Digital Venice: How open data can be used to tackle corruption

14 July 2014
Liz speaking at Digital Venice

Liz speaking at Digital Venice

Liz Dávid-Barrett, Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption and Transparency,  gave a talk last week at ‘Digital Venice’, an event to launch the Italian presidency of the EU and highlight the digital agenda.  Liz talked about the potential for Open Data to be used as a tool to tackle corruption, but also highlighted some key challenges – as outlined in her blog here.

In Venice last week, I had the opportunity to talk to an audience of techies, policy wonks and bureaucrats about Open Data and its potential as an anti-corruption tool.  Open Data means data that is freely available and may be re-published, and Open Government Data is that part of open data which concerns government – or, more broadly, public sector – activities.  The hope is that, by gaining access to more data about how the government spends public money, how ministers spend their time and who they meet, and how different parts of the public sector perform, we will be able to spot irregularities or risk areas that might indicate corruption.  Some of this information has long been available through Freedom of Information requests, but the UK government has stepped up its commitment to Open Data by joining the Open Government Partnership and championing the proactive publication of data.

However, the enthusiasm at the top is not always replicated at the lower levels of government which are responsible for implementation.  Opponents of open data make three powerful arguments against it.  First, they say it has a chilling effect on policy, distorting decisions or making civil servants more risk averse for fear that details will be misunderstood or criticized.  Second, there are concerns that Open Data undermines privacy or commercial confidentiality.  In an era where so many government contracts are outsourced to private providers, it is critical that we find a solution to this problem, or we risk losing accountability over huge parts of public spending.  Third, there is growing concern that publishing and reporting data – and responding to freedom of information requests – is just too costly.  This cost burden comes at a time when resources are already strained.  And hence people are beginning to ask whether it is all worth it.  Are we achieving the benefits that we claimed for Open Data?

As someone who works on anti-corruption, where we have been arguing for years that transparency is the key tool to fight corruption, I would love to be able to answer that question with a resounding yes.  But the truth is, I can’t.  We do not yet know whether open data is useful for improving accountability or reducing corruption.  There are certainly good reasons to think that it might be. Opening up data about policy decisions and spending decisions, particularly contract-level data, should help us to detect corruption in these areas.  It means that we can see how public money is being spent and ask questions where things look suspicious – as Mihály Fazekas showed in his recent seminar for the Centre.  And second, the fact that this data is open might deter individuals from acting corruptly in the first place, because the chance of getting caught is greater.  Thus, it might be that fewer cases of corruption occur.  Indeed, one problem for academics is that it is difficult to disentangle these two effects because when it comes to measuring the impact on corruption ‘levels’, they pull in opposite directions.

These difficulties should not put us off, but they do highlight the need to understand just how Open Data might help us detect and deter corruption, in which areas, and what kinds of data we need.  We are seeking to answer these questions in our EU-funded TACOD research project, with the Centre’s Nikolaos Theodorakis and partners in Italy, Spain and Austria – watch this space!