Guardian piece on why open data matters for social justice and democratic accountability

This piece was originally published in The Guardian on 20th February 2015 with the title “Five ways open data can boost democracy around the world”.

On 21 February, thousands of transparency activists, software developers, designers, researchers, public servants, and civil society groups are gathering at more than 100 cities around the world for the fifth global Open Data Day.

In political speeches and recent reports there has been a significant focus on the potential of open data for economic growth and public sector efficiency. But open data isn’t just all about silicon roundabouts and armchair auditors. Here are five reasons why open data matters for social justice and democratic accountability.

1: Fairer taxes

Governments around the world have a tax problem. Vast sums of money that could be used to run schools, hospitals, and deliver essential public services are lost to offshore tax havens. Recent estimates suggest that there has been a tenfold increase in the corporate use of tax havens over the past few decades. Leaks such as the Swiss HSBC files and the Luxembourg tax agreements grant us a rare snapshot of the tip of an immense and wholly submerged glacial mass.

The past couple of years have seen several promising initiatives using open data to unpick complex corporate networks and highlight the extensive use of tax havens – including projects on the use of anonymous shell companies to avoid tax, the subsidiaries of major banks in tax havens, the corporate structures of Big Oil, and the use of tax havens by large public sector contractors.

But globally we still lack the information needed for journalists and campaigners to hold decision-makers, avoiders and evaders to account, and to tackle the problem root and branch.

2: Protecting the public purse

Public sector bodies spend an estimated $9.5tn buying goods and services every year. And every year vast sums of this money are lost to fraud, corruption, overcharging, and under-delivery by private contractors. Recent scandals have ranged from investigations into contracts with outsourcing giants such as G4S and Serco to Africa losing around quarter of its GDP to corruption.

Open data about public contracts give civil society organisations and journalists the means to hold contractors and public bodies to account. For example, the Slovakian civil society project zNašichDaní profiles companies and people who do business with the state. Researchers at the University of Cambridge are developing algorithms to automatically flag cases of potential corruption using open data.

3: Controlling corporate lobbyists

Corporations spend billions every year trying to influence government policy around the world. Campaigners have used open data about lobbying to shine a light on the composition of the influence industry in Washington and Brussels, as well as on specific topics like lobbying around data privacy laws.

However, in the wake of the failure of the UK’s lobbying bill and the EU’s broken promises to make a mandatory lobbyist register, it is clear that a lot more work is needed to secure even a basic level of transparency around who is lobbying whom for what around the world.

4: Fighting pollution

Data can be an indispensable campaigning and reporting tool to fight back against pollution – whether oil spills in the US, air pollution in Beijing, or heavy metal contamination in Europe. Greenpeace’s energy desk has used open data extensively in its research and reporting, for example to illustrate the potential impacts of fracking proposals in the UK on groundwater and national parks.

5: Holding politicians to account

Some of the earliest and most widely cited examples of the democratic value of open data were websites built by civic hackers to track the speeches and votes of politicians. Sites like TheyWorkForYou and OpenCongress went beyond previously available parliamentary records by enabling customised email notifications, statistics, commenting and annotation.

The past decade has seen the growth of dozens of parliamentary monitoring websites, which continue to grow and evolve. The ParlTrack project was set up by activists to oppose the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement and its data has been extensively used by campaign groups in Europe. The La Fabrique de la Loi project from Regards Citoyens, Sciences Po’s médialab and Density Design gives an unprecedented view of more than 40,000 amendments to some 300 French legal texts.

These kinds of tools offer citizens and civil society groups a rich base of evidence and analysis to enable them to hold their elected representatives to account.

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