Finding Mr. Smith or Why Anti-corruption Needs Open Data

Anti-corruption groups have been rightly advocating for the release of information on the beneficial or real owners of companies and trust. The idea is to crack down on tax evasion and corruption by identifying the actual individuals hiding behind several layers of shell companies.

But knowing that “Mr. Smith” is the owner of company X is of no interest, unless you know who Mr. Smith is.

The real interest lies in figuring out that Mr. Smith is linked to company Y, that has been illegally exporting timber from country Z, and that Mr. Smith is the son-in-law of the mining minister of yet another country, who has been accused of embezzling mining industry revenues.

For that, investigative journalists, prosecution authorities, civil society groups like Global Witness and Transparency International will need access not just to public registries of beneficial ownership but also contract data, political exposed persons databases (“PEPs” databases), project by project extractive industry data, and trade export/import data.

Unless those datasets are accessible, comparable, linked, it won’t be possible. We are talking about millions of datasets – no problem for computers to crunch, but impossible to go through manually.

This is what is different in the anti-corruption landscape today, compared to 10 years ago. Technology makes it possible. Don’t get me wrong – there are still huge, thorny political obstacles to getting the data even publicly available in the first place. But unless it is open data, I fear those battles will have been in vain.

That’s why we need open data as a topic on the G20 anti-corruption working group.

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