Open Data: Casting a Digital Net to Catch the Corrupt

The Panama Papers leak, and exposure of potential corruption on a global scale, has helped reveal just how much more must be done to shine a light on the shadows where corrupt activity takes place. Data, and better use of it, has to be central to this effort.

The incredible work done on the Mossack Fonseca exposé by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and others could not have come at a more opportune moment. Next week David Cameron will host world leaders at an Anti-Corruption Summit in London, which presents him with a huge opportunity to show leadership on this issue. As the Panama Papers have shown, corruption knows no borders. As with the game of Whack-A-Mole, closing a loophole in one place leads to the exploitation of another elsewhere. Working alone, the UK would achieve little, but working in collaboration with the global community it could make significant progress. At the Summit the assembled world leaders need to agree on how they can work together to prevent corruption and improve the lives of the victims across the world — citizens who suffer when public finances are diverted from the national purse to an individual’s pocket or hidden offshore structure.

Fundamental to this international collaboration will be getting agreement on the need for greater openness and more specifically, greater commitment to open up and use data more effectively. If we are to truly tackle endemic corruption on a global scale, we cannot afford to solely rely on the brave actions of a few whistleblowers. In addition, we need systematic, multilateral action to unleash the true potential of open data to power global efforts to tackle corruption.

Open data can become a powerful weapon in tackling all forms of corruption if the Summit delivers three things: it ensures the right information is reported and released; it ensures effective transmission of data to those who can use it to drive change; and it equips data users with capacity and space to act on that information.

However, if the global open data movement taught us anything over the past few years, it is not to trust the ‘invisible hand of data’. In other words, not to assume that the sole act of opening up data will magically lead to its better use by those who need it most. For open data to be of use, we must first reach out to users to understand their needs and act accordingly. One such example is the Open Contracting Partnership, which reached out to government reformers, lawyers, private sector companies, and media before developing its open contracting data standard that is already being supported in over ten countries.

We want to see a commitment from governments to engage with innovators who use open data to tackle corruption — such as law enforcement agencies, investigators, the media, and forensics teams — to bring them together, make efforts to understand their data needs, and ensure that they get access to what they need to uncover wrongdoing and prosecute where appropriate.

Once the data is released, we want to see the right groups alerted and working together to dissect and analyze it. This should involve investigative journalists, data scientists, local reformers, law enforcement specialists (in both forensic/prosecutorial capacity), independent forensic teams, financial institutions, and other key actors. Many of these actors have yet to work together to increase the uptake of open data, and the Anti-Corruption Summit presents a unique opportunity for them to do just that. This would be genuinely ground-breaking. There are very few or no open data initiatives that specifically identify data that helps corroborate and contextualise evidence leading to corruption prosecutions.

Finally, let’s not forget that the format for presenting data also matters. As we have seen from the Mossack Fonseca documents, the sheer quantity of data and its lack of inter-operability makes analysis and dissection extremely difficult. We cannot afford to remain stuck in the 1990s with investigators labouring through hundreds of thousands of documents manually. Much like Google changed the way we search for information, we need to change the way we search through data.

For open data to drive anti-corruption activity it needs to become accessible, timely, relevant, and comparable. As such, we hope to see the governments present at the Anti-Corruption Summit sign up to the Open Data Charter and implement its six core principles for opening up information.

The Panama Papers leak serves as a timely reminder that knowledge is power, and access to and the use of data is fundamental for tackling global corruption. If we are to transform open data into a powerful anti-corruption tool, the Prime Minister and the other world leaders need to recognise its critical importance. They must commit to work together to ensure the rightdata is made available to the right people in the right format, and then support its use to cast a digital net over corrupt individuals — leaving them with no place to hide their ill-gotten gains.

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