Luminous Enchiladas

Infrequent blogger, indifferent speller

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Open government jobs

About a month-and-a-half ago I started a Google group for open government jobs. I thought it would grow slowly, but instead we have more than 220 people and 40 job postings. Government employees, advocates, academics, and people from around the world have joined.

It’s open to anyone. Just surf to this Google group and apply to join. I ask that you not use your work email if you’re a government employee. Otherwise, please send job announcements and encourage others to join. I will keep the list of subscribers confidential.

If you have a job to share but are uncomfortable sending to the list, let me know and I will send it along. 

Filed under jobs

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Book Challenge

There’s a meme on Facebook asking everyone to identify 10 books that have stayed with you. Here’s what they are for me.

Children’s books

Science Fiction

  • Childhood’s End,” by Arthur C. Clarke. The first science fiction book I read. It’s about the end of the beginning. Kicked off an interest in that entire subset of literature.

  • Dune,” by Frank Herbert. A cross between science fiction and fantasy, probably is the best example of a sociologically complete fantasy world with compelling characters. The sequels suffer by comparison, but so does nearly everything else.

  • Isaac Asimov’s writings, especially the Foundation and Robot series. He had me at Daneel, Harry Seldon, and the Mule.


  • The Far Side Gallery,” by Gary Larson. It’s a book of cartoons in the same way the Shakespeare is a collection of plays.

  • The World According to Garp,” by John Irving. If only his other works were as good as this one. It took two tries to get through the book, but only because of a weird circus story inserted near the beginning. Only read this thanks to my law school roommate, and it was totally worth it. Reread a dozen times.

Everything else

  • An enquiry into human understanding,” by David Hume. A lovely look at the nature of humanity by a brilliant philosopher. Easy to read, enjoyable… I remember sitting under a tree at the Turman dorms at Emory and being (figuratively) engrossed in its pages. Most philosophy, especially by 18th century philosophers, is dull reading. This was not.

  • Law and the business of the entertainment industries,” a legal textbook on entertainment law. Dry as Oscar Wilde’s wit, but the most fascinating legal subject matter I’ve ever read. 

  • Predictably irrational,” a popularization of behavioral economics by Dan Ariely. Had I not read that, I wouldn’t have run into Daniel Kahnemen and his master work “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Much of what I do professionally on drafting laws and regulations owe tremendously to Kahnemen’s insights and research.

Honorable mentions

  • Ender’s Game" by Orson Scott Card. It’s about winning. Thoroughly.

  • N- Space,” Larry Niven. Known space is pretty unknowable.

  • Origins of Intelligence Services,” by Francis Dvornik. Spying isn’t a recent invention, after all. 

  • Secrets,” by Daniel Ellsberg.It’s about the courage to do what’s right.

  • A man in full,” by Tom Wolfe. The “Right Stuff” is also a contender. Read and re-read.

  • The Godfather,” by Mario Puzo, listened to in full, on tape, while looking at colleges. 

  • Clash of Civilizations,” by Samuel Huntington. It doesn’t have to be true to be terrifying.

  • The Source,” by James Michener. An epic tale of the history of the middle east.

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A Sense of Direction for Metro

Metro is rethinking signage for its subway system, as GreaterGreaterWashington recently reported. The current design, which uses the end station name to signal train direction, may be supplemented or replaced by the cardinal direction in which a train is heading. While it is an improvement, Metro should do more to improve wayfinding.

As a start, Metro should:

(1) Assign numbers for all the stations on a particular line in numerical order in addition to using the names of station

(2) Identify a point of interest along the line to help orient passengers on the direction a train is heading, in addition to identifying the end station on a line

(3) Indicate whether the train is heading towards or away from DC (inbound/outbound), and for trains inside the city center, indicate the cardinal direction the train is heading.


Getting from A to B

These recommendations are made on the basis of how people conceptualize navigating. Generally speaking, humans use three techniques to navigate from point A to point B.

First, some people have an inherent sense of direction and easily can distinguish north, south, east, and west. They merely need to be told to travel in a particular direction and the distance.

Second, some people use landmarks to navigate. For example: travel down the street and once you see the gas station on your left, make a right turn and go until you see the library.

Third, some people follow step-by-step directions. Go four blocks, make a left on L St., go another two blocks, your destination is on the right. Most people use a combination of these techniques.

None of these techniques works particularly well in Metro. The stations are largely underground and undistinguishable from one another. A fair number of riders are out-of-town visitors who have not had time to build a mental map. Metro’s use of the final station on a line to indicate direction is confusing to many people, including long-time residents. Other considerations may arise for the visually impaired. And, of course, Metro’s cryptic signage system largely is unhelpful.

Picture of DC Metro

Best practices

Other transit systems use various techniques to facilitate wayfinding. One technique is to have transit stations on a line numbered in addition to having a name. For non-English-speaking visitors, this can be invaluable. Arabic numerals are widely used throughout the world and are easily understood. For out-of-town visitors, numbering stations allows passengers to anticipate how many stops until this time to exit the train. Additionally, increasing or decreasing numbers can be an easy clue as to the direction of train is traveling. This is used in Tokyo.

 image  image

Another technique is to contextualize the direction of train is traveling. For example, New York City identifies trains are traveling downtown or uptown. Boston trains often indicate ” inbound" or "outbound." London’s tube indicates cardinal direction). In other places, station signage will make it clear what the next station is in the line of travel. Or, perhaps more helpfully, indicate a significant point of interest in each direction.


Transit systems in other countries use a number of other techniques. Standard verbal announcements on trains and maps on trains that indicate the current location and the direction of travel are comparatively poorly implemented in DC’s Metro system. Similarly, Metro station signage is sparse, cryptic, and unhelpful. Often times, directions are not available at the points where passengers must make decisions. My favorite contextual clue is the music played by each subway line in Tokyo.

By taking account of the different ways that people navigate and best practices from other transit systems, Metro could make itself more welcoming and reduce the number of passengers who are lost, confused, and underfoot.

Filed under transit public transit sense of direction dc metro

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Fixing Federal Hiring With Big Data

(Cross-posted from CREW)

The federal hiring system is broken. An April Partnership for Public Service report calls it “slow, complex, a mystery to applicants and imprecise in identifying the best-qualified candidates.” Job seekers must also overcome employment announcements written to favor a particular candidate. The announcements, however, are also the key to uncovering unfair hiring practices, if treated as data in a much larger system.

Agencies use many techniques to game the hiring system. Some job announcements have an unusually short application deadline, limiting the number of people who see the notice and subtly signaling that applications are not wanted. Others announcements have requirements tailored to a particular candidate. Taking a different tack, some notices are so vague that only an applicant with the inside track knows what the job entails and what to say in an application. Should these approaches fail and the preferred candidate fails to emerge at the end of the process, an agency may cancel the announcement only to reopen it later.

The government knows about some of these problems, even if it does not describe their cause. A report by the Merit Systems Protection Board, the body responsible for promoting an effective federal workforce free of prohibited personnel practices, said:

"[A]ll too often, vacancy announcements are not well written. They can use jargon, contain grammatical errors, and come across as negative or even insulting. They are frequently hard to understand—with murky job titles and duties, qualification requirements that are lengthy and unspecific, and vague or even contradictory applicant instructions."

This is not just incompetence; agencies have strong incentives to game the system. It can be difficult to find and hire good people. Human resource departments, which often conduct the initial screenings, are notorious for weeding out capable candidates. Agencies often can retain promising employees only by promoting them, but the system makes this difficult. In addition, as the Partnership for Public Service reportexplained, “employees frequently are stymied from moving among agencies, and the entry of experienced and qualified applicants into government from the private sector is often difficult.” Of course, nepotism, favoritism, and corruption are factors as well.

Most federal agencies post job notices on USAJobs, the official federal jobs website, run by the Office of Personnel Management. Because it is a central source for jobs information, watchdogs could use USAJobs to monitor agency hiring activities. The website publishes its listings as data via an API, making information collection less onerous than in years past.

