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Reading invisible ink — road testing how to open data to tackle corruption in Mexico

By Ania Calderon

Over the last decade governments have strived to improve the lives of citizens by publishing data in an open format and encouraging its use. The results of this work have been documented through various case studies (see here and here). However, often the impact of opening up data has fallen short of expectations.

There’s a growing debate in the open data community about how to address this “impact gap”. As part of this discussion, the Charter teamed up with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a donor collaborative, to explore how data can lead to accountability. In a paper published in June this year we set out our initial ideas on the value chain of data. Although we recognise that this process is rarely as linear as the diagram below suggests, we think it’s helpful to think about the flow from data generation to use to action and reaction.

A chart outlining the pathway through which data can lead to accountability.

As well as looking at the theory behind how to solve the “impact gap”, we are planning to test our assumptions in practice. The Charter has published a series of Open Up Guides, which explore how the use of key datasets can address specific sector problems. To date Guides have been released on anti-corruption and agriculture, and consultation is open on climate change. We’re planning to road-test the anti-corruption Guide in Mexico over the next few months.

Road-testing the Anticorruption Open Up Guide

Opening up government-held data can help tackle corruption as clandestine networks often leave traces in government-held databases, such as company registers, land title deeds, asset disclosures, and other official records.

Like Amos Tversky once raised in a talk to historians, we want to see if the handwriting for how to tackle corruption may have been on the wall all along. The question these Guides raise is: can open data render the ink visible?

The Guide includes advice for governments on releasing data and supporting its use in order to help the prevention, detection and prosecution of corruption. It includes 30 key datasets governments should open, and guidance on how to do this in the most effective way. The Charter will be testing the assumptions behind this guide with the Government of Mexico and international and local partners from civil society most influential in mitigating corruption, to check its relevance to the real world.

We will explore the following five key assumptions underpinning the guide, they are:

  • That the datasets in the guide can be collected and produced by government .
  • That the datasets can be shared by government in the ways the guide advises .
  • That processing the datasets can produce insights helpful for preventing, exposing or investigating corruption .
  • That there are anti-corruption actors who can process the data and take action based on the insights .
  • That this action reduces corruption .

In addition, the publication of data will only make a difference if its use helps to shift the incentives and political dynamics which drive, or permit, corruption (see the emerging agenda on doing anti-corruption differently — here and here).

We will test a subset of the 30 datasets listed in the Open Up Guide using global and national anti-corruption commitments to help us focus down on the most promising areas (e.g. the process to get a building permit, or the government budgeting process). Ideally we want to identify a corruption-related issue where:

We hope to get some practical insights into how governments can open up data to try and solve some of the problems that they’re facing. However, this will only work if potential data users are involved from the very beginning of the process, which is why we’ve partnered with civil society groups such as Transparencia Mexicana and Cívica Digital, and we will engage with the Civic Participation Committee of the National Anticorruption System. Over the coming months we’ll be reporting back on our findings.

You can read the full methodology for this road-testing here.

The thinking behind this post and the Open Up Guide road-testing methodology has evolved thanks to feedback from Alan Hudson, Michael Jarvis, Eduardo Bohorquez, Nicole Anand, Julia Keseru, and many others participating in our recent Moving Beyond the Hype video conversation.



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