When Kevin and I first moved to Mexico City, we were amazed by the wide variety of goods that were hawked at traffic stops. Not just the variety but the fact that a lot of them seemed wildly inappropriate for the situation, like the guy selling 6 foot hat racks at a busy roundabout on a major thoroughfare. That was nothing compared to the gigantic satellite dish we saw hawked at a 4 way stop in Tunisia. It must have weighed many hundreds of pounds.
I was reminded of this when I read Bill Browden’s excellent book Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice. Browder was struggling to find information on companies in a country that seemed at first glance to be highly un-transparent. He learns though that the legacy of Soviet bureaucratism has a few upsides:
“Because of Soviet central planning, Moscow needed data on every single facet of life so its bureaucrats could decide on everything from how many eggs were needed in Krasnoyarsk to how much electricity was needed in Vladivostok. The fact that the Soviet regime had fallen hadn’t changed anything—Moscow ministries continued to exist, and their bureaucracies took great pains to account for everything for which they were responsible.”
In the fall of the Soviet Union, that data still existed, it was just a matter of accessing it. And lo and behold, he finds one such source of data at a traffic stop in downtown Moscow.
“While Vadim sat there that day, a boy approached the car brandishing his wares. Vadim wasn’t interested, but the boy persisted. “All right, what are you selling?” Vadim asked warily. The boy held open his dirty blue parka to reveal a collection of CD-ROMs in a plastic portfolio. “I’ve got databases.” Vadim’s ears perked up. “What kind of databases?”
“All kinds. Mobile phone directories, tax return records, traffic violations, pension fund info, you name it.” Vadim spotted one entitled “Moscow Registration Chamber Database.” Vadim did a double take. The Moscow Registration Chamber is the organization that tracks and collects information about who owns all Moscow-based companies.”
Now that’s serendipity! It’s also the most unique way I’ve heard of to come across a useful dataset.