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Lawyer bots take the hassle out of fighting parking tickets and property taxes — and could cost local governments real revenue

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A new pain for cities.

After finding a parking ticket lashed to his windshield, Seattle resident Dan Lear normally would have bitten the bullet and paid up, even though he felt misled by street signage.

Instead, Lear decided to try his luck with DoNotPay, a free bot service that streamlines the process of contesting parking tickets. The service helped Lear win a dismissal in 2016, leaving him a little bit richer and Seattle a little bit poorer.

New technology-powered services like DoNotPay, WinIt and TurboAppeal are encouraging more people to challenge legal hassles like inaccurate tickets and property taxes online. While these tools can help citizens avoid unfair penalties, they also might tempt some users to game the system, and could strain the resources of local governments. These potential side effects might come at an inopportune time for municipalities, whose budgets may be squeezed under the new tax rules.

“I guess I’m torn between supporting my local government but also ensuring that people have the right to appeal things that they feel are not fair or not legal,” said the victorious Lear, who is an attorney by trade.

DoNotPay asks users a series of questions, such as whether a parking sign was difficult to read or a ticket had incorrect details, then produces a letter with a formal legal defense that drivers can mail in or submit online.

The free service has helped drivers across the U.S. and the U.K. squash more than 450,000 parking tickets representing $ 13 million in fines; users win dismissals more than 50 percent of the time, by founder Joshua Browder’s estimate. That compares to a dismissal rate of around 35 percent in Los Angeles and 21 percent in New York City.

Parking tickets are “used as a source of revenue, which is wrong, and something I’m trying to change for the longer term,” said Browder, who has been called the “Robin Hood of the internet” by the BBC. Local governments, he added, “generally don’t like me.”

Having recently clinched $ 1.1 million in seed funding, DoNotPay lists investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners and attorneys with the firm Wilson Sonsini. The company plans to expand into helping users fight property taxes and file for divorce, among other things.

WinIt, a mobile app that currently only services New York City but plans to expand this year, takes parking ticket challenges to the next level. It builds a legal defense with minimal or zero input, and then argues for a dismissal, often in court through a partner attorney, and proceeds “even if there’s a 5 percent chance that we can dismiss the ticket,” said WinIt CEO Ouriel Lemmel.

WinIt collects a fee — equal to half the fine — but only if it succeeds. Drivers can even sign up for WinIt’s “Ticket Guardian,” which will automatically challenge any new ticket associated with a customer’s license plate number as soon as it hits a government database.

Companies that depend on drivers are taking note: Ride-sharing app Via and delivery service Postmates both offer discounts on WinIt to their drivers.

WinIt expects to contest 3 percent to 4 percent of all New York City parking tickets this year, which could amount to well over 300,000 tickets, if 2018 ticket volume is similar to previous years. That could represent around $ 6 million in potential lost revenue for the city.

Appealing property taxes

At least one startup is also taking aim at a much larger source of municipal revenue: Property taxes.

Machine-learning-powered TurboAppeal makes it much easier for homeowners to challenge the property assessments used to levy property taxes. The company had raised more than $ 7 million from investors including online mortgage lender Guaranteed Rate, KGC Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners and real estate brokerage @properties before being acquired by Paradigm Tax Group for an undisclosed sum last year.

Homeowners can get detailed data and instructions that can cut the time needed to prepare a compelling appeal from hours to 30 minutes, according to Stace Hunt, marketing director at Paradigm. Priced at $ 49, the automated service typically costs much less than a property tax attorney.

Amanda McMillan, a Chicago realtor who used TurboAppeal to shave $ 700 off her 2015 tax bill, said a few clients who probably would not have otherwise fought their property taxes followed her advice and gave TurboAppeal a whirl. To their delight, they won reductions, she said.

TurboAppeal had reportedly generated more than 100,000 property tax appeals as of May 2017; it covers 64 counties and 23 million single-family homes and has claimed a success rate of more than 75 percent in the past.

Some data suggests that self-service companies like TurboAppeal and DoNotPay have lots of room to grow.

