google reader refugee.
1183 stories

At Spain’s Door, a Welcome Mat for Entrepreneurs

1 Comment

Last year, after more than a decade in Silicon Valley, Stacia Carr helped sell the company she was running and went looking for a change of pace.

“The Bay Area is supersaturated,” she said. “It’s very expensive; it’s hypercompetitive.” After a friend connected her with Iñigo Amoribieta, a former chief executive of Groupon Spain, Ms. Carr and Mr. Amoribieta started talking about creating an online video business together that would be based in Madrid, his hometown.

Ms. Carr, 42, a Californian who has traveled extensively in Europe, long dreamed of living and working there. But as the founder of a start-up company and as an American citizen, she assumed that it would be “next to impossible” to get a work permit at a time when many European economies were struggling to rebound from the financial crisis.

Then she learned of a law that Spain’s government passed in September 2013 to help domestic businesses and to woo foreign talent and investment. It included a visa category for foreign entrepreneurs, requiring them to have little more than a government-vetted business plan, health insurance and enough money to support themselves while living in Spain.

“I thought the entrepreneurship visa was exactly what I needed,” she said.

The law went into effect as soon as it passed, but when Ms. Carr contacted Spanish consulates in the United States, she couldn’t find people who knew it existed, let alone how it worked. Convinced that word would eventually trickle down, she moved to Madrid from San Francisco in late November 2013 without applying for the entrepreneur visa, aware that Spain allows American citizens to stay for up to three months as tourists. Early this year, she and Mr. Amoribieta, 37, incorporated their venture, Vidnex, while working from a business incubator in the Salamanca neighborhood of the city.

Vidnex offers an online tool that allows fitness instructors to teach classes remotely, streaming live video to their students. The classes are interactive, not prerecorded, with the student and the instructor able to see each other and talk in real time. Students can’t see their classmates.

Setting up the business in Spain, Ms. Carr said, was more challenging and required more formal documentation than she had expected. And getting residency presented challenges. One of the first applicants to try to use the law’s new entrepreneur visa, she found government workers unprepared to answer her questions. It was harder because she didn’t speak Spanish, but Mr. Amoribieta helped her navigate the bureaucracy by preparing paperwork and scheduling appointments, including one meeting in which officials assumed that Ms. Carr was a personal trainer using the Vidnex service rather than a co-founder.

“I thought the entrepreneurship visa was exactly what I needed,” Ms. Carr said.

James Rajotte for The New York Times

Still, she managed to gain approval for her renewable, two-year entrepreneur residency permit in March, about a month after she applied under the new rules. Ms. Carr acknowledged that Spain, a country where unemployment reached a record high of about 27 percent last year, might seem an unlikely place to start a business. But when compared with European start-up magnets like London and Berlin, Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona have lower costs and fewer competitors — and still have sufficient talent to get started, she said. Technical expertise can cost a quarter of what it would in Silicon Valley, Mr. Amoribieta said.

Vidnex is housed in an incubator called Area 31, run by IE Business School. The incubator buoyed their efforts — founders at other start-ups helped them find a contract designer and interns. Connecting with Madrid’s entrepreneurs “was like finding my tribe a million miles from home,” Ms. Carr said.

The new law, known as the Ley de Emprendedores, is Spain’s latest effort to help domestic businesses and make the country more attractive to wealthy and talented people outside the European Union who want to start businesses, invest or work in the country. Billed by the government as reforms that would help create jobs at a time of high unemployment, the legislation created five visa categories, covering investors who buy at least 500,000 euros (about $625,000) of real estate; entrepreneurs who plan to establish businesses; highly skilled professionals; researchers, scientists and teachers; and employees and trainees. Once approved, recipients are allowed to move freely through most European Union countries.

Visa decisions are promised within 10 working days, and residence permit decisions in 20. Processing is combined for married couples and their children.

“It really is a fast track,” said Ana Garicano, a partner at the Sagardoy law firm in Madrid whose clients have used the law to get residency. “The government is meeting its own deadlines.” And there are no limits on the number of foreigners who can take advantage of each category.

The policy goes further than laws in some other countries in that it offers speedy residency to different types of immigrants, not just the wealthy, said Josep Herrero and José Manuel Novo, lawyers at Roca Junyent in Barcelona, a firm that guides foreign entrepreneurs and investors through the process.

“The Spanish law is much more inviting and much simpler than England’s law, Canada’s law and France’s law,” Mr. Novo said. “For example, entrepreneurs don’t need to show a minimum investment in their business.”

According to Mr. Herrero and Mr. Novo, Spain borrowed the best ideas from other countries with immigration policies intended to lure talent and investment — such as Canada, Britain and Chile. Vivek Wadhwa, an academic with positions at Stanford, Duke and Singularity University who advised the Chilean and Spanish efforts, bemoaned the United States for failing to pass similar legislation. “We don’t have a start-up visa,” he said. “We’re forcing people to leave this country and go to other countries.”

Spain’s changes send “a message to the world that Spain is liberalizing its economy, and at the same time internationalizing its economy,” said Miguel Ángel Vidal, secretary general of Foro Español de Expatriación, a lobbying group for Spain’s biggest companies, including Banco Santander and Telefónica. He emphasized that businesses in Spain could now easily hire foreign nationals, bring in employees from overseas and train clients in Spain. “It’s a radical change,” he said.

Yet so far, even though the law has been in effect for more than a year, fewer than 100 foreign entrepreneurs have been granted residency through it. Some critics have questioned both its impact and whether its measures go far enough. There is also a possibility its appeal could be diminished by tax reform legislation that was approved last week by Parliament and is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1 after King Felipe VI signs it.

The legislation creates a one-time exit tax on unrealized capital gains that will apply to certain entrepreneurs and investors with tax residency in Spain who leave and claim residency elsewhere. “It’s a real contradiction to the Ley de Emprendedores,” said Mariano Gomariz, a tax partner at the Ecija law firm in Barcelona. It will “discourage investment.”

But the exit tax will apply to entrepreneurs only if they stay for 10 years and then claim tax residency in a different country. “This should not hamper entrepreneurs from coming to Spain,” said Álvaro de la Vía, a professor of tax law at IE University, adding that the United States and some European countries had similar laws and that more were considering adopting them.

In total, about 3,800 foreigners, including investors, professionals and their family members, have received residency via the new immigration rules, according to the Economy Ministry, and more than €280 million has been invested, primarily in real estate. An additional €265 million has been pledged for business projects.

Jaime García-Legaz, the Spanish secretary of state for the economy, said that the immigration reforms were working as intended and that he expected the number of investors and entrepreneurs to increase gradually, “as it has in other countries which put similar rules in effect.”

In the United States, awareness of Spain’s bid for entrepreneurs has yet to spread. Juan Martínez-Barea, a Spanish biotechnology entrepreneur who also promotes Singularity University, a technology-focused institution in Silicon Valley, to tech circles in Spain, said that few within his network were familiar with his country’s attempt to lure talent and capital. “The law is on the right track but needs measures that would make it a little more revolutionary,” he said, noting that the Chilean government’s popular Start-Up Chile program grants $34,000, along with one-year residency, to founders who relocate to that nation.

