Trump’s cruel and arbitrary refugee order

20151030 Syrians and Iraq refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias Lesvos Greece 2

​This executive order is heartbreaking.

When I lived in Atlanta about 7 years ago, I mentored two refugee brothers from Iran through the International Rescue Committee. They were members of a persecuted minority. They taught me far more than I taught them. They were so generous, kind, and hardworking. They invited me in their home. Fed me. Shared their lives and culture. The elder brother worked long hours at Target, stacking shelves. He looked out for his younger brother, who was still in high school. Each weekend, he cooked a big batch of a meat and rice dish (mostly rice), and he always offered me some. Their parents hadn’t come with them. But it was worth it for them to escape a society where they faced little future.

This is a cruel and arbitrary decision.

The order has refugees detained at airports, including “an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Boston, an Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the United States Army, and a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio.”

Worse yet, there’s no evidence this ban is needed, as reported in Christianity Today:

There is a 1 in 3.64 billion per year chance that you will be killed by a refugee in a given year. If those odds concern you, please do not get in a bathtub, car, or even go outside. And, for contrast, there were 762 tragic murders in Chicago alone last year comparted to 0 people who were killed last year (or ever since the mid-70s) by a refugee-perpetrated terrorist attack.

And it not only hurts these refugees, it sends an awful message:

If America bans refugees, it makes a statement to the world that we don’t want to make. It is the picture of someone who sits, arms crossed and turned away, with a raised eyebrow and a ready attack on the helpless, the homeless, the broken.

I hope immigration advocates find a way for the courts to step in to stop this vile policy.

White Population Increases in Detroit for First Time in 65 Years


Louis Aguilar and Christine MacDonald at the Detroit News report today that “Detroit’s white population up after decades of decline.” The reporters explain their analysis:

Detroit’s white population rose by nearly 8,000 residents last year, the first significant increase since 1950, according to a Detroit News analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

The data, made public Wednesday, mark the first time census numbers have validated the perception that whites are returning to a city that is overwhelmingly black and one where the overall population continues to shrink.

But the article is careful to point out concerns:

[S]ome long-time Detroiters say recently arrived whites and new businesses are often wrongly portrayed as saviors of the city, and that so far, the comeback is wildly uneven.


The heavy focus on bringing residents to certain neighborhoods, potentially at the expense of others, has left some feeling that neighborhoods filled with longtime black Detroiters are being ignored.

“You are creating lopsided communities,” said Yusef Shakur, a community organizer with the group Restoring the Neighborhood back to the Hood. “You are putting all your wealth in Midtown, downtown … Woodbridge.”

The top commentator on the article, Chris Terry, makes another interesting, though anecdotal, observation:

[A]lmost none of these new urban pioneers have children. I have professional friends living downtown, Midtown and Corktown. All are well into the age of family formation, yet none have kids. Doesn’t seem like a trend that portends sustainable change if Detroit can only attract people making these choices. I pass no judgment on the choice, but the long-term question about this ought be asked.

h/t Deadline Detroit

Which states have the most federal immigration crimes per unauthorized immigrant?

The following map shows an estimated percentage of federal immigration cases per unauthorized immigrant for each state. It uses research from the Pew Research Center on estimated state unauthorized immigrant populations in 2012, and data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission for federal immigration offenses that same year. Untitled

I excluded five states—Maine, the Dakotas, Vermont, and Montana—because Pew could only determine that the unauthorized immigrant population in those states was less than 5,000, and the imprecision at those low value threw off the calculations.

Some interesting things to note: New Mexico had the highest level of federal prosecutions per unauthorized immigrant. The state’s 2012 unauthorized immigrant population was estimated at 70,000, and there were 2,097 federal immigration cases, for a rough estimate of nearly 3% of the unauthorized immigrants being prosecuted. In contrast, federal officials in New Jersey, which had a 2012 authorized immigrant population of around 525,000, prosecuted only 45 immigration cases that year (not even .01%). The average percentage was .24.

The “why” for these statistics is not cut and dry. It could be that immigration officials conduct more aggressive enforcement in some states. Or that federal prosecutors prosecute more of the offense brought to them. Or that there is some reason unauthorized immigrants are staying under the radar in certain places.

Here is a link to download an excel file with the statistics.

Five Tips for Plea Negotiations

Training for Bargaining,” a new draft article by Jenny Roberts and Ronald Wright, of American University, persuasively argues that “[a]lthough public defenders may be dealt a weak hand in many cases, training focused on negotiation skills could help them get the best results from those cards.” I took away five tips from the article:

1. Stay positive. As Roberts and Wright note, research shows that “fostering a positive mood in a negotiation through tone can make the parties more creative and more likely to use negotiation strategies that seek to meet both parties’ interests.”