A jobs watchdog could mine jobs announcement data and look for patterns. This was done to a limited extent in a 2003 Merit System Protection Board report, which looked at a sample of job announcements and found more than half were of poor quality. The USAJobs API makes it possible to examine all job listings at once.

While there may be some use in examining which agencies are hiring at a particular pay level or the number of open announcements, the real value comes from digging deeper to examine the extent of unfair hiring practices. How many jobs are posted for a short time by an agency or component? How frequently are the same job descriptions used for different positions? What is the “readability level” of the announcement? In what agencies is it likely for jobs to disappear and then reappear? Is a job announcement at a particular grade level typical of other announcements or does it appear to have additional unusual qualifications? A public-facing hiring dashboard that aggregates statistics on agency performance could shed some welcome sunlight. While data analysis may not yield conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, it provides a map.

Agency practices that circumvent fair hiring practices can be a means of coping with a dysfunctional system, and the government must address the underlying problems. To begin, we first must understand the dimensions of the problem. USAJobs data can help us find the way.

Filed under jobs data big data opengov public policy usajobs

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A Tech-Smart Congress

(Cross-posted from CREW)

Congress is often pretty ignorant when it comes to technology, but it has not always been that way. Nearly two decades ago, Congress defunded its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which provided legislators crucial advice and insight into technology issues. If technologists, national security wonks, scientists, and good government groups come together, there is a real chance OTA could be revived. This would help move policymaking out of the hands of well-funded lobbyists and slippery national security officials and back to newly-empowered lawmakers.

Recently Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), the only physicist in Congress, offered an amendment on the House floor to restart OTA with a $2.5 million appropriation. Despite the support of a coalition of organizations, the effort to amend the 2015 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill was rejected 164-248.

However, the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee has yet to consider its appropriations bill, so an opportunity exists for progress in the upper chamber. To a large extent, that depends on Subcommittee Chair Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Ranking Member John Hoeven (R-ND), and committee members Mark Begich (D-AK), Chris Coons (D-DE), and John Boozman (R-AK). The committee is expected to markup the bill later this month.

The executive branch has come to realize the importance of independent technology assessment. The special commission established by President Obama to review the balance between national security and civil liberties—formed in the wake of the NSA spying scandal—recommended reestablishing OTA, but in the executive branch. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies issued a report explaining that policymakers lack independent, trustworthy advice on important technology questions. Specifically, the report recommend that “an Office of Technology Assessment should be created within the Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board to assess Intelligence Community technology initiatives and support privacy-enhancing technologies.”

Here is the commission’s reasoning (emphasis added):

Public policy is shaped in part by what is technically possible, and technology experts are essential to analyzing the range of the possible. An improved technology assessment function is essential to informing policymakers about the range of options, both for collection and use of personal information, and also about the cost and effectiveness of privacy-enhancing technologies.

Prior to 1995, Congress had an Office of Technology Assessment that did significant studies on privacy and related issues. The OTA was then abolished, and no similar federal agency has existed since. Because the effectiveness of privacy and civil liberties protections depend heavily on the information technology used, a steady stream of new privacy and technology issues faces the Intelligence Community…. Because the Intelligence Community pushes the state of the art to achieve military and other foreign policy objectives, assessment of the technological changes must be up-to-date.

We therefore recommend that the government should have an Office of Technology Assessment that does not report directly to the Intelligence Community but that has access to Intelligence Community activities. Congress is vital to oversight of the Intelligence Community, but it does not have an office to enable it to assess technology developments. The CLPP Board, with classified personnel and agency independence, is the logical place for this sort of independent assessment.

With all respect to the Commission’s recommendations, OTA belongs inside Congress and should cover the entire range of technology issues. Debates over net neutrality, bulk data collection, copyright, and many others would be enlivened and better informed were OTA still around. With technology playing such a central role in our lives, the government should do all it can to strengthen its expertise.

Filed under congress opengov technology data open data ota office of technology assessment