Chile’s effort, started as a pilot program in 2010, has attracted nearly 2,000 entrepreneurs, whose businesses have raised more than $100 million in financing. The Chilean government has not yet conducted a study of the program’s economic impact, but Sebastián Vidal, executive director of Start-Up Chile, explained that while its short-term mission was “cultural,” he expected the long-term effects to improve the economy significantly. Mr. Wadhwa described Chile’s initiative as the world’s most aggressive effort to lure entrepreneurs and said it was putting Chile on the map as a destination for start-ups.

By comparison, Spain’s law lacks the excitement of free money. The policy assumes foreigners want to come, Mr. Martínez-Barea said, “but it’s lacking an element that will make them want to come.”

A sweetener that the Spanish government should highlight, he said, is its unsecured lending program, which has about €100 million, or $125 million, to lend to innovative small and midsize companies annually. The loans, from €25,000 to €1.5 million, are available to all entrepreneurs, regardless of nationality, who have a business based in Spain (except for those running real estate or financial ventures). The public financing company making the loans, Enisa, doesn’t track applicants’ nationality, said Carmen Cuesta, a spokeswoman, but plenty of foreign-born entrepreneurs have received them since Enisa was created in 1982. Last year, it made more than 600 unsecured loans to entrepreneurs, with an average amount of about €131,000.

Mr. Martínez-Barea credits the birth of Universal Diagnostics, his own biotech start-up company in Seville, in part to the €200,000 it received from Enisa. He says he is convinced that if more foreign entrepreneurs knew about the government loans, they’d find Spain more enticing: “My friends at Singularity University say, ‘Wow, I want this.' ”

And so did Ms. Carr and Mr. Amoribieta. They applied to Enisa in May and received approval in early October for up to €75,000. Vidnex, they said, was released to the public in September and is gaining traction among dozens of fitness instructors, mostly in Spain, who use the service to teach their classes online. Yet no matter where it is and how much help it gets, a start-up company still has to prove that its business model works, and Mr. Amoribieta acknowledged that the sales process had been slow. “We are starting to realize,” he said, “that while the technology is here to work out remotely, it will take time for people to come around to this concept.”

But based on its expenses, he said, Vidnex has “plenty of financial runway” and a plan for future hiring, contingent on sales growth. Some of those new employees, he said, may come through the new law.

Read the whole story
2 days ago
File under: too good to be true?

Also, wouldn't a country with high unemployment be a great place to start a business? That confused me.
Melbourne, Australia
Share this story

Ransom is the new black – the increasing trend of online extortion

1 Comment and 3 Shares

I heard about this guy, walked into a federal bank with a portable phone, handed the phone to the teller, the guy on the other end of the phone said: “We got this guy’s little girl, and if you don’t give him all your money, we’re gonna kill ‘er.”

Did it work?

F**kin’ A it worked, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Knucklehead walks in a bank with a telephone, not a pistol, not a shotgun, but a f**kin’ phone, cleans the place out, and they don’t lift a f**kin’ finger.

Did they hurt the little girl?

I don’t know. There probably never was a little girl — the point of the story isn’t the little girl. The point of the story is they robbed the bank with a telephone.

This is out of the opening scene of Pulp Fiction and clearly, it’s fictitious. Except for when it isn’t:

Notice of extortion

Brian Krebs reported on this a few months ago and it’s about as brazen as you’d expect online criminals to get; give us money or we’ll mess up your stuff. It’s the mob protection racket of the digital era only more random with less chance of getting caught and not as many gold necklaces (I assume). That one bitcoin is about $400 American dollars today so enough for a tidy little return but not enough that it makes for an unachievable ransom for most small businesses.

The worrying thing is though, this is just part of a larger trend that’s drawing online criminals into the very lucrative world of extortion and we’re seeing many new precedents in all sorts of different areas of the online world. Let me show you what I mean.

Destroying a business via the web

Let’s say you have a hankering for a plate of lion meat meet one day (you heard me) so you do a Google search and find the perfect restaurant – but it’s shut on weekends. Bugger. So you go somewhere else as do all the other exotic food hunters looking for the king of the jungle with a side of fries. This was the fate the Serbian Crown in the US met with earlier this year (that’s a web archive link, do make sure your sound is turned way up to enjoy the full experience):

The Serbian Crown

You see, some enterprising soul had decided to take the initiative of creating a Google Places entry for the joint and misrepresented their operating hours:

It turned out that Google Places, the search giant’s vast business directory, was misreporting the Serbian Crown’s hours. Anyone Googling Serbian Crown, or plugging it into Google Maps, was told incorrectly that the restaurant was closed on the weekends

The point of all this is that when it comes to letters of extortion, attackers can actually be quite effective in carrying out their threats. They can destroy businesses to that extent that a Bitcoin or two to keep it alive suddenly doesn't seem like such a bad deal and that’s enormously worrying. But the spate of extortion we’ve seen this year goes well beyond mere threats to damage the victim’s business, increasingly the attacker already owns the target and now they’re talking ransom.

Corporate espionage and ransom

I’ve actually had this blog post in draft for a little while, adding pieces to it as new events occurred. The catalyst for completing it was this one:

Sony Hacked By #GOP

This was allegedly “on every computer all over Sony Pictures nationwide” today. The referenced zip file contains a couple of hundred meg of text files with file listings that look legit. If you take this at face value (and given they’ve demonstrated they had control of a number of Sony Pictures Twitter accounts that’s the safe assumption to make), that’s a huge amount of sensitive data they’re sitting on. Here’s just a snippet of what I found this morning:

Alleged file list from the Sony hack

It’s not clear what #GOP has demanded from Sony but what is clear is that they potentially have hold of a whole heap of very sensitive data there. At the time of writing, their deadline was going on half a day ago and there was still no mass release of data to the public so clearly it was an empty threat, right? Or did Sony pay up? Does anyone pay up? Apparently yes.

An extortion success story: Nokia

Earlier this year there was a report that in 2007, Nokia paid an extortionist “several million euros” for some encryption keys.  Holy crap does this business pay! Sometimes.

The problem in a case like this is that paying the extortion made good financial sense to Nokia. Had someone started to exploit those keys to sign packages with which could then be installed on their devices under Nokia’s identity, they could have taken a massive hit on consumer confidence at a time when they were just starting to lose serious market share.

Think extortionists are just targeting corporate entities? Think again, everyday consumers are getting hit too.

The mechanics of the iCloud “hack” and how iOS devices are being held to ransom

It’s not just the big guys getting hit with ransoms, every day consumers are getting pinged by attackers too. Back in May I wrote about this:

iPhone hacked by Oleg Pliss

This especially hit unsuspecting Aussies for reasons which weren’t apparent at the time, but later turned out to be as a result of phishing pages which inevitably had a penchant for targeting those of us down under. Whilst this was often reported as being malware, there was no “ware” to it, rather it was a case of the attacker simply using the “Find My iPhone” feature to remotely lock the device and when no lock screen PIN existed and set one of their own. You got the PIN once you paid the cash. It was ingeniously simple.