2. Prepare with peers and supervisors. Roberts and Wright hammer the point that many defense attorneys put much more effort into preparing for trial than for plea negotiations, even though pleas are the more common outcome. They suggest running negotiation strategy by peers or bosses, or even “mooting” negotiations.

3. Research the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA.  On this point, Roberts and Wright emphasize the three-step approach described in the popular book, Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In“brainstorming a list of actions to be taken if there is no agreement; converting the most promising into tangible alternative; and selecting the best alternative.” In particular, Roberts and Wright argue that defenders should spend more time at step two by doing more factual research about the case before negotiating. They quote an earlier, empirical study of plea negotiations by Marty Lieberman as finding that “[d]efense attorneys who interviewed prosecution witnesses and conducted extensive fact investigations would, . . . in a great majority of cases, improve the bargaining position of their clients involved in plea negotiations.” This is, perhaps, the most resource intensive recommendation.

4. Remember anchoring and make the first offer when possible. “Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions. ” See Anchoring, Wikipedia. Thus, the best negotiators try to set the tone in their favor by being the first to set a value, and making that valuation as favorable as possible. Roberts and Wright concede that defenders are often not in a good position to make the first move, since the prosecutor has charging discretion. Nonetheless, it’s worth keeping this concept in mind.

5. Keep data on past plea negotiations. Roberts and Wright point out that it is hard to evaluate the “going rate” for a situation if—as is common—there is little data maintained regarding plea bargaining. They suggest that offices “might collect data about offers on particular offenses from particular prosecutors to defendants with similar criminal histories.”

h/t Doug Berman @ Sentencing Law and Policy

The Benefits of Cities Using LEDs for Street Lighting

Ucilia Wong has a great piece up online today at Forbes about cities adopting LEDs for street lighting. They are more expensive, but last longer and more energy efficient, especially since they can be controlled digitally to dim when appropriate. LEDs also decrease light pollution, as Wong demonstrates with some interesting before-and-after pictures.

Near the end, Wong makes this interesting observation:

For all of LEDs’ energy savings and anti-light-pollution potential, their real promise may be in hastening the arrival of the smart grid. Forward-thinking cities are using retrofit programs to turn lamp housings into intelligent hubs with microprocessors, cameras, sensors and wireless radios. Streetlights can feed the system with information about traffic, weather, air quality, sudden noises and unexpected crowds.

It looks as if LEDs will be a key component of the data-driven cities of tomorrow.

New interactive infographic rates risks in all 50 states

After the jump is a new infographic that was suggested as a follow up to my post highlighting that three Detroit neighborhoods had topped the list of most dangerous places to live. Just as depressingly, this map pulls data from various sources to rank all 50 states based on the terrible things that could happen to you there. You can check out the original webpage here. Notably for midwesterners, Illinois and Michigan are ranked 40th and 44th respectively for murders per 100,000 people (with rank 51 being the worst and going to D.C.), and Illinois has the highest percentage of adults reporting poor mental health (according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of CDC data). Obnoxiously, as you’ll see if you interact with the map, the states are color-coded by total number of murders and traffic fatalities, even though the title for those sections says “per 100,000.” To clarify the accurate info click “see the data behind the rankings.” Continue reading “New interactive infographic rates risks in all 50 states”

A cautionary, historic tale of data-based governance

Robert McNamara at a cabinet meeting
Robert McNamara at a cabinet meeting

Earlier this summer, Washington Monthly ran a piece by Haley Sweetland Edwards entitled “A Short History of Data-Driven Government.” The article focuses on a decidedly dispiriting story about Robert McNamara, who she calls the “father of data-based government.”

Edwards first describes how McNamara, a former army captain, learned about efficiency at Harvard Business School,  used his skills to climb the ladder at Ford Motor Company, and eventually landed in President Kennedy’s cabinet, as Secretary of Defense.

Here’s where the tale turns cautionary. Edwards writes that “McNamara applying those same ideas about efficiency, instituted the now-infamous ‘body count policy’ in the quickly escalating Vietnam War.” This policy, she explains, was later “roundly maligned by liberals and conservatives alike, underscoring the problem of data-driven policies that, by failing to quantify holistic goals, sometimes incentivize appalling behaviors.”

Edwards describes how data-driven governance soon faded out of fashion, until President Clinton revived it in the 1990s, training federal agencies how to measure success and create progress reports. Many of these ideas have carried through into the Obama administration, which requires a similar type of reporting from federal agencies. These efforts have seen success. Edwards mentions that, under Clinton’s initiative, the Coast Guard, “using data to map the problem of crew casualties in the towboat industry, was able to reduce fatalities by two-thirds from 1997 to 2000.” And under Obama, the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing converted “to a centralized accounting system—a move that the Financial Management Service estimated could save the government $400 million to $500 million annually.”

