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Demand Open Data

The 38th New Brunswick provincial election is officially underway.

While many important issues will be raised during the campaign, I’m encouraging you to talk to your candidates about Open Data, specifically open assessment data.

Property tax receives a lot of attention every March; but, it seems to fly under the radar the remainder of the year. It’s a important tax because it’s one of the few taxes YOU have control over – the ability to appeal your assessment is an important (and underutilized) option… if you have data.

Petition

Earlier this year, I created a petition to lobby the provincial government to change the outdated Assessment Act:

Service New Brunswick is not allowed to provide bulk property assessment and last sale information in an open digital format due to antiquated legislation (refer to Section 12 within the current Assessment Act).

Without a complete listing of all assessment and last sale information, New Brunswick property taxpayers are not in a position to accurately determine if their property tax assessment is reasonable. They are also not in a position to make their case using actual data from comparable properties when appealing.

Property taxpayers have a right to a digital copy of this information.

The Assessment Act needs to be updated to reflect the digital and technological realities of today.  This petition seeks changes to allow the following actions to occur legally:

1) Allow releasing New Brunswick property assessment information in open format digital file(s).  This includes allowing the release of information for every tax year (current and historical).

2) Allow releasing New Brunswick property sales information in open format digital file(s).  This includes allowing the release of information for every year (current and historical).

3) Recognize and encourage all information within the Act to be released in open format digital file(s). The only exceptions should be around protecting personal information.

Petition Results

While I received a great deal of public support and encouragement, no changes were made to the Assessment Act.

This means we need to start raising the topic again to try and gain support and commitments to update the act from all political parties.

I want this data made publicly available before the assessments start mailing out in March, 2015.

Did you know? Assessment data is updated by SNB once a month and it is contained in a database that can be easily exported and provided for download. With government support and simple legislative changes, the province of New Brunswick can take one big step down the Open Data path!

Even better, given these tough economic times, more people, websites, and businesses can utilize this data to provide new or enhanced services.  All of this can be done without costing our province another dime.

You need more proof?

This year, for the first time, I appealed my own assessment and had it reduced $26,000.

How did I know to appeal this time ? Using propertize.ca, I was able to quickly look at recent sales for comparable properties in my area.  I knew that my property was over-assessed, and I was able to easily appeal the assessment.  Data is power.

What are people saying?

As part of the petition, I asked people why they were signing it.

Below is a word cloud that helps sum up their comments:

PropertizeData

Read more…

 
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Petition: Update the Assessment Act

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk to an Executive Director at Service New Brunswick about the issues I’ve been facing with http://propertize.ca.

Unfortunately, there won’t be a complete release of the assessment or last sales information for this current tax year (or the upcoming tax year).

The reason? They are not allowed.

The current New Brunswick Assessment Act, the bulk of which is from an age before computers, is very specific on what they can and can’t do with the data.

The Act needs to be updated to reflect the digital and technological realities of today.

To help make this case, I’ve created a petition to the Minister responsible for Service New Brunswick, asking for the act to be updated.

Update the Assessment Act

Service New Brunswick is not allowed to provide bulk property assessment and last sale information in an open digital format due to antiquated legislation (refer to Section 12 within the current Assessment Act).

Without a complete listing of all assessment and last sale information, New Brunswick property taxpayers are not in a position to accurately determine if their property tax assessment is reasonable. They are also not in a position to make their case using actual data from comparable properties when appealing.

Property taxpayers have a right to a digital copy of this information.

The Assessment Act needs to be updated to reflect the digital and technological realities of today.  This petition seeks changes to allow the following actions to occur legally:

1) Allow releasing New Brunswick property assessment information in open format digital file(s).  This includes allowing the release of information for every tax year (current and historical).

2) Allow releasing New Brunswick property sales information in open format digital file(s).  This includes allowing the release of information for every year (current and historical).

3) Recognize and encourage all information within the Act to be released in open format digital file(s). The only exceptions should be around protecting personal information.

You can add your support to this initiative by signing the petition:

Let’s see if we can get commitments to update the Assessment Act in time for tax year 2015!