Of course consumers have been hit with ransoms before, CryptoLocker is a perfect example of this. You get malware via one of the usual means, all your things get encrypted and then the attacker demands money to release the private key to you. That’s another one that has been quite effective down here with a particularly high profile case of a doctor’s surgery being hit a couple of years back.

A seemingly endless stream of ransoms

Ransoms seem to be really hitting their straps as of late. Beyond all the cases above, there are incidents like Dominos in France back in June with the hackers demanding €30,000 and speculation rife both about it having been paid and rejected. Probably only Dominos and the attackers know for sure.

The month after that it was the European central bank getting hacked and allegedly threatened by an extortionist.

A month later again and Android phones are accusing people of liking their pets just a little bit too much and demanding cash lest you be reported to the FBI who are apparently interested in such things.

Just last week it was the city of Detroit getting owned with attackers wanting a couple of thousand Bitcoins for their troubles. Detroit of all places! Aren’t they the ones in financial dire straits?!

Ransoms will increase because they make good sense

Think about it: you don’t have to come face to face with anyone as in the extortion rackets of old, you can run the whole gig from your office / bedroom / dungeon, there’s more and more connected stuff with more and more vulnerabilities, we’re both personally and professionally more dependent than ever on online services and best of all, we’ve got easy access to crypto currency for when victim's pay up!

Well actually, even better than that (for the attackers at least) because it makes good financial sense for victims to pay because in many cases the attackers have done a damn good job. That’s not an endorsement of the ethics of the whole thing, rather an observation that in many of these cases, they’ve actually left the victim with little choice: pay or be seriously inconvenienced. They’re making the return on investment too attractive to say “no”, and that’s an extremely worrying trend.

It’s even better than walking into the bank with a phone, these days you just send an anonymous email.

Read the whole story
3 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
Share this story

The Problem With International Development—and a Plan to Fix It

1 Comment

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.

The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.

International Development Is Broken. Here Are Two Ways to Fix It.

By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair. The Guardian said the pumps were “reliant on child labour.”

Gideon Mendel/Corbis

PlayPumps were going to harness the energy of children to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages. They didn't.

In 2010, “Frontline” returned to the schools where they had filmed children laughing on the merry-go-rounds, splashing each other with water. They discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the handpumps they already had. In one community, adults were paying children to operate the pump. 

Let’s not pretend to be surprised by any of this. The PlayPump story is a sort of Mad Libs version of a narrative we’re all familiar with by now: Exciting new development idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.

I came across the PlayPump story in Ken Stern’s With Charity For All, but I could have plucked one from any of the dozen or so “development doesn’t work” best-sellers to come out in the last ten years. In The Idealista kind of “where are they now?” for the ideas laid out in Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of PovertyNina Munk discovers African villages made squalid by the hopes and checkbooks of Western do-gooders. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s Poor Economics finds dozens of “common sense” development projectsfood aid, crop insurance, microfinanceeither don’t help poor people or may even make them poorer.

International development is getting it from all sides. Governments and rich people (“major donors” in NGO-ese) are embracing terms like “philanthrocapitalism,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “impact bonds,” arguing that donations are investments, not gifts. Australia and Canada have done away with their international development agencies altogether, absorbing them into mega-ministries covering foreign affairs and trade.

I am conflicted about this moment. I have worked at international development NGOs almost my entire career (primarily at two mid-sized human rights organizationsone you’ve probably heard of and one you probably haven’t). I’ve been frustrated by the same inefficiencies and assumptions of my sector that are now getting picked apart in public. Like the authors, donors, and governments attacking international development, I’m sometimes disillusioned with what my job requires me to do, what it requires that I demand of others.

Over the last year, I read every book, essay, and roman à clef about my field I could find. I came out convinced that the problems with international development are real, they are fundamental, and I might, in fact, be one of them. But I also found that it’s too easy to blame the PlayPumps of the world. Donors, governments, the public, the media, aid recipients themselvesthey all contribute to the dysfunction. Maybe the problem isn’t that international development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.

In the late ’90s, Michael Kremer, then an economics professor at MIT, was in Kenya working on an NGO project that distributed textbooks to schools in poor rural districts. Around that time, the ratio of children to textbooks in Kenya was 17 to 1. The intervention seemed obvious: Poor villages need textbooks, rich donors have the money to buy them. All we have to do is link them up.

But in the early stages of the project, Kremer convinced the researchers to do it differently. He wanted to know whether giving kids textbooks actually made them better students. So instead of handing out books and making a simple before-and-after comparison, he designed the project like a pharmaceutical trial. He split the schools into groups, gave some of them the “treatment” (i.e., textbooks) and the others nothing. Then he tested everyone, not just the kids who got the books but also the kids who didn’t, to see if his intervention had any effect.

It didn’t. The trial took four years, but it was conclusive: Some of the kids improved academically over that time and some got worse, but the treatment group wasn’t any better off than the control.

Then Kremer tried something else. Maybe the kids weren’t struggling in school because of what was going on in the classroom, but because of what was going on outside of it. So again, Kremer split the schools into groups and spent three years testing and measuring them. This time, the treatment was an actual treatmentmedication to eradicate stomach worms. Worm infections affect up to 600 million children around the world, sapping their nutrition and causing, among other things, anemia, stomachaches, and stunting.

Once more, the results were conclusive: The deworming pills made the kids noticeably better off. Absence rates fell by 25 percent, the kids got taller, even their friends and families got healthier. By interrupting the chain of infection, the treatments had reduced worm infections in entire villages. Even more striking, when they tested the same kids nearly a decade later, they had more education and earned higher salaries. The female participants were less likely to be employed in domestic services.

And compared with Kremer’s first trial, deworming was a bargain. Textbooks cost $2 to $3 each. Deworming pills were as little as 49 cents. When Kremer calculated the kids’ bump in lifetime wages compared with the cost of treatment, it was a 60-to-1 ratio.

This is perfect TED Talk stuff: Conventional wisdom called into question, rigorous science triumphing over dogma. As word of Kremer’s study spread, he became part of a growing movement within international development to subject its assumptions to randomized controlled trials.

Dozens of books and articles (and yes, TED Talks) have tracked the rise of the randomistas, as they’ve come to be called. The most prominent of these, and the most fun to read, is Poor Economics, sort of the Principia Mathematica of “obvious” development interventions tested and found wanting.

If someone is chronically malnourished, to pick just one example, you should give them some food, right? Duflo and Banerjee describe dozens of projects finding that, when you subsidize or give away food to poor people, they don’t actually eat more. Instead, they just replace boring foods with more interesting ones and remain, in the statistics at least, “malnourished.”

