Click here for Part 1 ETC: Investing in Baltimore’s innovative, emerging technology companies and entrepreneurs
John Davis is the CEO of Notice and Comment (N&C) Inc. N&C is an e-governance library that catalogs public notices, comments, press releases, and other forms of state communication. The aim of the site is to empower U.S. citizens with more information to participate in governance. Citybizlist interviewed John as part of our conversation series with the staff and entrepreneurs operating out of Emerging Technology Centers (ETC), the city of Baltimore’s hub for technology innovation and entrepreneurship.
A nonprofit 501(c)(3) venture of the Baltimore Development Corporation, ETC is split across two campuses and offers three major programs: the ETC Incubation program; Beehive Baltimore, a coworking space; and AccelerateBaltimore, a 13-week intensive providing up to six local startups with mentorship and seed funding. Since 1999, ETC has helped over 350 companies grow and achieve success. Today, about 85% of those companies are still in business, and 75% have remained in Baltimore. EDWIN WARFIELD: What has been the biggest obstacle standing in the way of N&C’s mission? JOHN DAVIS: In 2008, 196 legislative proposals across the country were made to bring their public notice online, and 196 of them failed. The reason for it, primarily, was the newspaper lobby that is tied to the local officials making those decisions. I hate to put it out there so bluntly, but that’s the reality, that’s what we have learned. There is a coziness, almost an appearance of impropriety, when you’ve got one newspaper, one mayor, and people running against that mayor. So when I say, “Listen, I will give you our public notices and that’s going to put $200,000 in your coffers. Don’t do anything else but let us exist.” And so you do not necessarily have the incentive, especially in smaller municipalities, it’s a very cozy relationship between an elected mayor and a newspaper owner. Is that changing at all? I picked a business model that is trying to change the fundamental part of our democracy, and it’s an uphill battle, but it will change. The federal government has changed, there are states that are moving in that direction. We’re ahead of the curve on that, and we feel like adding in the ability to do really good sentiment analysis helps the elected official. So, now you get to know in advance what the view is about these wide range of regulatory actions. It allows you to know better how your community feels about—I mean, all politics are local, and so you get to really know: “Are we in favor or not of the red line being extended up Boston Street?” As opposed to waiting for handwritten comments coming in because they’re in the back of a guide or the [Baltimore] Afro-American. What do you see as the primary benefit of bringing public notices online and encouraging public comment? There’s this sense that, well, if you allow the public to speak they’re going to all hate it. It never comes out that way. You’ve got people who have interests on both sides of almost every single issue, but what the analytics does, which is really helpful, is that when you have a scenario like the Keystone Pipeline—and we ingested a lot of the comments from the Keystone Pipeline—you have the opportunity to instantly find that, of the 130,000 public comments that were filed, 97,000 came from one company in Texas trying to influence the outcome. So, the day the analysis allowed to identify who the organization is, where it came from, the IP address—and so you can instantly be able to get a better sense of, “Is this group just trying to send in a bot to influence the outcome, or is this supported by some special interest group that’s trying to just bum-rush the whole process?” And so we can begin to “de-duplicate,” we can determine if that’s just a form letter versus a real thought from another person. A form letter could be legitimate. A person could say, “Hey listen, they write it better than me and so I’m signing off on that idea.” Ultimately, what you’re going to see is a symmetry of regulations in one spot. If I needed to find out “what are all of the things related to chlorine in the water at the state and local level?” It’s one stop. The paperwork burden, the filing burden, the business predicted burden, knowing is this going to affect my bottom line—those things can be done now with cognitive systems. I believe that the benefit outweighs the burden, that ultimately elected officials will see that better sentiment means better governance, means happier communities, means a higher chance of getting reelected; and that the money that is being spent sends a signal that they’ve got a vested relationship with a particular newspaper, especially when those things aren’t outsourced by bid publicly. It’s not like, “Hey, listen, I am going to do an RFP to see who gets to do the public notices.” It’s relationships, and those relationships at times have been involved since the beginning of that newspaper.
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