Monthly Archives: July 2014

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

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!

Our Presidents’ Holiday Reading…

 Kellogg College Summer Ball

Some of our students enjoying the Kellogg College Summer Ball

I write at the end of another eventful and successful term. Term started with our new Facilities Manager Jason King joining us – he has had a busy term of events to oversee in addition to reviewing our existing facilities and looking at ways they might be enhanced. And this week we welcomed our new Domestic Bursar, Mel Parrott.

Our students held another hugely successful annual Ball (pictured above) – with the tickets sold out even further ahead of the event than last year. And yesterday Emma Moran was confirmed as the new MCR President, along with an impressively strong MCR team. I look forward to working with them over the next academic year to ensure we maintain and build upon the very positive momentum the previous MCR team, led by President George Taylor, achieved.

Our fellow Martin Ruhs is to be congratulated on winning the 2014 Best Book Award from the American Political Science Association’s Migration and Citizenship Section for The Price of Rights: Regulating International Migration (Princeton University Press, 2013). Martin held a joint book launch event at Kellogg with Tara Stubbs, where they introduced each other’s books, Tara’s being American Literature and Irish Culture, 1910-55: The politics of enchantment (Manchester University Press, 2013). So, my holiday reading is all arranged!

I hope that you have a good summer vacation, and I look forward to seeing you in College during Michaelmas Term.

Jonathan Michie.