In Udaipur, India, a survey found that poor people had enough money to increase their food spending by as much as 30 percent, but they chose to spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals instead. Duflo and Banerjee interviewed an out-of-work Indonesian agricultural worker who had been under the food-poverty line for years, but had a TV in his house.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand the underlying dynamic here: Cheap food is boring. In many developing countries, Duflo and Banerjee found that even the poorest people could afford more than 2,000 calories of staple foods every day. But given the choice between the fourth bowl of rice in one day and the first cigarette, many people opt for the latter.

Even in countries where development projects worked, where poor people went from hungry to nourished, they weren’t more likely to get a job or make significantly more money. All the appealing metaphors of NGO websites and academo-best-sellers“the poverty trap,” “the ladder of development”go limp under the magnifying glass of actually being tested.

EvidenceAction/Stephanie Skinner

Deworming treatment had impressive results on education in Kenyabut programs elsewhere aren't being as rigorously monitored.

Armed with his rigorously gathered results, Kremer founded an NGO, Deworm the World. He launched it at the 2007 World Economic Forum and committed to deworming ten million children. He was feted by the Clinton Global Initiative; GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson pledged $600 million worth of deworming treatments a year, enough for every infected primary school student in Africa. The World Health Organization issued a statement of support. Kenya asked him to help create a national program to deworm 3.6 million children. Two states in India initiated similar programs, aiming to treat millions more. The organization now claims to have helped 40 million children in 27 countries.

But wait a minute. Just because something works for 30,000 students in Kenya doesn’t mean it will work for millions of them across Africa or India. Deworm the World’s website talks a lot about its “evidence-based” approach. (It has now been folded into an NGO called Evidence Action.) Yet the primary evidence that deworming improves education outcomes is from Kremer’s single Kenya case and a post-hoc analysis of deworming initiatives in the American South in 1910. In 2012, the organization said that it had treated 17 million children in India, but didn’t report whether their attendance, school performance, or graduation rates improved.

I keep thinking I’m missing something really obvious, that I’m looking at the wrong part of their website. So I call up Evidence Action and ask: Are you guys really not testing how deworming affects education anymore?

“We don’t measure the effects on school attendance and school performance,” says Alix Zwane, Evidence Action’s executive director. At the scale they’re going for in India, entire states at a time, splitting into control and treatment groups simply wouldn’t be feasible.

Kremer tells me that enough trials have been done to warrant the upscaling. “There’s more evidence for this than the vast majority of things that governments spend money on.” Every time you want to build a new road, you can’t stop to ask, Will this one really help people get from place to place?

“Meanwhile,” he says, “there’s a cohort of children that, if you don’t implement the policy now, will go through years of schooling without treatment.”

It’s an interesting questionwhen do you have enough evidence to stop testing each new application of a development idea?and I get that you can’t run a four-year trial every time you roll out, say, the measles vaccine to a new country. But like many other aid projects under pressure to scale up too fast and too far, deworming kids to improve their education outcomes isn’t the slam-dunk its supporters make it out to be.

In 2000, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a literature review of 30 randomized control trials of deworming projects in 17 countries. While some of them showed modest gains in weight and height, none of them showed any effect on school attendance or cognitive performance. After criticism of the review by the World Bank and others, the BMJ ran it again in 2009 with stricter inclusion criteria. But the results didn’t change. Another review, in 2012, found the same thing: “We do not know if these programmes have an effect on weight, height, school attendance, or school performance.”

Kremer and Evidence Action dispute the way these reviews were carried out, and sent me an upcoming study from Uganda that found links between deworming and improved test scores. But the evidence they cite on their own website undermines this data. Kremer’s 2004 study reporting the results of the original deworming trial notesin the abstract!that “we do not find evidence that deworming improves academic test scores,” only attendance. Another literature review cited on Deworm the World’s website says, “When infected children are given deworming treatment, immediate educational and cognitive benefits are not always apparent.”

Then there’s the comparison to textbooks. Kenya, it turns out, is a uniquely terrible place to hand out textbooks to kids and expect better academic performance. When Kremer reported that textbooks had no overall effect, he also noted that they did actually improve test scores for the kids who were already at the top of the class. The main problem, it seems, was that the textbooks were in English, the second or third language for most of the kids. Of the third-graders given textbooks, only 15 percent could even read them.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, a series of meta-analyses found that textbooks were actually effective at improving school performance in places where the language issues weren’t as complex. In his own paper reporting the Kenya results, Kremer noted that, in Nicaragua and the Philippines, giving kids textbooks did improve their test scores.

But the point of all this is not to talk shit on Kremerwho has bettered the world more with his career than I ever have with mineor to dismantle his deworming charity, or to advocate that we should all go back to giving out free textbooks. What I want to talk shit on is the paradigm of the Big Ideathat once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket.

EvidenceAction/Stephanie Skinner

There are villages where deworming will be the most meaningful education project possible. There are others where free textbooks will. In other places, it will be new school buildings, more teachers, lower fees, better transport, tutors, uniforms. There’s probably a village out there where a PlayPump would beat all these approaches combined. The point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these modelsnot just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly.

I can see why it’s appealing to think that, once you find a successful formula for development, you can just scale it up like a Model T. Host governments want programs that get more effective as they get bigger. Individual donors, you and me, we want to feel like we’re backing a plucky little start-up that is going to save the world. No international institution wants to say in their annual report: “There’s this great NGO that increased attendance in a Kenyan school district. We’re giving them a modest sum to do the same thing in one other district in one other country.”

The repeated “success, scale, fail” experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another. No one will ever be invited to explain that in a TED talk.

The last NGO I worked for had 150 employees and a budget of more than $25 million. Employees were divided into “program staff” (the people researching, coordinating, and implementing our mission) and “overhead staff” (the fund-raising, human resources, and accounting departments helping them do it). Like most NGOs, we bragged to our donors that we had low overhead, that their dollars and euros and kroner and francs went to “the cause” and not to our rent or our heating bills. And this was, at least on the Excel sheets, true. Most of our money went to researcher and project manager salaries. The fund-raising, H.R., and accounting departments could have each fit comfortably in a minivan.

The problem is, those overhead tasks don’t disappear just because you don’t spend money on them. Someone has to monitor the accounts, find new donors, calculate taxes, organize the holiday party. Centralizing these tasks in dedicated departments, hiring specialists, getting good at them, that would have looked like bureaucracy. So instead, we spun them out to the entire staff: We assigned researchers and project managersanthropology majors mostly, some law school dropoutsto do our H.R., accounting, fund-raising, and project evaluations.

The outcome was as chaotic as it sounds. Want to hire someone? You’ll need to write your own job ad, find job boards to post it to, and, in some cases, update the standard employment contract yourself. Want to issue a press release about the results of the study you just performed? Write it yourself and start sending it to journalists. Hopefully you know a few.

