Tech Talk

States Use Big Data to Nab Tax Fraudsters

It’s tax season again. For most of us, that means undergoing the laborious and thankless task of assembling financial records and calculating taxes for state and federal returns. But for a small group of us, tax season is profit season. It’s the time of year when fraudsters busy themselves with stealing identities and electronically submitting fraudulent tax returns for refunds.

Nobody knows for sure just how much tax return fraud is committed, but the amount is rising fast. According to the U.S. Treasury, the number of identified fraudulent federal returns has increased by 40 percent from 2011 to 2012, an increase of more than $4 billion. Ten years ago, New York state stopped refunds on 50,000 fraudulently filed tax returns. Last year, the number of stopped refunds was 250,000, according to Nonie Manion, executive deputy commissioner for the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance. READ MORE

A Security Dilemma for Smart Devices

In 2009, three men got their hands on one of San Francisco’s smart parking meters and in three days were able to break into its electronic system and figure out how to use the meter without paying. The hackers weren’t thieves but part of a group of security researchers who wanted to find the weaknesses in this promising new technology.

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Tardy Transit? Tweet About It

Tweeting a complaint or suggestion, even posting one on Facebook, is old hat in the private sector. After all, you can use an app these days to, say, hail a ride on Uber, Lyft or Sidecar. But if you encounter a bad driver or surly ticket agent while riding public transportation, there’s no app for that (or an easy way to tweet directly at an agency, for that matter). Times are changing, though, and public transit agencies are finally catching up.

This past December, New Jersey Transit decided to send some of its front-line employees to get retrained in customer relations. Officials weren’t prompted by comments submitted through the usual online form, however. They were spurred to action by tweets and posts on Facebook. Employee behavior was a top issue on the agency’s social media dashboard. READ MORE

Governments Making It Easier for Citizens to Know the Law

In 2012, Dave Zvenyach, chief counsel for the District of Columbia City Council, received a phone call from a software developer who wanted a copy of the D.C. Code, which contains all the laws enacted by the D.C. Council.

“I told him he could find the official code at the city’s library, where it’s stored in books,” said Zvenyach. But the developer wanted a digital copy and all the underlying data (the special language that allows text files to be used in different ways) that it contained. The problem was Zvenyach didn’t have a digital copy, nor could he obtain one because of restrictions imposed by the code’s publisher. READ MORE

The Data Gap

Helping prisoners who have a substance abuse problem get back to a productive life isn’t easy. It’s even harder when these individuals have mental health issues too. The recidivism rate for offenders with drug addictions is extremely high -- nearly 73 percent, according to Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation for the city of Louisville, Ky. Smith is working on a project to help dual-diagnosed prisoners receive health care and substance abuse treatment. But one of the challenges he’s facing is pulling together all the data needed to help this vulnerable group. “The world of data is not perfect,” Smith says. “And when it comes to case management, certain data sets can be scarce.”

These gaps Smith’s program has encountered are a microcosm of a larger problem nationwide: a growing data disparity between the rich and poor. The importance of data-driven services and programs has grown significantly in recent years, especially in health care, education and financial services. But not all segments of society are benefiting from the explosion in data collection, leading to what some experts are calling a data divide. “We’ve already recognized there are gaps in technology that can significantly impact an individual’s ability to thrive,” says Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation and author of the report The Rise of Data Poverty in America. “If there’s also a lack of data, we will see a similar failure.” READ MORE