 
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IT specialist keeps working to keep the taxman honest

Friday’s Telegraph-Journal featured an update on the issues that I have been facing with http://propertize.ca.

While the daily update issue has been resolved, the challenge now is with the delays and the impacts this will have coming up.

In March, when the 2013 assessments are available, it will now take nearly a week to scrape all of the results – which means you will have much less time to determine if you should appeal or not.

As I’ve mentioned before, the real solution is to release the data in an open format (assessments and last sales) allowing myself – and anyone else – to build applications on top of it.

IT specialist keeps working to keep the taxman honest

Story by: Shawn Berry

The operator of Propertize.ca says he’s working around new restrictions on the New Brunswick government website that limit his ability to update property assessment data.

Shawn Peterson of Saint John says he’s slowed down the computer search that used to take him less than two hours a day so that it now takes about six hours.

“They asked me to add ‘delays” to the scraping code so that it reduces the number of accesses per minute. I did make these changes, and they are working; but, it’s much slower now,” he said.

Peterson runs Propertize.ca, a site that allows users to see the assessed values of homes in a particular area all one page. He created his website to address Service New Brunswick’s shortcomings. Its website requires users to call up each property in a separate search if they want to compare property tax assessments, sale prices and the like. The site was a popular vehicle for homeowners and businesses until he was jammed in mid-December by SNB’s new protocols.

Peterson’s go around and the reduced pace of searches means his computer won’t trip a meter on the government server that locked him out before Christmas for performing more than 100 queries a minute.

That limit is part of a bid to prevent malicious computer users from compromising the government computer system or denying access to other users.

Peterson says he can live with the reduced rate of search rate for updates for now but is still wondering how he will access updated tax assessment information when it is all updated in spring for the 2014 tax season.

“This isn’t ideal, and in my opinion, is not acceptable,” he said, noting property owners have just 30 days to request a review of their property assessment. Peterson believes the more data available to the public, the better they can be served by government tax assessors. He generally gets up every morning to work on the site and keep it updated.

Contacted last week, Craig Chouinard, a spokesman for Service New Brunswick, said the issue is being looked at.

Peterson said he has heard from a staff member who told him there are ongoing discussions on the matter.

 
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Broad-brush against hackers hurts popular site

Today’s Telegraph-Journal featured a story on the issues that I have been facing with http://propertize.ca.

I think it does a great job at explaining the issue and provides the best solution to address it – open format file(s) that are available for anyone to download and use.

Link to the original article: https://www.telegraphjournal.com/greater-saint-john/story/35771638

Broad-brush against hackers hurts popular site

Story by: Shawn Berry

Propertize.ca

A Saint John man says he’s been thrown a digital hurdle that threatens to sideline the service he runs to help property owners compare their tax assessments with those of their neighbours.

Shawn Peterson runs Propertize.ca, nearly in its fifth year. He created the website in frustration over Service New Brunswick’s own website, which requires users who want to compare the assessed values of homes in their area to call up every parcel individually.

The Propertize site allows users to see multiple properties displayed all at once. It became wildly popular in 2011 following some favourable media coverage.

To keep the information up to date, Peterson’s does a search for property values every March and performs a daily search between 6:30 and 8:20 in the morning looking for updated information due to sales and appeals of property assessments. But on Dec. 18, his search of the publicly available data on the government’s own website was blocked.

“At first I thought it was just a weird anomaly, but after it kept up I got in touch with people at Service New Brunswick.”

The issue, he’s been told, is a recent change on the government site that limits the number of queries from a computer’s IP address to 100 per minute. Peterson makes about 30 a second for two hours every morning.

Service New Brunswick says the technology is meant to stop hackers and others misusing the Internet and ensure public access to the site.

“The security software isn’t new, but the parameters as to how much data use triggers an alert have changed,” said Service New Brunswick spokesman Craig Chouinard.

While he wouldn’t identify Peterson for privacy reasons, Chouinard said the government agency is aware of the issue.

“Service New Brunswick is working with the user to ensure they can continue to run property inquiries and make use of that the information to populate their website.”

Chouinard said the security software in place meant to protect its server from spamming, denial-of-service attacks and other mass inquiries or hits that could potentially affect or deny access for all users.

