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The Benefits and Tribulations of Open Data in Decreasing Corruption

Open Data

Professor Juliet Sorensen (Northwestern University School of Law) and Northwestern Law students Michelle Kennedy and Cassandra Myers are attending the Sixth Conference of the State Parties (CoSP) to the United Nations Convention against Corruption in St. Petersburg, Russia. For more on the opening of the Conference, see here and hereOver the next few days, FCPA Professor will be publishing various posts regarding the proceedings.  

This post is from Cassandra Myers.


Keeping the public informed and involved in the fight against corruption can be a valuable accountability tool. Nations have long struggled to find a mechanism to better incorporate public oversight without creating intrusion.

Open data may be the answer.

Yesterday at the United Nations Convention Against Corruption Special Event, “(How) Can Open Data Prevent and Fight Corruption?,” several panelists suggested that open data directly increases government accountability and correspondingly lowers incidences of corruption. Open data describes internal information that the government publishes to the public in an accessible and understandable manner.

While critics may argue that government information has been available for years through legal channels, the concept of open data focuses on the ability of a user to easily access and understand the material. A person could then compare and analyze figures to comprehend a data set’s implications. The information gives every citizen the ability to examine his or her government, and the transparency holds governments accountable, particularly regarding their expenses. The effort hopes to increase faith in all areas of government and deter individuals who may otherwise pursue corrupt practices. As Samuel De Jaegere, a UNODC Representative, described, “If you’re involved in corruption, you end up being a victim yourself.”

The panel served as an update on Resolution 5/4 from the 2013 Convention Against Corruption in Panama City, Panama, which urged countries to increase transparency by enhancing methods for the public to obtain information. Rita Karasartieva of the Societal Analysis Public Association described the open data interface implemented in the Kyrgyz Republic as a case study. The database is available over the internet and individuals can view particular government data in a simple interface by filtering for different categories—such as budget data and contract bid results.

The inclusivity was positive on a transparency front. However, as Karasartieva bluntly pointed out, “there were some problems.” When a country creates a data system, but does not teach individuals how to use or process that information in a meaningful way, public dissatisfaction can, and likely will, result. The daily update of information to the data system in one municipality caused a “bombard[ment]” of requests to the local Parliament, demanding the government reduce completely legitimate spending that people considered frivolous.

This response led panelists to largely agree on one caveat to open data systems: the unprocessed numbers published by the government are prone to confusion. Most of those accessing the public data did not have a coherent means of analyzing it to draw statistically significant conclusions. Rather, the public took issue with raw numbers, which can seem high for any government expense. Karasartieva explained that “It’s not enough to know how much has been spent on a school; you need to know what this money has changed at that school.” The problem limits the utility of the open data and potentially hurts the transparency effort by creating fervor over non-corrupt practices.

However, in describing many of the open data successes in Africa, De Jaegere promised that making data clear and accessible was only the beginning of the open data movement. Before the member countries focus on helping every individual analyze the given records, it is important to push more countries to establish publicly accessible data in general.

The presentation ended with descriptions of some of the large efforts of open data and the resulting accountability’s effect on everyday citizens’ lives. For example, when the United Kingdom began publishing heart surgery success rates by hospital, individuals could choose their care, and survival rates improved by 50%. Similarly, when Tanzania promoted inclusivity by creating a hotline for citizens when scarce water wells ran dry, the government could respond to provide more water quickly. Open data takes many forms, but the ultimate message is the same: the accountability of the government and the inclusivity of the people improved lives.

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