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Open data and political integrity

What we learned from a data dive

Jon Vrushi

What happens when a politician writing a law on garbage disposal happens to own shares in a company that specializes in disposing of garbage? Or if that company has donated millions to the ruling party’s election campaign? Or if it has paid lobbyists to make the case for little to no environmental regulation of the garbage disposal industry?

Visualisation of Lobby Meetings at the European Commission Level (Source: Integrity Watch)

This month, a group of researchers, policy analysts and advocates from Transparency International, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Government Transparency Institute got together in Berlin to dive into datasets that can offer answers to these questions. The aim was to shine a light on the intersection of private and public interests, and learn about the role of open data in enhancing political integrity. Transparency International staff in eight EU countries (France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain) are currently building or updating their own Integrity Watch online data platform to track these issues, following from the success of Integrity Watch EU.

What is political integrity and what does open data have to do with it?

Political integrity means that people with political power consistently act in the long-term public interest while providing equal and meaningful access to those affected by their decisions.

We can only monitor and promote political integrity if we know the private financial interests of our politicians, who has access to political decision-making, and the means through which they gain such access. This is where data comes in.

A few key datasets have the potential to let the media, civil society and even government oversight and law enforcement institutions exercise the accountability needed for a robust political integrity system: Asset and Income Declarations for politicians and high-ranking public officials, Political Party Donation Registers, and Lobby Registers.

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

It’s time for international data standards on political integrity

However, the practical use of this data seems to run into the same obstacles almost everywhere: poor quality data, for example with duplicate entries, typos and missing information; the same or similar names for firms and individuals; and inconsistency in how sectors (energy, manufacture, extractives etc.) are categorized. Then there are issues with the format. Poorly scanned PDFs are obviously bad but so are extremely complex JSON or XML files, which introduce technical barriers to data access.

We realized that we simply need to come up with a template, or a data standard, for Asset and Income Declarations, Political Party Donation and Lobby Registers. This template will include the fields and attributes needed for all datasets, the format of the data files as well as templates for online publication and visualization. The Open Contracting Partnership and their very successful Open Contracting Data Standard are a great role model in this field. Crucially, these datasets need to speak to each other and to other relevant databases, such as company registers, voting records and data on government spending, public procurement, and so on.

Back of envelope policy implications

Institutions in charge of collecting, verifying, publishing and analysing this data should be given the mandate and resources they need to work well. This means they need to be fully independent from the government and from political interference. They need to have the budget, staffing and technological know-how to be able to perform their tasks. Until that happens, there is nothing to guarantee that public officials are accurately reporting their outside income or financial interests.

These institutions also need to improve communication among themselves. International open data standards would facilitate that process. Different government agencies and institutions, from tax offices to election management bodies, to supreme audit institutions, financial intelligence units, anti-corruption agencies and so on, would be able exchange information much more easily if their datasets can easily be connected and cross-referenced.

Access delayed is access denied. Even the best data standard is useless if information is not updated in a timely manner. Timely disclosure of these datasets is vital for ensuring a robust political integrity data ecosystem.

Political Integrity Data Dive — Berlin, October 2019

Back of envelope implications for our work

We commit to reward integrity when we see it

The ultimate goal is not to detect and sanction corruption, but to prevent it and to promote a culture of political integrity. It is therefore crucial that we use these datasets to identify and reward integrity wherever we see it.

We will work with state authorities, other NGOs, journalists and academics for full impact

We will support state authorities which strive to improve their capacity and independence so they can collect, verify and publish relevant data. We will continue to work with other NGOs as well as with journalists and academics in analysing data and sharing our findings with broad audiences.

We will never lose sight of the political nature of data

While we will focus on the tools, including data standards and methods for the identification of red flags, we will never forget that the production, analysis and dissemination of such data is ultimately political and has vast implications. As good activists, we will always look at who stands to lose and who stands to gain from data disclosure and will work to empower those who stand to gain from transparency and accountability.

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