The opportunity

Public New York City data, along with statistics provided to Recode by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, showed that fewer than 10 percent of parking tickets were challenged in those two cities over the last few years, while less than 5 percent of properties in all but one of New Jersey’s 21 counties saw their tax bills appealed in 2016.

But more fine dismissals and property tax reductions would mean less money for local schools and police departments, noted Megan Randall, a research associate at the Urban Institute. Property taxes reportedly make up roughly 30 percent of local government revenue nationwide.

Illustrating how services that target this revenue could pose a fiscal nuisance, New Jersey’s Monroe County was forced to issue a bond in 2011 to cover $ 5 million in refunds due to a spike in property tax appeals. The increase was driven by the housing meltdown, though the town’s finance director at the time also cited attorneys “trying to convince residents to file mass appeals,” the Star-Ledger reported.

Parking tickets, meanwhile, account for less than 1 percent of local government revenue nationwide, but some municipalities are much more reliant on fines than others.

For example, in 2013, 21 of the 90 municipalities in Missouri’s St. Louis County collected more than 20 percent of revenue from court fines and fees, of which parking and speeding tickets are a large contributor.

Drops in traffic tickets can cut into state budgets, too. A decrease in ticket volume forced the Nevada Supreme Court to seek a bailout in 2015. DoNotPay and WinIt can help users fight moving violations such as speeding tickets, so they could also nibble away at revenue from a range of traffic fines, not just parking tickets.

A jump in appeals would also increase the workload of municipal employees who are tasked with reviewing ticket and tax challenges.

“At this point, we don’t have an automated process, so it may cost our constituents money,” said Mark Granado, manager of parking operations and support for the LA Department of Transportation.

Moreover, many people may use these services to try to game the system, not to right a wrong.

WinIt and DoNotPay can help users get off on technicalities, such as if a ticket incorrectly describes a car’s color or make. Such errors can cost big bucks: New York City recently announced that it would refund a reported $ 26 million worth of parking tickets due to the omission of a zero from the ordinance code on roughly 500,000 tickets.

The government finance, parking enforcement and county appraiser employees that Recode spoke to said they didn’t believe that services such as WinIt, DoNotPay or TurboAppeal have boosted ticket and tax challenges so far, but generally acknowledged the potential for this to occur.

Some, including Granado, the Los Angeles parking enforcement official, said they would welcome services that professionalize more appeals, while a few employees encouraged consumers to consider using government systems, questioning whether third-party services add value.

Asked about concerns with their services, WinIt, DoNotPay and TurboAppeal emphasized that they are simply empowering more consumers to exercise their legal rights.

Municipalities could try to deal with more appeal volume by increasing property tax rates and fines or by investing in technology. But this could be harder than ever, given that the recent tax reform may impose downward pressure on property taxes, among other budget constraints.

“In an ideal world, governments would invest in the necessary resources to adapt,” Randall said in an email. “However, in reality, we often become reliant on private-sector actors who derive material benefit from a complex and opaque tax system.”

Teke Wiggin is a Brooklyn-based reporter who covers technology, labor and housing. Reach him @tkwiggin.

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Apple-supported CLOUD Act passes Congress, will change how governments share data

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The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act, a piece of legislation that would change international rules about sharing of data among governments, passed Congress Thursday, as part of the omnibus spending bill, and the president signed it into law.
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Governments Are Insuring Coral Reefs. That May Be Enough to Save Them.

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How much is a coral reef worth? Factor in the tourism it rakes in, the fish that live there and nowhere else, the fishing industry it supports. How about a reef’s ability to protect coasts from destructive, pounding waves — how much do you figure that’ll run you?

A future without them is bleak, and increasingly likely due to the effects of climate change. But now there’s a greater hope to save them. The key, it seems, may be insurance.

The Nature Conservancy and the government of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo have created a trust that will purchase the first-ever insurance policy for a coral reef, Oceans Deeply reports.

Quintana Roo is home to the Mesoamerican Reef. At 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) long, it’s the second-largest reef in the world, bringing a lot of tourism to cities like Playa del Carmen.