The downsides of this approach were most obvious in fund-raising. If there’s one thing donors hate, it’s paying us to find more donors. So every program staffer was responsible for raising (and accounting, and monitoring, and reporting) funds for their own projects. Staff members spent days doing the same donor research (“which foundations fund work on water scarcity?”) that a colleague across the hall did last week. Without a centralized staff to coordinate pitches, we contacted the same donors dozens of times with small-fry requests rather than combining them into one coherent “ask.” (One employee, legend had it, asked Google if they could Google Translate our website as an in-kind donation.)

No one had any expertise in writing grant proposals, conducting impact assessments, or managing high-maintenance funders like the European Commissiontraining courses would have counted as overhead spending. We missed opportunities for new funding, we bungled contracts we already had, and we turned donors against us. Every staff meeting, one or two people announced they were leaving. “I wasn’t hired to spend my day fund-raising” were the most common eight words at farewell parties.

My experience wasn’t unique. Stern cites the example of the American Red Cross, which sent confused volunteers, clueless employees, and, bafflingly, perishable Danish pastries to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina because it hadn’t invested in training its U.S. staff in actual crisis response. A buddy of mine works at an NGO with 150 staff where the H.R. department is exactly one person, and she’s also the receptionist.

It’s understandable that donors are paranoid about overhead. The last few years have seen charity after charity busted for blowing donations on corporate junkets, billboard advertising, and outright fraud. Some breast cancer charities pay telemarketing companies 90 cents of each dollar they raise just to raise it. Greg Mortenson, he of the Three Cups of Tea school-building empire, had to pay $1 million back to his own charity when a Jon Krakauer exposé revealed that he was spending donations on a never-ending book tour and pocketing the proceeds.

Dan Pallotta, who spent the ’90s and 2000s running a $300 million breast cancer and AIDS charity, has produced two books arguing that this obsession with overhead keeps charities from reaching the scale required to take on large problems. Pallotta uses the example of two soup kitchens: One spends 60 cents of every donation dollar on “programs” (i.e., soup), while the other spends 90 cents.

According to the conventional wisdom of donors and charity rating agencies, your donation is better spent on the organization where only 10 percent of spending goes to overhead. But using this one number ignores much more important indicators of the charity’s impact. Is the soup nutritious and warm? Is it getting to the right people? Does the kitchen open on time every day and have kind, professional staff? And, hang on, do free warm meals even help people escape poverty? Providing decent service, targeting handouts, testing these assumptionsthese things cost money, whether donors like it or not.

So charities hide overhead, like we did, in overburdened program staff, untrained volunteers, and external consultants. Just as deworming millions of children is different in kind, not degree, from deworming a village of them, running a large, professional charity is completely different from running a new, start-uppy one. Small-scale projects (installing one PlayPump, say) can keep their overhead low through charismatic leaders, passionate staff, and long-standing relationships with the communities they’re seeking to assist. Large-scale projects require stuff like budget managers, reporting frameworks, light bulbs, and, yes, a goddamn holiday party.

Pallotta’s Uncharitable has a nice example of what this looks like. His first cross-country AIDS ride had 39 cyclists and almost zero overhead. The group was small enough to sleep in gymnasiums, to rely on churches and good samaritans to provide food and hot showers. If supplies fell short, they could knock on doors asking for help or, in a pinch, put up their tents in backyards. He raised $80,000.

By the 2000s, the rides were attracting an average of 3,000 riders. A group that size requires a logarithmic increase in organization and supportrenting out whole campgrounds, professional catering, dedicated medical and legal staff. Overhead costs ballooned to 42 percent of each donation. But each ride raised $7 million.

As with the actual aid projects themselves, the success of a charity depends on specifics, not a single, one-size-fits-all indicator. Charities do all kinds of stuffconduct research, train local NGOs, build infrastructure, give away goats. For donors to truly determine how well they’re doing it, they’d need to come up with a customized report card for each charity.

For a soup kitchen, it would be the stuff I just mentioned: Do they open on time? How’s their soup? For an NGO that, say, monitors government infrastructure projects for corruption, it would be things like, What percentage of projects are they assessing? Are their assessments yielding correct information? Is this information being communicated to the communities affected by corruption?

Judging charities like this, on the impacts of their work and whether they’re addressing the problem they set out to solve, yields qualitative information, sentences, and observations that can’t be compared across charities. Given the millions of international development NGOs with their upside-down hats out (the IRS, Stern notes, approves 99.5 percent of charity applications), it’s faster and easier to measure them all by the same standard.

This is why donors love overhead. It’s one number that allows you to compare the soup kitchen with the anti-corruption think tank. It smells all rigorous and objective, but it doesn’t require any actual work. Charities provide their own overhead figures, after all, just like they write their own annual reports and produce their own little Kony 2012 fund-raising videos. International development NGOs aren’t always obligated to issue audited accounts. Some of them report no overhead at all, the institutional equivalent of “I didn’t inhale.”

I’m not going to propose a cute little solution here to make this easier for donors, or suggest some “right” overhead percentage. For most charities, 10 percent overhead probably isn’t enough, and 90 percent is just fucking around. But the whole point is that we shouldn’t pick just one number to stand in for efficiency. We’re always arguing that, if rich countries want to solve the problems of poor ones, they’re going to have to spend time getting to know them. It’s time we apply the same logic to the agencies we dispatch to do the job.

Dertu isn’t a place very many people go on purpose. Located in northeastern Kenya, close to the Somali border, and next door to a sprawling refugee camp, in 2004 it was little more than a rest stop, a place for the local pastoralists to refresh their animals and catch up on local news. Its chief attraction was fresh water from a UNICEF-drilled borehole in the clay. Of the few thousand people living there permanently, more than 80 percent relied on food aid. Ninety percent were illiterate.

This is the “before” picture of Dertu that Jeffrey Sachs found when he initiated his Millennium Villages Project there in 2006. Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, became a Bono-approved development celebrity with his book The End of Poverty, a screed against the rich world’s complacency in letting easily solvable problemsmalaria, literacy, clean waterdamn an entire continent to misery.

Sachs’s book tour culminated in the establishment of the Millennium Villages Project, an ambitious plan to jump-start development with a huge influx of cash, in-kind support, and infrastructure to some of the poorest settlements in the world. Sachs’s premise was that millions of people, dozens of countries, had fallen into the “poverty trap”: Living in substandard housing leads to problems concentrating at school. Which leads to not graduating. Which leads to working in low-skilled jobs. Which leads to living in substandard housing. And on and on.

The only solution, Sachs argued, was to dramatically boost people to a level where they could start to develop themselves.

This is, it turns out, an incredibly persuasive idea, and in the two years after the book came out, Sachs raised $120 million (including $50 million from George Soros’s personal checkbook) and identified 14 villages throughout sub-Saharan Africa to test his theory.

As described in Nina Munk’s The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, things looked promising in Dertu at first. Sachs convinced GE and Ericsson to donate medical equipment and cell phones. He hired local managers who knew the culture and language to ensure his project was responding to Dertu’s needs. His teams built housing, schools, roads, health clinics. They set up a livestock market to attract farmers from all over the region.