Edwards cautions, however, that no “data-driven performance management tool” is “immune to the pitfalls made infamous by McNamara” because metrics are so easy to game.

I wish Edwards had done more to derive lessons from McNamara’s downfalls. The problem was a defective end-goal, not the data analysis itself. Thus, perhaps the biggest takeaway from revisiting this story is the reminder that data analysis in government cannot be an end in itself, the goals must be right-minded. This, of course, is always the biggest challenge in government—deciding which goals are right-minded. In business, the objective is typically easy to define: create sustainable profitability. In government, the objectives are much more complex to formulate, especially as one scales up from local to national governance, where even reaching acceptable goals is often an impossible feat. But as McNamara’s story shows, even with the “big data” available today, this process of defining goals must remain demanding because what we’re working toward makes all the difference.

The varying costs of medical services by state

health symbolEarlier this summer, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services published interesting data on the charges submitted by hospitals in all 50 states for 30 different outpatient services. The Center published the amount ultimately paid for the services, and similar data for 100 different inpatient services.

As an example, I decided to create a visualization showing the varying average costs of one type of outpatient service, “Level II Cardiac Imaging,” by state (except for Maryland, which wasn’t included in the dataset). Keep in mind as you look at these charges that Medicare paid out a national average of $744.58 for the procedure, even though the national average submitted charge was more than $4,000. After clicking the image below, you can see exact amounts by hovering over a particular state:


As you can see, the amounts charged value greatly. In my view, these differences confirm at least two things. First, this data shows just how easy it might be to submit overcharges, given the wide discrepancies, and thus why the Obama administration saw a pressing need to crack down on Medicaid and Medicare fraud.

This data also unmasks America’s broken system for pricing medical procedures. Wired ran a great piece last year about this problem. The article noted that “a recent study of the costs of routine appendectomies performed throughout California” showed that, for nearly the same procedure, “the charges varied more than 100-fold—from $1,529 at the cheapest to $182,955 at the most expensive.” The article concluded that “Job One” was “transparency in treatment, cost, and institutions.” This data release is not perfect transparency, but it’s a good start.

Apparently, one reason for the price differences may be the migration of these services from doctors’ offices to hospital outpatient departments, which often charge more. Complicated, eh?

Featured Websites: Crowdsourcing disease surveillance

Today I’m spotlighting a few websites that track real-time health information.

One neat site is, a site that scans news reports and gives an hourly update about health concerns worldwide, pinpointing the location on a map. It says it’s a go-to place for disease-surveillance experts, and I can see why: The site does a good job of consolidating information about outbreaks and quickly showing where they are concentrated. Here’s its promo video:

Another new website,, is focused on collecting information from social networks. Users can (1) input their health symptoms or (2) let sickweather’s algorithm crawl their Facebook and Twitter feeds for reports of illiness. Then, that data is used to show where in the US certain symptoms are cropping up most often. As reported in Fast Company, it’s named “sickweather” because, “just as Doppler radar scans the skies for indicators of bad weather, Sickweather scans social networks for indicators of illness.” Yet as John Metcalfe at Atlantic Cities points out, it looks like some cities have a bulk of the users so far, so until it catches on, it’s more just for fun. And since it relies on user self-reports and has no fact-checker, it may be less accurate than healthmap, which relies on articles that have are vetted in some way. Sickweather, however. has the potential to catch outbreaks much earlier in their lifecycle than healthmap; it’d be great if the two services could be integrated.

One final project that has the potential to catch diseases early on is Google’s Flu Trends, which uses search terms that, Google says, “are good indicators of flu activity” to provide a visualization of which countries have the worst flu activity. Google also has a tool for tracking Dengue fever.

These technologies are an important leap forward. And the more people who know about it, the better the technology gets, at least in regard to So, check it out.

Which states have the most Section 8 housing per person?

I recently used open data from HUD about public-housing inventory and Census population data to examine which states had the most Section 8 housing units per person in 2010. (Section 8 is a federally subsidized program for low-income renters.) Here’s the top 6 and bottom 6:

which states have the most section 8 housing

I’m not surprised that DC is number one, since it has the nation’s highest poverty rate. Nor am I surprised that NYC, with its relatively well-organized housing initiatives, is number two. But what about Massachusetts and North Dakota? Any ideas? Here’s a visualization of this data:

Section 8 Housing per State Map