The reef keeps hurricanes from stripping the region’s famous white sand beaches to nothing. But it comes at a cost — a Category 4 or 5 hurricane can destroy as much as 60 percent of a reef’s live coral, according to Oceans Deeply. Quintana Roo’s new insurance policy mandates that if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits a certain section of the coast, the policy will immediately pay out the money to repair and restore the reef, keeping the area valuable.

It’s not clear how much money the state would get to restore reefs in the event of a hurricane.

“To me, the reef is an easy sell,” said Paul Jardine, executive vice president and chief experience officer at insurance company XL Catlin (which also funded a global effort to document coral bleaching), at the recent World Ocean Summit. “One of the problems we have when we think about the ocean is that most people think of it as a free asset. And when we think of the value of ocean eco-services, we’re not allocating that back to industries and businesses.”

This policy is, essentially, catastrophic insurance — it pays out only when there’s a big, damaging storm. More gradual destructive forces, like the warming and acidification of the world’s oceans, aren’t covered. 

As governments recognize reefs’ importance, though, they have established other plans to keep them intact. In 2016, the governments of three Mexican states — Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo — agreed to restore 20 percent of the reef systems in their waters by 2030.

In theory, similar policies could be written for marshlands that protect coasts, or even rainforests that store carbon and foster biodiversity.

At face value, this concept seems a little grim. Is it that hard for people to recognize the value of coral reefs that their existence hinges on what they do for us?

Unfortunately, yes, it is that hard. And it’s a common problem in conservation. Humans have a lot of trouble justifying money and time spent on something if they don’t see how it benefits them. Institutionalizing that process on a planet where an overwhelming number of ecosystems are at risk could, believe it or not, be the best approach to the “apocalypse fatigue” that stops people from caring.

Insurance policies aren’t sexy. But they could be another tool for protecting our most precious ecosystems.

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Apple denies French government’s ‘abusive commercial practices’ accusation

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Apple has responded to accusations by the French government that it is taking advantage of the country’s developers, dismissing claims of ‘abusive commercial practices’ by highlighting the funds paid to the nation’s iOS app developers and the support it provides to both application producers and their users.
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Environmental Activists Are Suing Governments Over Climate Change — and Winning

On Wednesday, the High Court in London ruled the UK government’s current stance on air pollution is “unlawful.” The ruling came about because the government has failed to impose new policies on 45 local authority areas with illegal levels of air pollution. According to the Royal College of Physicians, air pollution contributes to nearly 40,000 deaths in the UK each year.

This is the third court case the UK government has lost to ClientEarth, an organization of environmental activist lawyers. As reported by The Guardian, the new ruling will require clean air policies to be overseen by the courts rather than ministers and local officials.

“The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work, and sincere promises are not enough and it seems court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved,” said Justice Garnham, the judge who heard the case. ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop explained in a statement that the initial air pollution issue was meant to be solved 8 years ago, but the government’s failure to implement any solutions has allowed the problem to go unchecked.

While it would be difficult to predict whether the court case will improve the UK’s air pollution problem, it may stand a better chance being monitored by the courts — which have taken note of the government’s past failures to rectify the issue.

The UK isn’t the only country embroiled in lawsuits related to environmental issues, but ClientEarth’s third win in the country could serve as a warning to other nations. If anything, it demonstrates that legal action can successfully promote change; a precedent that could be particularly influential for groups that have, or are considering, perusing legal action against governments over climate change.

As Reuters reported in December, a number of high-profile climate change cases are expected to take place in the United States this year. Similar lawsuits in Germany and Norway could also make headlines. Whether the lawsuits involve governments or fossil fuel companies, each case is aimed at those perceived of either knowingly causing — or failing to take action against the progression of — climate change.

Back in December, eight northeastern states moved to sue the Environmental Protection Agency. The suit sought to require the EPA to enforce new restrictions on Midwestern states generating air pollution, which the east coast states claimed was, essentially, blowing over to its cities.

In January, the state of New York, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, sued multiple fossil fuel companies for their contributions to climate change through knowingly burning harmful fossil fuels and “intentionally mis[leading] the public to protect their profits.”

At the time, ClientEarth’s Sophie Marjanac told Reuters that there was a trend toward litigation around climate change and that “the lack of political action in the United States may increase that trend.”