Peterson says Service New Brunswick should find some other way to make the data available to everyone.

“What we’re running into now shouldn’t be an issue. I shouldn’t need to do that to get public information, I should be able to just go download it.”

They could create an open file with last-sale data or an accessible open spreadsheet with recent years’ assessments for people like him to download once, instead of performing numerous searches.

“If that was in place there wouldn’t be any need to be scraping the site.”

Peterson said while staff restored access for his IP address, the same technology blocked his computer again.

To the best of his knowledge, his daily activities never caused a problem for the SNB site.

“I try to do it first thing in the morning,” he said. “I’m not hammering the site 24/7, causing a problem or taking down the site.

“I’ve never heard of anything, and I believe if I was, I would have been contacted.”

Peterson reckons he loses money on the site, but thinks it’s an invaluable service to both citizens and government because it allows property owners to determine whether or not they should appeal their property assessments.

Chouinard said the government believes in making information on New Brunswick properties available to all New Brunswickers. He noted that the Service New Brunswick’s website does provide provides the information and access to all residents.

“At the same time, we are always working to provide better safeguards of the information technology infrastructure to ensure that access will not be affected by potential attacks by outside sources,” he said.

Updates

 
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Propertize.ca – SNB Network Block

ShawnAfter nearly five years, it looks like I’ve hit a major snag with http://propertize.ca.

Propertize.ca, in case you didn’t know, is a website that I created to make it easier to view and compare property tax assessments in New Brunswick.

A brief history of Propertize.ca

In 2008, my wife and I purchased our first home.  The following year, I received a property assessment tax letter, letting us know our assessment and amount due.  Also included were instructions around appealing the assessment. The issue was – I had no idea if I should appeal it or not.

Well, it turned out that SNB provides a basic application to look up assessments: https://www.planet.snb.ca/ANONDB/anon002$.startup

The site is functional if you have a PID or PAN; but, searching by address can be painful (to say the least).  It’s also very tedious to lookup and compare multiple properties at once – something I needed to do as many homes in my subdivision would be comparable (for assessment purposes).

I saw a better way – both to search by address and retrieve multiple results into a single view to make it easier to determine if your assessment was reasonable.

In 2009, a very rough version of this tool was live for friends and family to use (if you remember, it wasn’t very pretty to look at – but it worked).

In March 2011, it was featured on the front-page of the Telegraph-Journal and went viral.  Since then, people across the country have used it to compare assessments (for validation or appeal) and when looking to purchase property (to understand trends and tax levies).  Media in NB have used it to find oddities in assessments – especially when dealing with industrial sites, or strange changes.  Even staff at SNB use the site to quickly lookup information!

It’s been consistently updated to be easier to use, quicker at finding results, and responsive (works nicely on mobile/tablet).  I’ve also been tracking data in my own database so that historical comparisons can be made.  None of this can be done on the government website.  Did I mention, it also runs 24/7?  Try using the government site early in the morning.

It’s become something many people rely on to make informed decisions when purchasing property or deciding to appeal their assessments; but, this could all stop.

The Problem?

As much as I try to reduce needing to scrape data from SNB (outside of the new assessments initially being added each March – which is quite intense), it is still necessary.

Why? Because houses keep selling (new recent sales data is available) and sometimes assessments change (after appeal or other reasons).

To reduce network strain, I limit queries going at SNB to 30,000 per day, and I do it in the early morning starting at 6:30am and it usually finished up by 8:20am.

Unfortunately, it looks like everything changed on December 18, 2013.  As of that date, I could no longer access the planet SNB website from my house (even though it remains accessible for everyone else) – my IP is blocked.

I’ve been able to talk to individuals at SNB who have let me know that new networking software in now in place to detect heavy usage and stop it, which is why I am blocked.

They will try to unblock my IP (not unblocked yet); however, as I am still trying to scrape each day, it will be blocked again.

Internal discussions are taking place around this – specifically around the networking side of things; but, no decisions have been made.

The Solution?

The ideal solution would be to make the assessment data (for each year) public and accessible in an open format file that can be downloaded for offline use.

No more network issues.

