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Transparency can combat corruption

Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid and the other forces of darkness in the U.S. Senate may have met their match, in the person of Kuang Chen.

Chen is a 34-year-old computer wizard who runs a startup called Captricity in downtown Oakland and has the crazy notion that transparency can combat corruption, and maybe even save lives.

“We’re an idealistic bunch,” Chen said of himself and the 26 people who work at Captricity. “I would call us the opposite of Beltway bandits.”

Chen’s company is part of a group that won a one-year $270,000 contract with the Federal Election Commission. Its mission will be to drag the Senate, mewling and scratching, into the digital age, though not until next year, after the Nov. 4 election.

Forgive me my rant; I’ve written this before. But U.S. senators, in bipartisan form, insult voters by refusing to submit electronic versions of their reports disclosing donors who fund their campaigns.

Rather than submit their campaign finance reports online to the Federal Election Commission as House and presidential candidates do, senators, in their arrogance, mail their reports to the Senate Office of Public Records, an ironic name.

The tradition of opacity is especially galling this year, when the Senate could flip from Democratic to Republican control, though neither party can claim the high road on this issue. No matter which party is in control, senators try mightily to block the unwashed masses from seeing who pays their way to Washington.

Starting a week ago last Thursday, the Senate office began sending senators’ campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission. By last week, 180 reports comprising 114,619 pages had arrived. Senate Minority Leader McConnell, for example, filed an October report that runs 1,063 pages. His challenger’s report ran more than 10,000 pages.

The commission, which tries to post parts of the reports online, was so overwhelmed by the volume that it posted a notice on its website:

“Unusually large paper reports filed by U.S. Senate candidates in the third quarter of the current cycle have overwhelmed our processing capacity, slowing public disclosure of those reports.”

Even when the commission posts the reports, they are useless for any voter wondering about whether Senate candidates are taking money from, say, coal, oil, defense and tobacco companies, and/or from their hometown pastors or high school civics teachers. The reports cannot be downloaded into spreadsheets, searched or sorted.

To get the documents into a more useable form, the FEC delivers the paper to a firm in Virginia, ILM Corp. There, keypunchers type in names of donors, the amounts they give and a few other details. ILM has had the FEC contract since 1998, though its run is ending now that Chen’s company is getting the work.

ILM has a month to produce the third-quarter reports in a form that can be posted online. By then, voters will have decided whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate. Oh, well.

“It is an unbelievably laborious process,” said Ann Ravel, the Federal Election Commission member who was chairwoman of California’s equivalent, the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Thirteen senators voluntarily file reports online, including Californians Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. But of the candidates running in the 10 most heavily contested Senate races this year, only one, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, takes that step. Pending legislation would force senators to file reports online. It’s for show. Senate leaders prefer it that way.

That’s where Kuang Chen comes in. Who better to take on the challenge of forcing senators into the light? He knows something of imperious officials: As a high school student in China, his father was dispatched to a rice farm during the Cultural Revolution. As soon as China opened up, the family emigrated to the United States.

Chen arrived at age 9 speaking no English. He spent his childhood in Manhattan, Kan., and other Midwestern cities, attended public schools, got an undergraduate degree at University of Washington and his doctorate in computer science at UC Berkeley.

His 2011 dissertation is titled “Data-driven Techniques for Improving Data Collection in Low-resource Environments.” That may not sound scintillating. But it’s dedicated to “children who are not counted” and focuses on how he used the programs he created to help people who work in clinics in Tanzania and Uganda digitize handwritten notes, the goal being to improve health care.

To old people, like me, he explains what he does like this: His programs provide “a magical service in the cloud that reads handwriting at 99 percent accuracy.” Even bad handwriting, he says.

To his professors, he explained the problem he sought to solve like this: “Unfortunately, the most under-developed communities are still beyond the reach of modern data infrastructure, constrained by limitations in physical and digital infrastructure, in capacity and retention of technical staff and in performance incentives. …

“Even basic vital statistics are still largely unavailable – for example, only 24 percent of children born in eastern and southern Africa are registered, rendering the remaining children invisible to decisions regarding resources and policy.”

He digitized handwritten notes, helping African health care workers track and research people in need, freeing them up to provide care. Through his startup, Chen helped the U.S. Food and Drug Administration digitize reports about the adverse impact of drugs.

Ravel became acquainted with Chen when the Fair Political Practices Commission hired Captricity to use its technology to post conflict-of-interest statements from all California state judges on the FPPC website.

This year, when ILM’s contract with the Federal Election Commission was expiring, a company using Chen and Captricity as its subcontractor submitted a bid, and won.

“It is a little unfair,” Chen said of his company’s advantage over ILM. “It is like a car vs. a horse and buggy. We’re not even on same field.”

Chen’s promise is to transform the documents into digital reports that can be sorted and searched within five days, or fewer.

It all will be fitting, assuming it works as Chen envisions. Washington’s pols will be taken down a notch by a California computer scientist who is here by way of China. Alas, it won’t happen in time for the 2014 election, but that’s because of senators who would prefer that we be kept in the dark.

Dan Morain is the editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee. Readers may send him email at dmorain@sacbee.com.

©2014 The Sacramento Bee

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