One thing is clear: citizens have taken notice that those in charge aren’t doing everything in their power to curb climate change. Those that are simply aren’t making changes fast enough: if recent studies are any indication, we’re running out of time for our actions to make a difference.

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How Latin American governments are assisting their local startup ecosystems


Launching a successful startup is hard work. Launching a successful startup in an environment which lacks a supportive local business ecosystem and startup friendly government, can become nigh on impossible. Even in the startup mecca of Silicon Valley, guns remain less regulated than startups, and early stage companies continue to have their feet tied together with red tape, bureaucratic practices, and strict government regulations that limit their potential for growth. But while the governments of the world’s most advanced economies are still holding startups back on the starting line, administrations in emerging markets are recognizing the economic benefits of accessible…

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Experts Weigh in on the U.S. Government’s Plans to Loosen Nuclear Weapon Constraints

Controversial policy shift

The White House may be changing its previous policy on nuclear weapons, according to recent reports quoting a former U.S. government official, who has seen the draft of the nuclear posture review (NPR) prepared by the Pentagon.

Jon Wolfsthal, an Obama administration special assistant on arms control and nonproliferation, told The Guardian that the draft NPR would loosen constraints on nuclear weapons use, as well as provide for a low-yield nuclear warhead for the Trident D5 submarine-launched missiles. The NPR, which is the first of its kind in eight years, is expected to be published after president Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech towards the end of January.

Image credit: WikiImages/PixabayImage credit: WikiImages/Pixabay[/caption] Arms control advocates and nuclear weapons’ critics have been alarmed by the news. They are worried about the message the draft policy could send, especially in light of recent efforts towards a global nuclear weapons ban. Critics also argue that the draft, particularly its provisions for developing smaller nuclear weapons, could easily lead to the Trump government finding reasons to use them. Such outcome, they say, is not beyond the realm of possibility, especially with plans to fund the nuclear weapons arsenal of the U.S. with $ 1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. Futurism reached out to some experts on the issue. Here’s what they had to say.


Rasha Abdul-Rahim, Advocate and Adviser on Arms Control, Security Trade, & Human Rights, Amnesty International:

In general terms, Amnesty International is opposed to the use, possession, production and transfer of nuclear weapons by any country, including permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Nuclear arms are the most destructive and indiscriminate weapons ever created, and are capable of causing utterly catastrophic harm. Their use would invariably violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law, therefore they should never be used under any circumstances.

Because the humanitarian and environmental consequences of using nuclear weapons would be global and catastrophic, eliminating such dangers is the responsibility of all governments in accordance with their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. The Trump administration must therefore work [towards] eliminating nuclear weapons, rather than expanding the circumstances under which they can be used.

Nickolas Roth, Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government:

If the draft NPR currently being circulated is the same as what the Trump administration plans to publish, there is reason for concern. The policies endorsed in this document increase the likelihood nuclear weapons would be used in conflict and signal that the United States is backing away from its international nuclear nonproliferation commitments.

President Trump’s NPR emphasizes the dangerous myth of limited nuclear war. Even Ronald Reagan, once considered a hawkish Republican, understood this idea was a fantasy, arguing “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The Trump administration proposes placing more usable, lower yield (though still very powerful) nuclear weapons on submarines under the misguided assumption it’s possible to use nuclear weapons to control escalation with other countries.

President Trump’s NPR paints a false picture that the United States has been disarming while other countries have been modernizing their nuclear weapons. This is not true. Not only does the United States possesses the second largest (second to Russia) and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal in the world, but in 2013 the Pentagon stated that it could reduce its deployed nuclear weapons further by a third without adversely impacting the US nuclear deterrent.

Even if many of the proposals in this NPR do not come to fruition, the Trump administration’s endorsement of new nuclear weapons will have harmful international repercussions. This NPR will further demonstrate that nuclear weapons states are not serious about their international obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Sarah E. Kreps, Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University:

Obviously, the decision would be at odds with the push for a global nuclear weapons ban, although I think the Obama Administration ‘s commitment to $ 1 trillion in modernization made it clear that the United States had abandoned its Global Zero pledge. Those funds included financing a new class of ballistic missile submarines, a new long-range bomber, upgrades to existing nuclear weapons, and a new type of cruise missile, among other things. Even if all this spending is to create a credible deterrent, academic research has long shown that even seemingly defensive moves can produce an arms race because intentions are not always obvious to other parties.

Trump does appear to be continuing with these commitments, but so far, I would say that the big difference is in the language that the two have used.  President Obama seemed to want to fly under the radar with the modernization, so as not to alienate his constituency on the left. President Trump has no such reticence, and has more bombastically embraced the virtues of nuclear weapons in the service of deterring war.

Even if the main differences are cosmetic, the question is whether differences in style can have appreciable differences in outcome.  The types of language Trump has used could clarify and dissuade potential adversaries from challenging the United States.  However, international politics is always about subtleties and nuance amidst the prospect for miscalculation, and the worry is that Trump’s bellicose language could inadvertently escalate rather than defuse tensions.  Given the stakes–the prospect for catastrophic nuclear exchanges–the fast-and-loose verbal style that Trump has deployed is more dangerous even if the underlying policies are not entirely dissimilar.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

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Governments to tap IoT for ‘collective intelligence’

Governments to tap IoT for 'collective intelligence'

Governments are starting to use new information channels in decision support and policymaking – and some of those new information sources are constituents of the IoT. 

Traditionally, governments decide on policy and exercise their power in a ‘top down’ model. The extent to which they reflect the will of the people varies tremendously, of course, and they may be subject to influence from lobbyists, think tanks and advisors, but in essence, governments tend to govern from on high.

Where connecting with the people is seen as desirable, however, policymakers have explored a variety of methods for gathering opinions and gauging public sentiment – and increasingly, information streams from people, animals and objects are part of an Internet of Governmental Things.

Read more: Gemalto survey: Governments should intervene on IoT security

World powers

Examples of this can be seen all over the world. Take, for example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where a February 2016 white paper, Edge of Government, spelled out the potential of the IoT in public decision-making.

“New mechanisms for government [help] to gather and respond to the aspirations and ideas of the masses,” it reads. “In allowing for mass input, new platforms for collective intelligence also provide for targeting of narrowly defined groups in ways that have not been previously possible.”

For example, the report continues, a local government may want to solicit ideas on community redevelopment from as many of the residents of a particular neighbourhood as possible, but only from residents of that neighbourhood. “Collective intelligence is the tool that enables this combination of mass participation and precision targeting,” it says.

This suggests an embrace of smart city technologies, where sensors and monitoring devices create the data to validate the perceptions, observations and sentiments of residents about a particular locale, creating a greater level of certainty for government bodies. But this may just the tip of the iceberg.

Read more: Progress: How can government get IoT right?

Internet of garbage vultures

In Peru, the government is currently running a program that we might call the Internet of Garbage Vultures (IoGB), fitting GPS-enabled mobile GoPro cameras to vultures, so that these scavenging birds can be used in the fight to identify and eradicate illegal dumping of waste.

According to a report on ABC News Australia, “Ten trained vultures wearing purpose-designed vests have already started to monitor the city from above with the help of tracking technology as part of the Vultures Detect program, and have been carefully trained to return to their keepers.”

This trend is growing. The central north African country of Chad has developed a similar initiative and fitted dogs with IoT sensors to track down diseases and the United Kingdom has begun a program to use pigeons to monitor air pollution.

But you don’t just switch on collective intelligence overnight. Whether data comes from from humans or from IoT initiatives, engineering information streams so that they can be woven into the operational fabric of government is a big challenge.

In a January 2016 Nesta white paper, Governing with Collective Intelligence, authors Tom Saunders and Geoff Mulgan point out that adopting collective intelligence is not always easy. “Many governments resist openness and citizen input of any kind. Sometimes this is out of a sense that governments know best,” they write.”More often, it is because political organizations created many years ago lack the mechanisms to easily request, absorb, analyze and act upon ideas and information offered by citizens, external organizations [and other external sources].”

To overcome these challenges, the public sector needs a clear strategy to make use of the collective intelligence not just of citizens but also sensors, meters, devices – and, indeed, vultures dogs and pigeons.

Read more: US Government failing to invest in the Internet of Things, says report

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