This content is from: Portfolio

SEC Data That Humans Can Actually Use

Frustrated with the SEC’s Indiana Jones–era recordkeeping, Maris Jensen created a visually stunning website for the rank and file.

Maris Jensen is taking the data visualization world by storm. An inspiration to anyone who feels cryogenically frozen within a glacially moving financial institution, what the former Securities and Exchange Commission analyst just did is the closest the financial world will ever get to Michael Douglas’s “D-Fens” character in Falling Down or Peter Finch’s “Mad as Hell” Howard Beale in Network.

“The breaking point was realizing that the guy in the cubicle across from me had spent a week writing the same parser as me,”Jensen told Alexander Howard in a column for his blog "E Pluribus Unum," explaining what led her to create the web site Rank and Filed, an ambitious effort to bring order and cohesion to the massive and painfully outdated SEC filings database. Rank and Filed gathers, indexes and publishes troves of SEC data and allows users to comb through the commission’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval database — better known as EDGAR — in a visually friendly and comprehensive way that speaks volumes for data visualization in financial analysis. All 25 million publicly available SEC filings are currently searchable on Rank and Filed.

According to Jensen, she got the idea for Rank and Filed when she noticed a colleague rewriting the original file transfer protocol (FTP) index that has been in place, and not changed, since the early 1990s — which to be fair sounds surprisingly modern for a federal agency. Jensen says this is a common practice at the SEC: rewriting the entire program whenever a division needs filing data. She also observed a great amount of user frustration with the near inability to search for and retrieve specific information in the SEC online system.

From there — and listen up, all you financial industry professionals who believe you will never disrupt the industry because you don’t know how to code — Jensen, having zero programming experience, leveraged open source tools and tutorials to build her striking, visually immersive web site from scratch. She credits the open source community, as well as her extensive Googling, with the polish of the finished product.

The system Jensen built functions by scanning SEC feeds and the original FTP index for new filings as they are added to the federal database. The data are then displayed in an array of visualizations including graphs, charts and heat maps. In addition to being able to effortlessly track and connect a company’s information over time, Jensen realigned all the financial data from quarterly and annual reports in order to easily view a company’s financial history and compare it with others. In Jensen’s opinion, the SEC should have long ago pursued technological solutions to making filings data available and, more important, accessible. “It’s their job,” she told Howard.

Whereas Jensen’s software has made finding a needle in the EDGAR haystack less quixotic a proposition, not to mention more visually appealing, there is still a long road ahead. One of the many issues Jensen unearthed is the inability to run a comprehensive search on a company because of the fact that company names are not standardized within SEC forms.

So how backflippingly thankful were SEC officials when they learned that one of their own, without being asked, and without any incentive to outperform or hope of being compensated for her time and energy, single-handedly did the job of the entire organization better than it had done in decades, despite massive amounts of government funding and a clear market need and social benefit? We might never know, since they still haven’t responded to her repeated attempts to give them the code for free. “I spent November and December trying to give all my code to the SEC,” said Jensen, who was fired by the agency in April 2013. “I received no response, not even a polite no.”

So much for the wisdom of federal agencies. Despite my predilection for social liberalism, I think Milton Friedman just won an argument somewhere in the afterlife. I’m sure he would want you to check out Rank and Filed.

Related Content