Corruption has a devastating impact on the lives of people around the world. When money that should be spent on schools, hospitals and other government services ends up in the hands of dishonest officials, everyone suffers. This briefing explains how open data can be used to tackle corruption and accompanies the launch of Open Up: A Guide to Using Open Data to Combat Corruption.
A broad understanding of corruption recognises that it is not just about isolated acts between two different agents: the one who offers a bribe, and the one who receives it. Instead, corruption is a complex crime. It is driven by networks of officials, professional intermediaries and companies. So in order to tackle corruption effectively, you need to understand and dismantle these networks. This requires information and the ability to spot patterns.
Many of the activities of a corruption network, and many of the individuals and organisations involved, leave their mark on government held datasets. Paradoxically, corruption schemes frequently rely upon the law to secure ownership of companies, land and assets used to launder their proceeds. Public contracts, spending and other transactions are all recorded in government ledgers. And existing policies may call for asset disclosures and interest registers to be maintained. If all this information remains in silos, identifying, tracking and confronting corruption networks remains a laborious task.
That’s where open data can step in. Open data is information that data anyone can access, use and share. It should be made available with the technical and legal characteristics necessary for it to be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone, anytime, anywhere. Publishing government information in this way has the potential to allow government officials, journalists and citizens to follow financial flows, understand who’s providing government services and to spot suspect behaviour. There is political momentum behind this and in 2015, the G20 agreed a common approach for how to use open data to combat corruption.
Examples of where open data has been used to fight corruption include:
- In 2015, Global Witness published an investigation uncovering the powerful military, government and narcotics actors benefiting from Myanmar’s jade wealth, and the way in which they are using a web of anonymous companies to hide their gains at the expense of the rest of the population. This was in part based on data made accessible as open data through OpenCorporates.com.
- Ukraine’s public procurement system was once notorious for corruption and inefficiency. Since launching ProZorro, the country’s open source, open data e-procurement system the government has saved 14% on its planned spending (more than 300 million Euros) and seen a 50% increase in companies bidding for contracts - helping build business and citizen trust in the government process.
- In Latin America, the PODER network have built the ‘QuiénEsQuién.Wiki’ platform to combines procurement information and company ownership information to support journalistic investigations.
- Open Contracting Partnership have identified 150 suspicious behavior indicators, or “red flags”, that governments or civil society can use to identify potential corruption in procurement.
What needs to be in place
The initial premise that open data would lead to a radical change in outcome for governments and citizens has proved overly-optimistic. As a recent Transparency International report found, countries are often failing to live up to their commitments in this area. Where information is published, there are some important things that need to be in place if open data is going to have an impact on corruption. They are:
- The existence of information in digital, shareable formats. Lots of government processes use paper forms, or generate PDFs which can be difficult and costly to digitise for computers to use.
- Information needs to be published as open data in line with the six principles of the Open Data Charter. The Charter sets out the best way for governments to publish data - it should be open by default, interoperable and timely.
- The right data needs to be published. Given that corruption happens through often complicated networks, you need multiple datasets to build a picture of what is going on. The guide includes a list of 30 different datasets that can be used to fight corruption.
- Datasets need to be able to talk to each other in order to build a picture of what’s going on. The list of datasets in this guide includes information on what key features the datasets have to have in order to be interoperable. The Guide helps governments what datasets they should prioritise for collection and release.
- Citizens, journalists and members of civil society have the skills and legal protection to analyse the data that’s published, share findings publically and seek a response to their findings. The direct users of raw data are likely to be a small number of engaged specialist organisations and individuals, who can act as intermediaries between data sets and the broader public.
- Data publication and analysis needs to be accompanied by other investigative methods, such as interviewing sources.
- There need to be structures in place so that governments and law enforcement respond to indications of potential corrupt activity.
What's in the report
The Open Up report is intended to be part of a growing body of work using open data to fight corruption. It includes:
- Use cases and methodologies. A series of case studies highlight existing and future approaches to the use of open data.
- 30 priority datasets and the key attributes needed so that they can talk to each other. To address corruption networks it is particularly important that connections can be established and followed across data sets, national borders and different sectors.
- Data standards. Standards describe what should be published, and the technical details of how it should be made available. The report includes some of the relevant standards for anti-corruption work, and highlights the areas where there are currently no standards.
The Open Data Charter will work with a number of governments to test the hypothesis behind the package that open data can help tackle corruption. The Charter team is in early conversations with the Government of Mexico about developing a methodology to road test the package and ground this work to address real life challenges.