Let’s face it – this information is all publicly available now (well, at least for you) – so what’s the harm?

I’m not holding my breath on this plan though.  I’ve been making this argument for years.

I believe the quick fix is to unblock my IP and specifically allow me to continue scraping as I have been doing for years now.  I have made big improvements to reduce network strain, and the site (to my knowledge) has never been impacted from my scraping.

How you can help!

While nothing has been decided yet, I am still currently blocked (and will almost certainly remain blocked – or be re-blocked – due to my scraping).

I think the best course of action at this point is to raise the issue as much as possible to ensure that I am unblocked and remain so!

Note: This site is not run for profit and is free for anyone to use.

The site is likely saving the government money.  Many people are able to easily use this site and find the information they need.  Those that can’t email me for help looking it up.

I end up providing free support services AND building/maintain a site that anyone can use (because it’s so easy to search).

Many people also see that their assessment is fair (compared to other comparable properties) and choose not to appeal – saving government time/money.

Please share this post on social media, write to your newspaper, email your MLA, call up SNB, whatever you can do help resolve this issue.

The clock is ticking – there are now less than two months before the new 2014 assessments come out, and at this point – they won’t be on http://propertize.ca.

Updates

 
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Thanks to everyone at NB Power!

Published on 2014-01-01 by in News, Uncategorized, Videos

From all of your friends at T4G Limited, thank you!

Also, a big thanks to everyone helping from Saint John Energy and outside the province.

 
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True Growth 2.0 “Non-Profit” Hackathon

Hackathon

It’s official! The first True Growth 2.0 Hackathon now has a date, location, and theme (and it’s going to be awesome):

Dates: November 30th & December 1st, 2014
Location: T4G – 384 Lancaster Avenue, Saint John (west)

The True Growth 2.0 “Non-Profit” Hackathon is a 2 day event where creative and talented members of the ICT community will gather, collaborate and innovate – with a focus on the non-profit sector in Saint John and surrounding areas.

Over the course of the weekend, individuals and teams will come together to brainstorm and then develop “prototypes” or “proof-of-concepts” of websites, applications, mobile apps – anything where technology can be used as an enabler – to solve a problem, to create an opportunity, or to just have some fun with.

This event – something of a proof-of-concept in its own right – will be the first of what we hope will be many more events to come, where we will build on the interest we have seen to date for such an initiative and the momentum that we are sure will follow. Come out and show your support!

See below for some additional information on the event. Click here to register and we hope to see you there!

Please check back often to keep up on the details as they continue to unfold.

Full event details and information can be found here:

Don’t forget to sign up!

 
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‘No downside’ to open data policy

Digital key in pixeled keyhole, 3d renderThere was a great article discussing Greg Norton‘s “Open Data” motion to Saint John Common Council in today’s Telegraph Journal!

The article below was written by Ryan Melanson:

City Council is set to revisit the idea of establishing an open data policy for municipal information at Monday night’s meeting, with Coun. Greg Norton pushing a motion that will define clear guidelines on what city data should be released, when it should be done and by what standards.

Open data, as Norton’s motions describes it, refers to the free publishing of city information, in accessible and machine-readable formats, without any restrictions on use.

This means anything from geographic data like transit routes and stops, financial information dealing with the spending of public money, where steps have recently been taken around posting salaries and funding details to external agencies, or more specific, obscure data like a percentage of people who don’t pay their water bill on time, or police traffic enforcement statistics. The possibilities are endless, and may even depend on what people want to see or use, Norton said.

The city already does a fair job in terms of having information available, Norton said, but it’s not always easy to retrieve, buried in archives or requiring other steps.

“This will mean we’re not layering all our information in red tape for the folks who want to use it to create solutions to societal or governmental issues.”

While increased transparency is key, Norton said the problem-solving and innovation possibilities are a kicker that gets him excited.

Shawn Peterson, an award winning developer and ICT worker at T4G in Saint John, said having raw data in the right open formats creates opportunities for the private sector to come up with solutions in a way governments simply don’t have the time or resources for.

Peterson’s Propertize.ca mines data from the provincial government to help users compare their property tax assessments with others nearby. He took government data, analyzed it and developed it into a useful application with money-making potential.

Those are the possibilities with open data, new solutions and job creation, he said.

“You see governments throwing money at this and that, that’s the worst thing you can do. How about you start putting data out there, and then someone can create a business based off that, how cool would that be?”

Norton pointed to HotSpot Parking Inc., led by Fredericton business student Phillip Curley, who created a mobile parking payment system with information from the city’s traffic department. The company is expected to test in Saint John soon.

“He created an app and a company using that data he mined from the municipality,” Norton said.

He added these possibilities could be increased further if the province’s three major cities could work to create open-data pools under the same consistent standards. Similar steps have been taken between municipalities in Ontario.

“Because that increases the usability of the information we’re going to disclose to the public and to the people who want to access and mine it.”

With increased co-operation between Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton a new priority, a new budget looming, and a bustling tech sector ready to jump at sets of raw data and their possible uses, the time is right to draft a true policy, Norton said.

“There’s no downside to this,” Peterson added, noting so much data is already in existence, just simply not available, or only available in a hard-to-find PDF files, useless to developers.

“The worst case scenario is the city releases some data sets and nobody uses it.”

Norton said if his motion passes, a priority for him will be ensuring any data policy is implemented correctly, with sets released consistently and in a timely manner.

“I’ll be pushing for strict implementation guidelines, so that once this information is available, it’s not antiquated by the time we post it,” he said, referencing large amounts of dated information on department sections of the city’s website.

“If we do it right we could release data sets that other cities aren’t, and do it in a way that’s useful and improves openness and transparency.

Councillor Norton’s motion is below:

Open Data Policy: October 28, 2013

Mayor Mel Norton and Members of Common Council

Your Worship and Councillors:

Subject: Open Data Policy

 

Background:

The City of Saint John has demonstrated a commitment to transparent and inclusive government. The benefits of establishing an open data policy framing this commitment can lead to improved coordination and information sharing between City of Saint John agencies, while the development of such a policy can also fuel economic development in the civic-tech sector and with a healthy ICT sector in our community the time is ripe. It is also widely understood that beyond just improving transparency a clear open data policy improves governance itself.

Open Data is a philosophy and practice to provide some of the municipally-generated data to the public in a machine-readable format, without the restrictions of copyright, patent or other control mechanisms and, most importantly, free of charge. The most commonly used open data focuses on structured data, such as geographic data, scheduling, statistics, and demographic data. It is important to highlight that the City of Saint John is a leader in accessible, open and transparent information by way of many departments. For example, the GIS department, is a leader in geographic data that is mined by many agencies external to the City of Saint John, the Common Clerk is also instrumental in maintaining and archiving all official records, contracts and deeds. Many of our departments provided open data in their respective commitment to transparent and inclusive government.

The objective of open data is to eliminate burdens to access data created or managed by government agencies, while respecting privacy and sensitivity concerns.  It enables entrepreneurs, academics, community groups, other learning communities, developers, and interested citizens to use data to improve the social experience and stimulate economic growth through data applications. Open data has been fueling economic development as reported by a recent study, which found that half a million jobs have been created around mobile and web apps. Lastly, the overarching aim of this motion is to set in policy what many divisions of the City of Saint John are currently practicing on a continual and timely basis.

Motion:

(1.) Engage all City of Saint John departments, agencies, boards and commissions, including the Saint John Police, Power Commission of the City of Saint John and Saint John Water for input in the drafting of a City of Saint John Open Data Policy.

(2.) Request the City Manager to draft an open data policy that reflects the input received during the engagement process to be considered for adoption by Saint John Common Council and subsequently all departments, agencies boards and commissions.

 

Yours Sincerely,

Greg Norton

Councillor (Ward 1)

City of Saint John

 
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ZoneSJ – Saint John’s New Zoning Bylaw

It’s an exciting time for Saint John – a new draft zoning bylaw has just been released for public review!

Why do we need a new zoning bylaw?

The City must adopt a new zoning bylaw that conforms with the municipal plan, PlanSJ.  When PlanSJ was adopted by common council in January 2012, a new land use map was adopted and conflicting and incompatible land uses identified.  ZoneSJ, the zoning bylaw, will establish provisions and regulations that implement the policies set out in PlanSJ.

What is ZoneSJ?

The city has a website up with everything you need to know:

My suggestion is to start with the Guide to ZoneSJ document, it’s a great source of information – including many common questions and answers.

The Draft Zoning Bylaw

The complete draft zoning bylaw is now available to read:

How will my property be affected?

The city has provided a great online mapping tool to allow you to view the proposed zoning changes at http://maps.saintjohn.ca/zonesj-en.

Clicking on an area will provide information about the proposed new zoning type along with links to additional details about the new zone.

ZoningMap

An address search is also available – letting you quickly find a specific property:

ZoneMapSearch

 

ZoneSJ Open House Events

The city is hosting open house events across the city to present the draft bylaw.

These events will be a great opportunity to learn more and to ask any questions that you may have:

ZoneSJ Open House Events

 

 

Have comments about the draft bylaw?

Send them along to planning@saintjohn.ca – and do so before the cut-off date:

The Growth & Community Development Service is asking for final comments to be submitted no later than Friday November 29, 2013 in order to facilitate a timely turn-around and report back to Council on what has been heard about the new draft Zoning By-law.

 
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True Growth Is Community-Driven Plan

Today’s Telegraph-Journal posted my Letter to the Editor:

True Growth Is Community-Driven Plan

The editorial “Will True Growth define the problem” (Sept. 3) stated True Growth 2.0 “put the cart before the horse” in terms of defining the problems it’s trying to solve.

I was disappointed to see The Telegraph-Journal suggest there lacks a common understanding of the problems this region must overcome, considering the extensive process True Growth 2.0 undertook to reach consensus on the issues and solutions.

In 2012, the True Growth Steering Committee spent four months meeting with dozens of individuals and organizations to understand regional economic development challenges. From these conversations, we identified six priority sectors and five goal areas for further development. The True Growth 2.0 recommendations were adopted by all five municipalities and shared publicly. In early 2013, 11 working groups were formed to develop recommendations for these priority sectors and goal areas. These groups were tasked with articulating problems and developing sector-specific recommendations.

The 36 True Growth 2.0 projects were born from these recommendations and are being led by our economic development organizations and seconded resources from the private sector. The projects differ in size and scope, from industry accelerators to the West-East pipeline, but share common goals of leveraging regional strengths to grow the economy.

The projects are being driven by teams who understand the problems and want to implement solutions. It’s a community-driven plan being led by our community’s economic development agency with the support of a broad network. I believe this new approach and spirit of collaboration will be what moves our region forward.

SHAWN PETERSON

True Growth 2.0 Steering Committee

This letter was in response to the following Telegraph-Journal editorial that ran last week:

Will True Growth define the problem?

The residents of Greater Saint John are engaging in a little creative destruction of their own. Under the loose leadership of Enterprise Saint John, teams of community volunteers are striving to set 36 job creation projects in motion.

These initiatives range from “hackathons,” designed to bring the city’s computer programs together, to a proposal to renew the park benches in King Square through corporate sponsorship.

It all sounds like fun, and it’s great to see people showing so much enthusiasm for the goal of improving Greater Saint John. We have to ask, though, whether the True Growth 2.0 movement hasn’t put the cart before the horse.

Building consensus on how to proceed requires a common understanding of the problem that people are trying to overcome. Without clearly defined goals and a reason to consider those goals important, people aren’t as likely to support the changes needed to achieve progress.

There may well be 36 problems to overcome in this community, but if there are, the nature of those problems has not been clearly articulated to the public, nor has the need for the particular solutions that True Growth teams are striving to implement.

We would prefer to see the local governments, businesspeople and community organizations of Greater Saint John reach agreement on the problems that have hindered growth in the region, then move out into the public, spreading awareness of these problems and why change is needed.

Once that work has been accomplished, there will be a broader base of support for debating possible policy solutions; without it, we fear most taxpayers and voters will not understand what all the fuss is about.

What do you think?

You can learn more about True Growth 2.0 (and get involved) over at Enterprise Saint John: http://www.enterprisesj.com/true_growth

 
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