By Hal M. Bundrick
NEW YORK (MainStreet) Maris Jensen is a woman on a mission. She is nearly single-handedly attempting to pull the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) into the 21st Century. Or, at least into the latter part of the last century.
"In March last year, I told my boss at the Securities and Exchange Commission that our website was terrible and we needed to do something about it," she says. She's direct like that. Straight to the point, unfiltered. In fact, she was fired from her job as an SEC analyst for displaying "a lack of respect for senior management." She claims those were their exact words.
"Specifically, it was for 'profanity unbecoming a federal employee' and for referring to a meeting as a 'dog and pony show,'" Jensen cheerfully admits.So, just how is she trying to upgrade the SEC? By making the agency's data more accessible. "We needed to build a user-friendly Website for retail investors, one that walked non-professionals through the data in SEC filings and helped them research companies," Jensen says. "This is public data we're talking about; it should be easy for the public to use. The SEC knows that this is a problem: they've spent millions studying how to improve public access to the data with task forces, initiatives and all the rest -- and they spend over $3.5 million each year buying back SEC filings data in usable form from commercial vendors for internal use. But in the past 20 years, nothing has actually gotten done." So she built the Website herself. Now make no mistake, Jensen is not a coder. We're talking comparative literature at Princeton, grad school at Georgetown for math -- and financial engineering at Columbia. Smart, but not a programmer. She says she began by Googling 'How to build a website.' "I actually started the project with just the back-end in mind -- back then, I didn't even know any of this dataviz [data visualization] stuff was possible," she says. But she was aware that accessing EDGAR (the SEC's Electronic Data-Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system) data was a problem. "The economists in my division who were supposed to be working with SEC filings were floundering," Jensen said. "These guys have PhDs in quantitative fields and years of programming experience; they still couldn't figure out how to pull data from their own database. But that's not a slight against them, because the data is a mess. Incidentally, they're now outsourcing this work -- they're literally paying others millions and millions to write programs I offered to them for free." You heard right. She has offered to hand over the entire project to the SEC. After months of studying the data, deciphering foldering schemes, writing parsers for markup languages from the '80s, analyzing documents and coding programs to pull all of that data together she simply wants to donate the functioning website (RankandFiled.com) to the government. "This kind of work is horrible and boring, it was the worst," Jensen told MainStreet. "Thankfully, I was still all fired up about getting fired, so I made it through to the other side. But it shouldn't take that much work for someone to get to the point of easily accessing EDGAR data. The Website is really just an example of what developers could do with the underlying EDGAR API. If you like RankandFiled.com, imagine how much you'd love something built by an experienced developer. The API exposes lots more data too -- I only used bits and pieces from it." The site, which went live in November, gathers some 25 million files of data from the SEC, indexes it and provides graphic enhancements to help users interpret the information. It's clean, fast and generates remarkable visuals that integrate data, such as outside stock holdings of company board members, corporate subsidiaries chains of filings and much more. But Jensen says the SEC has shown absolutely zero interest in the project. ("Not even a polite no," she said.) And with estimated traffic of more than a half million unique visitors a month in under six months and inquiries from "hundreds" of interested parties, why not just pack up her parsers and sell it to the highest bidder, or make it a for-profit enterprise? "The truth is, I have almost no interest in SEC filings," she says. "The information inside them is sometimes interesting, but mostly not -- but that's a different problem entirely. If I could work with clean, structured EDGAR data, I would probably think about it, but right now it's just such a mess, it's too painful. That's one of the reasons I want the SEC to take it over -- nobody else should have to do this work. More importantly, this work should only be done once, and it should be done at the source, by SEC staff who know what they're doing and are paid to do it. But yeah, it's definitely not my dream to spend the next five to ten years of my life working with SEC filings." Jensen characterizes the SEC's mulish resistance to change as sad -- a missed opportunity compounding in losses by the day. "I wonder what might already exist, what might already be happening, if the SEC hadn't gotten stuck back in 1995?" she said. "The SEC can easily afford to open up this API; they can keep it open and free forever. Then all these companies and people who are writing me can build out their ideas, projects much cooler and more useful than this one. And I can go off and work for one of those space startups." --Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet