ago:

1. Deny the allegations.
2. Confess to the allegations.
3. Claim that he’s within the letter of the law.
4. Call for the law to be amended to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

In fact, he’s already gone through all of these four steps, but in much less time than eight years ago. This time, of course, a grand jury has been convened, so shit got real pretty fast, accelerating the McDonnell Denial Cycle.

The Washington Post editorial board wins the Most Prescient award for their October 27, 2005 editorial about McDonnell:

If he wins on Nov. 8, he’ll become Virginia’s foremost law enforcement official. Yet as things stand, he would enter office tainted, complicit in ignoring the state law that insists the public should know where candidates get their cash. If he approaches this law with a wink and a nod, why should he be trusted to enforce the others?

Bob McDonnell, on the other hand, wins the Least Self-Aware award:

An agitated McDonnell said the scrutiny has been disappointing.

“Thirty-seven years–no one’s raised questions about my integrity or my character,” he said.

Anybody who’s been paying attention should have seen this coming, or at least its strong possibility. Except for Bob McDonnell. To be fair, though, he may not be paying attention.

Bullshittery and bad candidates.

There’s something about an election that turns people into liars.

Once upon a time, there was a relatively small cohort of people who had a public stake in an election. Those people would insist that their candidate was great—totally perfect, if the truth be told—no matter how lousy that they really thought that the candidate was. Election day would come and go and, if their guy lost, they’d say to their peers, quietly, “I never really liked the guy anyway.” And in retrospect, their bullshittery would be described as “spin,” a polite way to say “lying by people who are already known to be liars.”

Today, thanks to social media, we have millions of people who have a chosen political candidate, a desire to promote that candidate, and an audience of hundreds or thousands of people to whom they can spread their message. Unfortunately, bullshittery has accompanied this growth, meaning that we have more bullshitters than ever. But now they have a credulous audience, people who are not aware that what they’re saying is bullshit. (I’m using here my very specific definition of “bullshit”: a false assertion that both the speaker and listener know to be false.) I do not include in this group people who are paid to promote a candidate or a party, provided that they have the good sense to leave their friends and family out of their bullshitting.

E.W. Jackson, the Republican Party’s train wreck of a lieutenant governor candidate, is Exhibit A. No rational person could look at his candidacy and think this is a good idea. This is not a debatable point. Anybody rational who would debate that point now would concede privately that they’re bullshitting, and is liable to do so publicly come November.

We have a word for people who say things that are blatantly untrue: liars. And this is how these folks are perceived by most folks in their audiences when they make foolish claims about candidates, and especially when they recant post-election. If you think a candidate sucks, say so, or say nothing at all. To do otherwise is to support the continuation of a broken political system and to broadcast to your friends and family this message: I am a liar.