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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Harvest of Company Details, All in One Basket


Hicham Oudghiri, a co-founder of Enigma, demonstrated an application of his company’s service during the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last year.

Trolling government records for juicy details about companies and their executives can be a ponderous task. I often find myself querying the websites of multiple federal agencies, each using its own particular terminology and data forms, just for a glimpse of one company’s business.

But a few new services aim to reduce that friction not just for reporters, but also for investors and companies that might use the information in making business decisions. One site,, is designed to make company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission more intelligible. It also offers visitors an instant snapshot of industry relationships, in a multicolored “influence” graph that charts the various companies in which a business’s officers and directors own shares. According to the site, pooh-bahs at Google, for example, have held shares in Apple, Netflix, LinkedIn, Zynga, Cisco, Amazon and Pixar.

Another site,, has obtained, standardized and collated thousands of data sets — including information on companies’ lobbying activities and their contributions to state election campaigns — made public by federal and state agencies. Starting this weekend, the public will be able to use it, at no charge, to seek information about a single company across dozens of government sources at once.


The home page of, which allows the public to gather information about a single company across dozens of government sources at once.
“What we are trying to do is take these public data sets which, due to the fact of their obscurity, are not currently linked, and go about redressing that,” Marc DaCosta, the co-founder of Enigma, told me recently at the Enigma offices in Lower Manhattan.

Five years ago, to encourage research studies and app development, the Obama administration introduced, a site that catalogs data held by federal agencies. Last May, President Obama issued an executive order requiring agencies to make the information they generate available in computer-readable formats. Publishing and analytics start-ups are now tapping those resources to develop products for consumers and businesses. Among them, Enigma hopes to become what Mr. DaCosta describes as “a Google for public data.”

Ask Enigma for facts about Lockheed Martin, for example, and here are some of the disparate details that surface: Last year, this military contractor entered into agreements with the government worth about $40.7 billion. Another interesting tidbit about the company is that in 2013, Marillyn A. Hewson, the chief executive, visited the White House five times; on two of those occasions the “visitee” was “POTUS,” meaning the president of the United States, the logs indicate. And company employees reported giving about $51,000 to the presidential campaign committees Obama for America and the Obama Victory Fund.

Although these details may be unrelated, together they depict a politically influential and connected contractor. In fact, that kind of serendipitous information amalgam is one of Enigma’s aims. Mr. DaCosta says he believes that “there’s a huge amount you can learn about the world by putting these data sources in conversation with one another.”

He founded the company three years ago with Hicham Oudghiri, a former roommate at Columbia University, where both majored in philosophy. At the time, each was working on a data-driven project — Mr. DaCosta in climate mapping and Mr. Oudghiri in finance — and felt frustrated in his attempts to harness public information.

“It’s scattered across government agencies,” Mr. DaCosta notes. “You don’t even know what data is relevant to you.”

They decided to build a system to streamline the process by scraping certain federal and state databases, and applying or negotiating for access to other sources. In a recent round of financing, the company raised $4.5 million from investors, including Comcast Ventures and The New York Times Company.


On, a graph displays the names of companies in which Google’s officers and directors have owned shares. Credit Jensen
But setting up the system was laborious. For one thing, because the names of businesses and other kinds of information in public data sets aren’t standardized, Enigma had to develop its own algorithm to allow users to search for a single company simultaneously across different agencies.

The effort paid off. “Enigma figured out a way to get around the problem for private-sector entities,” says Hudson Hollister, the executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, a trade group. It has been lobbying for passage of legislation called  the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or  DATA Act for short, which would require governmentwide data standardization. “If the government adopted data standards,” Mr. Hollister says, “analytics would be cheaper and insight would be better.”

Obtaining public records can be cumbersome in the first place. To offer its users information about the kinds of items that American businesses import, for example, Enigma pays $100 a day for a daily CD from the Customs Department; the disks contain bills of lading for all of the shipments that arrived the previous day.

“One of the values we bring is dealing with all of that so consumers of the data don’t have to,” Mr. DaCosta says.

Although the site has a simple search bar, the user interface isn’t entirely intuitive. Queries often result in long lists that, for some users, may require a bit of a learning curve to navigate. The site also doesn’t rank results — because, Mr. DaCosta says, each user has individual priorities.

Simple searches are free, but the company markets paid subscriptions for people seeking customized data sets or full access to the company’s analytics software.

Enigma is also tailoring its platform for different industries. It has developed a program, now being tested by several banks, to give credit underwriters more information about small businesses, with revenue of less than $10 million, that lack detailed financial track records. The idea is that collating facts from different data sets — like government contracts and specialty-worker visas — may reduce a bank’s risk of providing credit to small businesses.

Enigma envisions other industries, like insurance, and app developers seeking its analytics platform as well.

“We want to build a generalizable platform that is acting as the route, as the enabler,” Mr. DaCosta says, “but not necessarily driving all of the use cases.”

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