We’ve been talking about the Panama Papers at the Open Data Institute. This blog came from discussions with some of the lovely team there.

This part looks at the Panama Papers through the lens of data infrastructure, the second part looks at it through the lens of personal data and privacy.

The recent leak of records from Mossack Fonseca, a tax firm specialising in offshore transactions (also known as “the Panama Papers”) has put the issue of how much people and corporations pay in tax on the front pages of our newspapers. The Prime Minister of Iceland has resigned. The Chinese government has censored online discussion. There have been reactions and investigations across the world.

The story is also about data. The Panama Papers are not open data. They contain leaked, or hacked, information some of which has been placed in the public domain, but it is clearly an important story and one where data plays a vital role.

People want everyone to pay what we think is a fair amount of tax. People want to be represented by politicians that they trust. People are angry because they think that global tax avoidance is leading to people not paying fair amounts of tax and they are losing trust in their politicians because they feel politicians are benefiting from global tax avoidance rather than trying to stop it.

Societies across the world want their governments and politicians to be more open, openness can help create trust. Open data’s origins are closely related to the open government movement. Amongst many other things the open parts of our data infrastructure underpin transparency and accountability and can help reduce corruption.

Open data, open government and infrastructure to reduce corruption

Open data has been shown to improve our governments in many ways. Last year open data for election results helped improve confidence in the fairness of Burkina Faso’s election. This year people are experimenting with improvements to the way that the UK publishes election results.

Organisations like Spend Network (*) and tools like 18F’s Calc bring together contracting and procurement data, making it simple for anyone to search and use. Journalists and citizens can look for corruption and challenge their governments on how they are spending data whilst different parts of government can make better decisions and check they are being charged similar sums to their peers. Publishing the spend increases transparency. Using the data improves accountability and efficiency.

Open Corporates (*) collect together data published by governments and corporations across the world to help us understand how corporations, such as Goldman Sachs, are structured. On their site any of us can search for corporations where Mossack Fonseca are an officer. Linking together the data in the Panama Papers with data from Open Corporates and information on company and property ownership (unfortunately both of which are information that can be challenging to find and use in even countries that are the most enthusiastic endorsers of open government…) allowed journalists to start to discover the real owners of some of the property owned by companies based offshore.

In countries, like the UK, where the price of property is a major political issue the Panama Papers should help us all understand the benefits of a beneficial ownership register and start making steps towards its implementation at both national and global levels. This will not be simple. Company structures can be designed to obscure ownership. People will need to match up and link data from many jurisdictions. But progress can be made.

Journalists, citizens and governments have used other lists to analyse the Panama Papers. Wired reported that the German newspaper Sudeutsche Zeitung used lists of known criminals, politicians and famous athletes. Various government’s financial sanctions list will have provided another way to analyse the data.

Lists of politicians, criminals, people under sanctions, property ownership and beneficial ownership are not ‘just datasets’. When used to analyse leaks of data like the Panama Papers these lists become part of a global data infrastructure for anti-corruption. The UK, and its overseas dependencies, will be important contributors to this infrastructure.

Making this infrastructure as open and reliable as possible will increase how many people can use the data. This will improve every country’s efforts to combat tax avoidance and other forms of corruption.

Transparency alone will not solve the problems caused by global tax avoidance but it is a step in the right direction.

The Panama Papers can lead to better data infrastructure for anti-corruption

The Panama Papers highlight the urgent need to make progress on getting people and organisations to pay a fair amount of tax.

The next steps in building a more reliable and open data infrastructure for anti-corruption should include a global register of beneficial ownership. It will improve our efforts to combat tax avoidance and other forms of corruption.

In the next part I’ll touch on some of the personal data and privacy issues raised by the Panama Papers and how I hope it leads to a wider and more informed debate about the role of data in our society.

(*) a former ODI startup