US markets close as Frankenstein's Monstorm heads to NYC

Hurricane Sandy marks first full trading-day lost to weather in over 25 years.

Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit in New York City in just under 15 hours, is likely to throw everything we expected about the upcoming week off-course.

For readers of this blog, the biggest immediate effect is that all equity trading is cancelled for today, and likely for tomorrow as well. The shutdown, announced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), follows the NYSE's decision, announced yesterday, to close floor trading for the storm.

The NYSE had hoped to leave digital markets open, but the SEC's decision trumps that and also brings down a further dozen exchanges, including the other major NYC exchange, NASDAQ, but also ones based further afield, all the way to BATS in Kansas.

While the NYSE decision was based largely on the physical safety of traders on the floor, the SEC's mandate seems more built around a desire for fairness and stability. Given the storm will likely shut down most of the east coast for at least part of today, large numbers of traders would be unable to log-on wherever they are. The COO of NYSE confirmed to Bloomberg that:

Operating the market that way didn’t seem to serve the public interest. Why do this? To prove we can? That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

The last time the NYSE closed for a full day due to weather was because of Hurricane Gloria in 1985, which says a lot about how bad Sandy is expected to be.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has written about Why Sandy Has Meteorologists Scared in 4 Images (including one animated GIF, obviously); this is Frankenstein's Monstorm, with a massive confluence of adverse factors. Firstly, and most importantly, it's really, really big. The winds are faster, the affected area is larger, and it will likely stick around for a lot longer once it makes landfall.

Beyond that, though, there's the fact that the eye of the storm will be on central New Jersey, meaning that New York City – the most densely populated area in the US – will be getting full-strength hurricane winds; the fact that the same cold winds that will cause it to "pinwheel" on to land will also strengthen it just before it does, hitting coastal areas even harder; and the problem that the "sheltered" New York City coastline will instead funnel the storm surge directly towards populated areas, meaning that for the coast between Queens and the Bronx especially, there is more chance than not that the surge will be greater than six feet.

The effect of the storm is expected to be worse than last summer's Hurricane Irene, which, despite being thought of as a damp squib (pun not intended), still caused nearly $16bn of damage, mostly from flooding. But the comparatively underwhelming nature of Irene has meant that a number of people aren't taking Sandy as seriously as they perhaps ought to, with evacuations (Mayor Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of around 375,000 people in the worst-hit parts of the city) reportedly being largely ignored.

As well as the physical and economic damage of the storm, there is one other big effect that Sandy could have: it may mess up the US presidential election. No matter how well-run the response is, there are likely to be some areas still lacking power by the 6th. Contingency plans will be in effect, but if there is any uniformity to the areas affect – if, say, rural counties are more likely to be cut-off than urban – then there is the chance that some swings could be down to the storm.

The chance of it affecting the outcome is slim but the possibility is there. Who knows how the parties, and the public, would take it?

Hurricane Sandy making landfall. Image: WeatherBELL

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital