[VIDEO] This Self-Taught Programmer Is Bringing Transparency to California PoliticsPosted: March 28, 2017
Rob Pyers was a laid-off grocery bagger who learned to code on YouTube. Now the website he runs, the California Target Book, is shining a light on spending by politicians, their campaigns, and outside groups.
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hodgepodge of ZIP archives and tables that even the current Secretary of State has called a “Frankenstein monster of outdated code.”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.
Produced by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Monticello, Alex Manning, and Zach Weissmueller. Music by Grégoire Lourme, Hare, Kevin MacLeod, and MK2.