But soon, the momentum faltered. Without electricity to run it or specialists to maintain it, the advanced medical equipment gathered dustin Kenya, that means literally. The managers of the project, so knowledgeable about the local culture and mores, eventually succumbed to them, doling out benefits on the basis of tribal favoritism and tit-for-tat back-scratching. The borehole broke down and water had to be shipped in by truck.

The core of the problem, as Munk describes it, was that Dertu became a sort of company town, with the Millennium Villages Project providing the only reliable source of employment, benefits, and public services. Thousands of new residents came from the nearby refugee camp and other parts of Kenya, seeking jobs or handouts. Where Dertu was once a stopover for nomads, the influx of donor money, the improved infrastructure, the free housing and education and health care, had given people a reason to stay. Sachs’s funding couldn’t keep up. And eventually, it ran out.

In an interview about her book for EconTalk, Munk describes what Dertu looked like the last time she saw it, in 2011:

They were now really living in a kind of squalor that I hadn’t seen on my first visit. Their huts were jammed together; they were patched with those horrible polyurethane bags that one sees all over Africa. ... There were streams of slop that were going down between these tightly packed huts. And the latrines had overflowed or were clogged. And no one was able to agree on whose job it was to maintain them. And there were ditches piled high with garbage. And it was justit made my heart just sink.

This is the paradox: When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected. You can find examples of this in every corner of development practice. A project in Kenya that gave kids free uniforms, textbooks, and classroom materials increased enrollment by 50 percent, swamping the teachers and reducing the quality of education for everyone. Communities in India cut off their own water supply so they could be classified as “slums” and be eligible for slum-upgrading funding. I’ve worked in places where as soon as a company sets up a health clinic or an education program, the local government disappearswhy should they spend money on primary schools when a rich company is ready to take on the responsibility?

There’s nothing avaricious about this. If anything, it demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit we’re constantly telling the poor they need to demonstrate.

My favorite example of unintended consequences comes, weirdly enough, from the United States. In a speech to a criminology conference, Nancy G. Guerra, the director of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Delaware, described a project where she held workshops with inner-city Latina teenagers, trying to prevent them from joining gangs. The program worked in that none of the girls committed any violence within six months of the workshops. But by the end of that time, they were all, each and every one, pregnant.

“That behavior was serving a need for them,” she says in her speech. “It made them feel powerful, it made them feel important, it gave them a sense of identity. ... When that ended, [they] needed another kind of meaning in their lives.”

The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict.

Guillaume Bonn/Corbis

Jeffery Sachs, friend of Bono and director of the Millennium Villages Project, addresses more than 4,000 people in Uganda.

According to Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos, international development is just such an invasive species. Why Dertu doesn’t have a vaccination clinic, why Kenyan schoolkids can’t read, it’s a combination of culture, politics, history, laws, infrastructure, individualsall of a society’s component parts, their harmony and their discord, working as one organism. Introducing something foreign into that systemmillions in donor cash, dozens of trained personnel and equipment, U.N. Land Roverscauses it to adapt in ways you can’t predict.

A friend of mine works at an NGO that audits factories in India and China, inspecting them for child labor, forced labor, human-trafficking, everything celebrities are always warning us about. I asked him if, after ten years of inspections, conditions have gotten any better. “Yes and no,” he said. “Anytime you set a standard, some companies will become sophisticated to meet it, and others will become sophisticated to avoid it.”

So international development sucks, right? I’ve just spent thousands of words telling you all the ways the incentives of donors, recipients, and NGOs contradict each other. Why not just scrap it altogether?

Because I don’t think that’s the conclusion these examples suggest. I think they suggest something much less dramatic: It’s not that development is broken, it’s that our expectations of it are.

First, let’s de-room this elephant: Development has happened. The last 50 years have seen about the biggest explosion of prosperity in human history. China, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, Mexicothese aren’t the only countries where you’d rather be born now than 50 years ago. Even the poorest countries in the worldBurundi, Somalia, Zimbabweare doing way better on stuff like vaccinations and literacy than they did earlier in our own lifetimes.

You sometimes hear this Cambrian proliferation of well-being as an argument against development aid, like: “See? China got better all by itself.” But the rise of formerly destitute countries into the sweaters-and-smartphones bracket is less a refutation of the impact of development aid than a reality-check of its scale. In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?

Development, no matter how it happens, is a slow process. It wasn’t until about 30 years after Mao’s death that China’s per capita GDP reached lower-middle-income status. The country’s growth is arguably the fastest of any country’s since we, as a species, started gathering economic statistics. Even in the most cartoonishly successful scenario imaginable, countries like the Central African Republic (per capita GDP: $700, adjusted for purchasing power), Burundi ($600), and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($400) will take decades just to reach the point where China is now.

The ability of international development projects to speed up this process is limited. Remember how I said the deworming project had a 60-to-1 ratio between the price of the pills and the increase in wages for the kids who got them? The increase was $30. Not $30 per year. The kids earned $30 more over their lifetimes as a result of the deworming treatment. You find this a lot in the development literature: Even the most wildly successful projects decrease maternal mortality by a few percent here, add an extra year or two of life expectancy there.

This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers. Leave the leaps and bounds to computing power. If a 49-cent deworming treatment really does produce a $30 increase in wages for some of the poorest people on Earth, we are assholes for not spending it.

And this is where I landed after a year of absorbing dozens of books and articles and speeches about international development: The arguments against it are myriad, and mostly logistical and technical. The argument for it is singular, moral, and, to me anyway, utterly convincing: We have so much, they have so little.

If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits (direct cash payments, which have shown impressive results in Kenya and Uganda, are a great candidate for the kind of deliberate expansion I’m talking about). NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.

As Owen Barder, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development (from whom I stole many of the ideas in this essay), puts it:

If we believe that trade is important, we could do more to open our own markets to trade from developing countries. If we believe property rights are important, we could do more to enforce the principle that nations, not illegitimate leaders, own their own natural resources. ... If we believe transparency is important, we could start by requiring our own companies to publish the details of the payments they make to developing countries.

PlayPump International, the charity I started with, doesn’t exist anymore. The pumps, however, are still being installed by Roundabout Water Solutions, an NGO that markets them as a “niche solution” that should only be installed at primary schools in poor rural areas. Four years ago, the same evaluations that so harshly criticized the rapid expansion of the project also acknowledged that, in some villages, under the right circumstances, they were fabulously helpful.

In 2010, “Frontline” interviewed the director of PlayPump about its failures, and he said, “It might have been a bit ambitious, but hey, you gotta dream big. Everyone’s always said it’s such a great idea.”

And it was. But maybe when the next great idea comes along, we should all dream a little smaller.

Michael Hobbes is a human rights consultant in Berlin who writes regularly for The New Republic.

