How to Get Money to Venezuela (and support capitalism)

You likely know that Venezuela is a disaster right now. I could post about the causes, but most of us know what happened already and the actions being taken by their socialist government will not make things better. Many people are starving.

Planet Money’s spinoff (and equally good) podcast The Indicator did a show on Venezuela. Like all Indicator shows it is under 10 minutes long. Listen to The Measure Of A Tragedy if you are interested. The short version is that the median salary is also the minimum wage and if you spent 100% of your salary on the cheapest food you could find, you would only have enough to buy 900 calories a day. Tragic.

I accidentally figured out a way to get real money (US Dollars) to people inside of Venezuela.

One of my side interests is learning Spanish. In 2016, I started taking conversational lessons with a teacher in Venezuela via the company iTalki. iTalki connects teachers with students and is based out of Hong Kong. Classes are held via Skype and Google Hangouts.

I use my PayPal account to pay iTalki, which takes a 15% cut. The rest goes to the teacher. My teacher is able to receive the funds via a credit card attached to her PayPal account. That credit card was purchased on the black market. Those dollars can be converted to the local Bolivar currency to be spent at the stores on your assigned shopping day or taken to the black market to buy goods.

Because the Venezuelan government sets the price for items and often that price is lower than the cost of production, the country has many shortages of essential goods. Basic economics. This gives rise to the black market, where those with the means can acquire things they need.

Expats can now send money directly into Venezuela, via the Western Union and MoneyGram, but the official exchange rates are far less than the rates one can get on the black market.

How To Help

Create an account on iTalki and add some money. I recommend using PayPal, as I had issues using my local credit union credit card, probably due to the fact iTalki is in Hong Kong.

This is my referral link. After you schedule your first class, we both will get $10 in credits, which comes from iTalki, not the teacher.

If you are not interested in learning Spanish, you could always donate those lessons to someone you know learning Spanish or perhaps a local school. They have gift cards to make it easier.

The “Find a Teacher” tab allows you to search for teachers by location. Pick Venezuela. The hourly rates are mostly around $5-$12. A deal for us and survival for them.

Someday the current government of Venezuela will collapse completely and when it does, I hope the current generation of entrepreneurs teaching Spanish online have a greater voice in shaping their future.

andres-gerlotti-venezuela

Photo by Andrés Gerlotti

Open Data, Seattle, and Corruption

Back in 2013, I was having a discussion with someone about voting. I took the position that mathematically voting was unimportant. I went further to say that we confuse being an informed citizen with being a good citizen. As if the very act of stepping into a voting booth improves the quality of our city, state or country. It doesn’t.

During that conversation, I put forth an idea. What that if every person that loved their community, but saw the futility in voting decided to perform an action that actually made their community better? I theorized that those actions had the potential to greatly improve the quality of life for all citizens. Much more than passive voting. The question I began thinking about was how a citizen could directly make government better. Not by voting, but by doing something.

It didn’t take me long to come up with my idea for improving my city of Seattle. Since the day I moved Seattle, I have felt the signage for parking has been atrocious. I’ve lived in six major metropolitan areas and Seattle is by far the worst. As a result of the confusing signage and signage that wasn’t being maintained, I saw a lot of parking tickets being written. Many times I felt empathy for the person getting the ticket if it looked like it wasn’t their fault.

I felt I could help with the parking problem.

I took this photo on a sunny day. As tough as it is to read now, imagine trying to read it at night or when it is raining from your car driving by slowly. Welcome to Seattle. 

Open Data Initiative

During the Obama presidency, there was a big push for Open Data. From Data.gov:

Data.gov is the federal government’s open data site, and aims to make government more open and accountable. Opening government data increases citizen participation in government, creates opportunities for economic development, and informs decision making in both the private and public sectors.

The Open Data initiative wasn’t just for the Federal Government, but for all levels of government. States, counties, and cities. There are thousands of databases that are made available to the public. 911 calls to restaurant permits to almost anything you can think of that is related to government. Even volcano vents.

My Idea to Make Seattle Better

I was inspired. My idea was to use Open Data to figure out where the citizens of Seattle (and tourists) were getting parking tickets and for what reasons. My theory was that querying this data-set you could drill into the places where the signage was missing or obstructed because the number of tickets written should be higher where the signs are hardest to read or confusing.

On my street in Ballard, I often saw cars getting ticketed for being too close to a specific fire hydrant. That fire hydrant was painted green, set back from the street and was surrounded by bushes on two sides. How many other fire hydrants were obstructed? How many more tickets were being written for this infraction? I could query a database and answer that question and with that answer make recommendations on which curbs should be painted or bushes trimmed. This could reduce the risk that the fire department is delayed in putting out a fire. In a scenario where seconds count, data could save people, pets, and property.

Nominate a Database

The City of Seattle has numerous databases available to the public, but the full parking citations database was not one of them. If a database is not available, there is a procedure in place to nominate one. I followed that procedure and nominated the Parking Citations database on December 19, 2013. (record 3316)

At first, it appeared my nomination would be approved. There was a small discussion thread between a few city officials.

