This Self-Taught Programmer Is Bringing Transparency to California Politics

A laid-off grocery bagger learned to code and is now shining a light on spending by politicians, their campaigns, and outside groups.

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Rob Pyers didn't set out to bring transparency to establishment politics. In fact, he didn't even have any programming experience before he built the electronic systems for the California Target Book, a go-to resource for political transparency in the state. He initially came to Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming a screenwriter, but ended up stuck in his day job, bagging groceries. Then Walgreen's laid him off, and he needed something else to do.

After joining the Target Book, Pyers taught himself how to code, mostly by watching YouTube videos. Two years later, the 41-year-old has built its systems from the ground up, and now runs the website from his cramped West Hollywood one-bedroom. He is often the first to publicize major donations and new candidates, making his Twitter feed invaluable to campaign consultants and journalists alike.

Pyers, who describes himself as "95 lbs of concentrated tech geek," has become an expert on pulling data from hundreds of voter databases, election filings, and campaign finance disclosures. He's done all this despite the fact that the state's main resource for campaign information is an inaccessible hodgepodge of ZIP archives and tables that even the current Secretary of State has called a "Frankenstein monster of outdated code."

"California's Cal-Access website is notorious for being just sort of an ungodly, byzantine mess," says Pyers. "If you have no idea what you're doing, it's almost impossible to get any useful information out of."

The state is currently working on a multi-million dollar upgrade to the site, with an expected rollout in 2019. But while the government builds its new system, the Target Book has already proven its worth. During one 2016 Congressional race, the L.A. Times used Pyers' data to reveal that candidate Isadore Hall may have misused hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign cash.

Pyers believes radical transparency is the best method for rooting out corruption because regulatory interventions tend to backfire. He bases this belief on the real-world effects he's seen in California. In 2010, the state revamped primary elections to make them nonpartisan. Reformers promised this system would help moderates and minor party candidates, but Pyers says it has only increased the power of special interests and cemented Democratic Party rule in the state.

Another popular reform is campaign finance limits, but again, Pyers believes such regulations backfire and actively hurt candidates who aren't backed by a major party or special interest. According to Pyers, their campaigns end up being dominated by PACs and dark money organizations that aren't legally required to disclose their backers, and with which the candidates are legally prohibited from coordinating.

Watch the video above for the full story.

Produced by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Monticello, Alex Manning, and Zach Weissmueller. Music by Grégoire Lourme, Hare, Kevin MacLeod, and MK2.

Inspired Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

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  1. He initially came to Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming a screenwriter…95 lbs of concentrated tech geek

    If he has a BA in English and not a verifiable STEM degree, I reserve the right to call Shenanigans!

    1. I earned a good living in data processing / electronic data processing / automated data processing / information systems / management information systems / information technology and whatever they call it now for 45 years.
      All that with a bachelors degree in Public Administration!
      All the degree was good for was getting them to give out an application for the job. Never used it once in all 45 years.
      There were two absolutely brilliant ladies I worked with at one time or another; one had a degree in interior design, the other in theoretical nuclear physics. So maybe not so much shenanigans.
      The two key skills are office politics, and patience.

  2. How is he with shoddy commenting systems?

    1. Whine not ask him yourself?

    2. Call me cynical, but I suspect the vanilla nature of this comments section suits Reason just fine.

  3. Governments emphatically do not need to build websites to display their information, as they have proven unequal to that particular task. All they need to do is release their data in machine-readable formats and let the people figure out how to display it.

    1. machine-readable formats

      Punch cards.

  4. Self taught programmer, eh? I’ve been thinking I should re-study up on moden languages to become that. Im a machinist, but my foot has been screwed up, and looked into this and was told you can definitely work your way into a career if you learn eniugh and sell yourself.

    Went to a fancy prep school and studied programming a lot when I was in High School ajd did really well AP classes tests, compeitions. Its just later on I turne dout to suck at getting myself to do homework(college)

    I still remember all the syntax of C++ and VB.

    Thoughts?

    1. Pick something narrowly focused and relevant. The old days of “I know all these languages really well” doesn’t seem to fly any more.

    2. Things to learn now:

      – Ansible/automation
      – Docker
      – Kubernetes
      – Go programming language

      you can learn these if you have a half-decent OS and hardware using virtualbox/vmware, docker install, and good Googling skills.

    3. Old school now, I am afraid. Back to the beginning to learn web stuff.
      And your competition is a bunch of cheap labor from everywhere else. Working “remote” for peanuts; not very good, but even with all the rework, less than a living wage in a country that can use a machinist.
      Go on the disability dole and learn to be happy with a roof and a bit of food each day.

    4. Old school now, I am afraid. Back to the beginning to learn web stuff.
      And your competition is a bunch of cheap labor from everywhere else. Working “remote” for peanuts; not very good, but even with all the rework, less than a living wage in a country that can use a machinist.
      Go on the disability dole and learn to be happy with a roof and a bit of food each day.

    5. I wish that 20 years ago I hadn’t dismissed COBOL

      To this day, rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

      Those 1960s and 70s applications that run all kinds of legacy businesses still aren’t going away, and all the old farts who developed them are soon to be retiring with almost no one around to replace them.

      1. Yep, exactly. The full 45 years I only did COBOL on IBM mainframe systems.

  5. The Glib Girls are saying CONSERVATIVES ONLY! if anyone cares….

  6. I’m all for transparency in its own right, but campaign finance transparency unfortunately gets sucked into the vortex of campaign finance policing way too easily. I’d rather not know where the California politicians’ bread is buttered than know and have crusaders continue to insist that anyone whose campaign is not backed 99% by unions needs to be prevented from running.

    1. I’m all for transparency in its own right, but campaign finance transparency unfortunately gets sucked into the vortex of campaign finance policing way too easily. I’d rather not know where the California politicians’ bread is buttered than know and have crusaders continue to insist that anyone whose campaign is not backed 99% by unions needs to be prevented from running.

      Excellent point. These initiatives are often metaphors for more bureaucracy, not less.

      Case in point:

      Another popular reform is campaign finance limits, but again, Pyers believes such regulations backfire and actively hurt candidates who aren’t backed by a major party or special interest. According to Pyers, their campaigns end up being dominated by PACs and dark money organizations that aren’t legally required to disclose their backers, and with which the candidates are legally prohibited from coordinating.

      I’ve heard exactly that line from advocates of making private campaign funding illegal (or severely limited) and providing state funding for political candidates. All in the name of fairness, transparency and equality.

  7. Self taught programmer built a website that will likely work better than multi-million dollar government website that will not be rolled out for two years. Classic.

    1. That was my reaction. Govt will spend year to do it for millions while he did ti at home for free, accessing their data.

      It’s what I do for a part-time job from home, but in sports statistics. Major league baseball teams pay me to send them tidy data on players.

      I did start of as a math & computer science major in college, but that was 40 years ago. I taught myself modern programming and databases, free off the internet.

  8. You don’t need a relevant degree to be a programmer. Most people in the job are probably self-taught when it comes to the actual skills they use. “Computer Science” is a branch of math.

  9. just as Gerald implied I am in shock that a person able to earn $7711 in 1 month on the computer . go now>>>>>>>>>>> https://qr.net/eyGRuC

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