Read the whole story
3 days ago
Great read. via @gnat
Melbourne, Australia
Share this story

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

4 Comments and 8 Shares

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

The Hollywood Sign might be one of the most recognizable things on Earth. In Los Angeles, it's also one of the most visible. You can see it from a plane as you glide into LAX. You can see it from a car as you drive up the 101 freeway. But a group of people who live near the sign are trying to hide it, even as it looms in the hills, in plain sight. By removing it from Google Maps.

Why hide the Hollywood Sign? It begins with the story of the Hollywood locals vs. the Hollywood tourists. For decades, the people who live below the sign have been battling the constant wave of sightseers who flock to see the nine giant letters as part of an Essential Los Angeles Pilgrimage. Signs (some illegal) have been erected on streets, warning that there is "No access to the Hollywood Sign."

But in the last few years, technology has amplified this battle into an all-out war. Since they can't physically block the streets to stop cars from arriving, residents have spent years working on the next best solution: Make the sign invisible online—so no one can find it.

"How do you get to the Hollywood Sign?"

The sign hangs off the side of Mt. Lee, a peak in the Santa Monica mountain range that runs east to west through Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the U.S. While you're not allowed to scramble right up to the letters and take a seat on the W, you can summit the mountain itself, rewarding yourself with a stunning view of the city, the famous reversed-out letters at your feet (it's where I shot the photo below). The best access is from nearby Beachwood Canyon, home of the original Hollywoodland neighborhood that the sign was erected to advertise in 1923, at the end of a steep but well-maintained trail.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

My photo from behind the Hollywood Sign, taken during the urban hike The Big Parade in 2009

When I first moved to LA 13 years ago, I lived at the base of Bronson Canyon, one canyon over. From our street we had a fairly clear shot of the sign and on the weekends there were often tourists taking what would later be known as selfies with H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D behind them. Whenever I hiked through the neighborhood and up into the park, I'd have at least one carful of visitors stop me to ask for driving directions to the sign.

For starters, the sign is in a park, so you can't really drive there, I'd say watching their faces deflate. Then I'd deliver the second piece of bad news: To actually get to the sign, you have to hike, and even then, you end up above it. When I'd try to explain that where they were at the moment was probably the easiest place to get the best view, they'd often wave me off, determined they could get much closer by feeling it out themselves.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

So close, yet so far away. Photo by Seng Phomphanh

But the sign is both tempting and elusive. That's why you'll find so many tourists taking photos on dead-end streets at the base of the Hollywood Hills. For many years, the urban design of the neighborhood actually served as the sign's best protection: Due to the confusingly named, corkscrewing streets, it's actually not that easy to tell someone how to get to the Hollywood Sign.

That all changed about five years ago, thanks to our suddenly sentient devices. Phones and GPS were now able to aid the tourists immensely in their quests to access the sign, sending them confidently through the neighborhoods, all the way up to the access gate, where they'd park and wander along the narrow residential streets. This, the neighbors complained, created gridlock, but even worse, it represented a fire hazard in the dry hills—fire trucks would not be able to squeeze by the parked cars in case of an emergency.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

Google Maps clearly showing the exact location of the Hollywood Sign, on a trail north of Beachwood Canyon (much to local residents' dismay)

The neighbors pleaded with the city to help. Then the local councilmember, Tom LaBonge, who is known for leading regular hikes through the park and up to the sign itself, proposed something that seemed crazy, if not impossible: He would look into changing the sign's official GPS coordinates, effectively hiding it from tourists forever.

So how doyou get to the Hollywood Sign?

By 2011 the A few years athe anti-tourist rhetoric reached a fever pitch, with homeowners mounting a vicious campaignthreatening visitors, who, unsurprisingly, just kept coming. Some neighbors painted their curbs red (illegally) to discourage parking and tacked up more signs (illegally) warning against trespassing. In a vacant lot, someone took the time to build a full-on piece of land art that seemed to echo the large white letters in the distance: TOURISTS GO AWAY.

In response to the vitriol, and because I myself had witnessed the crowds firsthand, I wrote what I thought was a very helpful bit of service journalism on my blog, "The best way to see the Hollywood sign." In my piece, I argue that driving through the twisty-turny streets of Beachwood Canyon is actually not the best way to snuggle up to the sign. I very clearly direct would-be visitors to the address of a small public park with an excellent view of the famous icon, from which you can hike up to the sign.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

My map of how to see the Hollywood Sign, with directions to a local park and then walking directions the rest of the way

Three years later my story remains one of the top hits if you go searching online for the best way to see the Hollywood Sign, and every few weeks I still get emails from people sharing the photos they took from the location and thanking me profusely for posting the information on my blog.

Why? Because if you try to find out how to actually get to the Hollywood Sign by asking Google Maps, you won't get anywhere near it.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

Even though Google Maps clearly marks the actual location of the sign, something funny happens when you request driving directions from any place in the city. The directions lead you to Griffith Observatory, a beautiful 1920s building located one mountain east from the sign, then—in something I've never seen before, anywhere on Google Maps—a dashed gray line arcs from Griffith Observatory, over Mt. Lee, to the sign's site. Walking directions show the same thing.

Even though you can very clearly walk to the sign via the extensive trail network in Griffith Park, the map won't allow you to try.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

When I tried to get walking directions to the sign from the small park I suggest parking at in my article, Google Maps does an even crazier thing. It tells you to walk an hour and a half out of the way, all the way to Griffith Observatory, and look at the sign from there.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

No matter how you try to get directions—Google Maps, Apple Maps, Bing—they all tell you the same thing. Go to Griffith Observatory. Gaze in the direction of the dashed gray line. Do not proceed to the sign.

Don't get me wrong, the view of the sign from Griffith Observatory is quite nice. And that sure does make it easier to explain to tourists. But how could the private interests of a handful of Angelenos have persuaded mapping services to make it the primary route?

Anyone seen a Hollywood Sign around here?

To find out how this happened, I had a very nice conversation with Betsy Isroelit from the Hollywood Sign Trust, a nonprofit which protects and maintains the sign, and has become in many ways the keeper of the sign's public interests.

She admits that there was once a goal to "hide" the sign online completely, but it was deemed impossible. "At one point we were successful in getting Google to take the address down, but it appears so many other places like the city council offices and the city of LA that they put it back up."

In the end, it was Councilmember LaBonge who found a different solution. Working closely with Google and the GPS company Garmin, he was able to convince them to change the directions to the sign. Google did not respond to my requests for comment, but Carly Hysell from Garmin confirmed to me that the change was made in their the spring 2012 map release.

"The point of interest right at the sign was removed and 'sign view' points of interest on the ground were added, but they aren't at the sign itself." Now there are actually twoplaces that drivers might be directed: Griffith Observatory, and puzzlingly, the viewing platform at the Hollywood & Highland Center, which is about four miles away on busy Hollywood Boulevard.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

The view of the sign from the Hollywood & Highland Center, which is frankly not going to cut it with most tourists. Photo via Hollywood Sign Trust

Now imagine for a second that you've flown all the way here from Istanbul to see the Hollywood Sign. And you end up at a mall.