Then nothing. Months went by. A year. Other developers voted up my nomination. I sent a reminder to push the nomination back to the top of the queue. Nothing.

Two years went by. More developers were asking as well. I sent another reminder.

Frustration and Fury

Meanwhile, my frustration was growing. Now every time I went on one of my urban hikes, I would see citizens getting tickets for parking infractions that were clearly not their fault. It was becoming more and more obvious that the city did not want this database made available to the public.

At this point, I want to pause and say that the government is us. The data belongs to the people. City employees do not own the parking citations database. Both Los Angeles and New York City have made their parking citations databases public.

Why would Seattle want to hide their Parking Citations database? What is in that data? Look what happened in NYC. Some developers using Open Data discovered that the NYPD was writing millions of dollars in parking tickets to cars that legally parked for years. If you want to see the power of data, follow that link.

Rejected and Removed

On June 28, 2016, I received an email from the city saying my nomination for Open Data had been Rejected. There was no explanation.

When I went to the website later to gather more information, I discovered that the city deleted my nomination. Like it never happened. So I went back to my phone, which had a cached version of the site taken immediately after the rejection and right before the removal to take the screenshots you see in this post.

If you go into the nominate section of Seattle’s Open Data site you will see several Rejected nominations. Why did they reject my nomination without comment and then why did they remove the evidence from their database?

Until someone can convince me otherwise, I believe the City of Seattle is knowingly hiding data they don’t want the public to see. Why else would they delete my nomination? My nomination was considered and commented on when I first submitted it. Now it is gone.

No One Cares

It has now been almost 4 years since I attempted to make my city of Seattle a better place. During this time I explained my project idea to many people. I explained my vision for what we could learn from the data. I also talked about my frustration with the city for not making the database available. Overwhelmingly, people didn’t seem to care.

They viewed the money that the parking department was stealing from the people – because they aren’t maintaining the signage – as money that belongs to the city, not the people. You know, to pay the salaries of the people writing the tickets. This logic baffled me.

When I tried to explain that for every $50 parking ticket a citizen pays that is $50 that is not going to be spent in the local community they nod in agreement, but seemed resigned to accept the situation we have.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

As frustrating as my experience with Seattle Open Data was, my discussions with apathetic citizens bothered me more. I wanted to use my database skills to make Seattle a better place for citizens and tourists. But it didn’t happen. They shut me down.

I’m confident that someday the full parking citations database* will be made available to the public. It might be tomorrow or in a decade. When it does, I hope other developers drill the hell out of that data and look for patterns of fraud, because I suspect they are there. But, I’m out. All that motivation I had in 2013 to make Seattle better is gone.

I still support and believe in the Open Data cause championed by President Obama. I have other ideas on how to make life better for my fellow citizens, but I won’t be directing my energy towards improving life in Seattle.

* There is a 911 parking citations database available, but not the full data set. Other users have pointed this out as well. The most recent being Andy on March 29, 2016 (#5870). 

Why Didn’t I Blog More About Economics?

Over the years as my interests have changed so have the topics on my blog. From hiking to financial to fitness to nutrition to cooking to whatever sparked my curiosity. But there is one huge exception and that is economics.

For the past 5 or 6 years I have spent a considerable amount of time learning more about economics. Podcasts, articles and books. I didn’t have a goal in mind. It was just something I gravitated to as my interest in finance was fading. Yet I almost never post about economics unless it relates to a topic that is connected to me personally.

The EconTalk podcast continues to be my favorite source of economic knowledge. Often times I would end up reading the books by the guests to further my understanding of the topic. (NPR’s Planet Money is pretty good too. Never cared for Freakonomics.)

Photo by Paul Downey

A while back someone asked my why I don’t discuss economics on this blog. The reason is that early on I realized that people are biased to their core on their opinions of government and the free market and that will cloud how they will approach any economic topic. It is just like politics. Whatever your belief is you can certainly find data or information to support that belief. And that isn’t just true with average people like us, but some of the top economists of the last 100 years. The Keynes vs Hayek battle is still being debated.

I have my own bias, which I am aware of, and I know that I’m not going to convince anyone of anything. And if I did, so what? As energy draining as all those fitness posts became, I’m certain that tackling topics on economics would be magnitudes worse. Trying to convince a CrossFit enthusiast of SuperSlow HIT – as difficult as that sounds – would be much easier than trying to defend a free market principle to someone that doesn’t trust free markets. So, why bother?

Learning about economics has helped me become a better decision maker. Not just with matters of time and money, but also approaching topics such as nutrition where I believe I have incomplete information. And that is good enough for me.

Opinions are becoming more and more dangerous. Hold the wrong one at the wrong time and you can expose yourself to serious backlash. If there is little to no upside in sharing a controversial viewpoint, but it does carry downside risk, why bother? It makes economic sense to stay silent.