Although the Hollywood Sign Trust has posted these viewing places on their website, Isroelit says the nonprofit's official position is to remain vague. So the websiteinsists there is no address, devotes an entire page to explaining why you shouldn't hike to the sign. "We're very explicit about not parking in the neighborhood," she says. "But we don't own the land and we don't control the city streets."

Technically, neither do the neighbors, who continue to harass tourists—and residents—who have every right to use the streets, trails, and public parklands to access the sign.

Now, at least two people who live in the neighborhood have now decided to come after me for publishing accurate information about where the Hollywood Sign actually is and how to get there.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

The Hollywood Sign on Google Street View, which lists this address as 6084 Mulholland Hwy

Last week, I received an email from a homeowner who threatened to take legal action against me for posting two separate addresses on my blog (the address of the small public park and another place to find the access gate to the hiking trail—neither of which are residential addresses or actual addresses of the sign):

Please immediately cease and desist from using 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland [Hwy] or any other residence as the address for the Hollywood Sign and change the address to one of the two official viewing spots sanctioned by the Hollywood Sign Trust as shown in their map. The locations are: Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood and Highland Center...

Please be advised that up to this point your actions may have simply been due to an oversight of the local situation. However, should the address not be changed going forward, you may named in a lawsuit and be held liable for damages in an accident or due to your knowing and/or negligent continuing direction of visitors to the viewing spot at 3204 Canyon Lake Driveand 6161 Mulholland Hwy.

As I was still trying to process how I might be held liable for making a map, the initial email was followed by eight separate emails from the same resident with photos of how my writing was encouraging people to park illegally.

Within a few hours, another resident emailed me:

[W]hy are you referring people to the Hollywood sign, using addresses that are not sanctioned by Recreation & Parks or by

That is because you are referring people to a death trap. You are actually not advocating for "safe" or "fun" walking.

We do not have the infrastructure to handle all these extra cars. There is nowhere for them to park. There are no LA Park Rangers in these areas. There are no bathrooms, no drinking fountains, no sidewalks. You CANNOT hike to the sign, yet you are encouraging a volatile situation.

This email was accompanied by photos of a small fire and a burst fire hydrant, both of which my writing had caused. Also, the email mentions that a dog was run over by a car in the area, which was apparently also my fault.

It gets worse than simply firing off a few emails. Earlier this year, these Beachwood Canyon residents successfully petitioned the city to close a public trail to the sign to keep tourists at bay, erecting a giant fence and hiring security guards. The trail has been closed since late March. Now no one, even residents, can use one of the most popular trails to access one of the country's largest urban parks, in the middle of our public space-deprived city.

I saw the sign

When I spoke to Councilmember LaBonge he emphasized that his job was to protectpotential environmental and safety concerns. "There are impacts to the canyon that we are trying to resolve," he said. But on the other hand, he said, nothing has actually been restricted in the area as far as parking or roadblocks. "It's very important to have access at all time to that mountain." The trail that's been closed—ostensibly for repairs—is being reopened soon, he told me.

The solution going forward likely won't involve more mapping tweaks. LaBonge's next project will be a shuttle thatwould take people from a location in Hollywood to a place where they could easily access the park and the trail to the sign—without bringing their cars.

But healso agreed that the online battle had been tough for the city to win. "The internet is like a wild river," he said. "It allows anything and everything and you hate to see anybody drown."

When that wild river is tamed, it's usually in our best interest. Mapping companies might blur satellite imagery in the name of public safety, like certain international borders and government buildings. But the fact that cartographers are publishing false information about public lands in the middle of Los Angeles is quite worrying.

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

An art installation by On The Road in May addressed access to the sign by making it appear that the Hollywood Sign had been dismantled

Over at Garmin, Hysell noted that their cartographers do, in fact, take input outside of their own experiences driving the routes. "They do receive data on a regular basis from city officials, county officials, DOT websites, and so on, and of course, make updates and adjustments to the mapping accordingly," she says. "They also take reports from users, too, and apply changes as deemed worthy and verifiable."

So what's happening in Hollywood is a disturbing peek into the future of digital cartography. A few dozen homeowners in one of the city's wealthiest zip codes—who bought their homes knowing (I assume) about the letters hanging just outside their bedroom windows—have found a way to keep people out of their neighborhood by manipulating technology.

This is the next iteration of a gated community.

It doesn't seem like it could happen just anywhere; Hysell agrees that the Hollywood Sign was a special exception. But where do the exceptions end? A group of homeowners petitions Zillow to hide specific property information and prevent certain populations from buying homes? A group of well-to-do Yelpers deliberately scramble the addresses of their favorite restaurants, so undesirables can't "discover" them?

Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps

Another Google Street View shot from behind the Hollywood Sign, which homeowners claim you cannot hike to

Thanks to the duplicitous nature of NIMBYs, now we have three levels of censorship happening here in Hollywood: Organizations erecting digital walls around our most famous landmarks, technology companies lying to tourists about our geography, and a faction of vigilante residents cracking down on bloggers who are trying to disseminate accurate information about our city.

Because our mapping services are now subject to the whims of angry, powerful residents, we have to rely on other sources to give us accurate directions. In a way, the post on my blog is almost like passing out hand-drawn paper cartography from person to person, a map to buried treasure that hangs in plain sight. Until the online maps are updated properly, I'm here to help anyone—tourist or resident—who wants to experience all LA has to offer. Just let me know if you need directions.

Top art by Michael Hession

Read the whole story
5 days ago
Buying expensive houses makes people unreasonable, selfish assholes/ unreasonable, selfish assholes buy expensive houses
Share this story
3 public comments
5 days ago
Perhaps it is time for the rest of the Internet to email these homeowners. I really loved this part: "There are no bathrooms, no drinking fountains, no sidewalks. You CANNOT hike to the sign, yet you are encouraging a volatile situation." OH NO! No bathrooms, drinking fountains, or sidewalks?!? How would one possibly survive for a couple hours outside?!?
Boston Metro Area
6 days ago
Why the world needs openstreetmap
Bend, Oregon
5 days ago
Just added these two addresses into my phone contact list under "Hollywood Sign". If I ever go to LA, I'll make sure to go here to sightsee. And I'll plan to try the trail to hike up the mountain.
6 days ago
Good Lord those homeowners are crazy.
Washington, District of Columbia

Page 64

1 Comment
Read the whole story
7 days ago
Lovely graphic today
Melbourne, Australia
Share this story

There Are No Moderates in #GamerGate

1 Comment and 3 Shares

I found this subreddit about leaving (or rejecting) #GamerGate absolutely fascinating. The upshot is that there are no moderates left in GG, which is why it’s becoming increasingly harder to pretend that this is anything more than just a reactionary anti-woman movement.


Read the whole story
Share this story
1 public comment
7 days ago
"no moderates left in GG" there never were any to start with.
7 days ago
There may have been some people who were honestly deluded about the movement's goals, and the wire brush of enlightenment has since descended.
Next Page of Stories