What a year 2016 was for us. From the Panama Papers to publishing the world’s first beneficial ownership dataset, and adding tens of millions of new company records – it’s been an amazing year for OpenCorporates and our community..
Here’s what we achieved in 2016.
Building on the improvements we made in 2015, both to the workflow processes and data team, we made great strides in adding new jurisdictions to OpenCorporates, including data from the corporate registers of Nebraska, Wisconsin, Montana, Israel, Moldova, Malaysia, Guernsey, Texas, Japan, and Switzerland. These jurisdictions represent a lot of data points. Japan alone, with over 4.4 million companies, is our 5th largest company dataset. Together with improvements to existing jurisdictions, we smashed the 100 million company mark and in fact ended the year on over 115 million companies!
In addition to company registration data, we started adding data from charity registers, building on the already strong base of nonprofit information (from company registers) that is already included in OpenCorporates. Initially we’re pulling data from the charity registers for England & Wales, for Scotland, for Guernsey, and Oregon, but there are plans for further jurisdictions based on demand.. This was also the year the much awaited beneficial ownership data from UK was released, one that we had campaigned for alongside UK’s civil society. This data was added to OpenCorporates and would go on to become a benchmark for other countries thinking of implementing such registers. We also added UK gambling licences, and of course data from government gazettes, as part of the OpenGazettes project (see below)
New project: Open Gazettes
Gazette notices have been on our hitlist for a few years. Despite a 300-year-old legacy and being the public record for legal notices, government gazettes (also called official journals in some EU countries) are astonishingly poorly known outside, even by those who are affected by their contents. Thanks to funding from ODINE – an open data incubator funded by the European Union – this year we were able to launch OpenGazettes, opening up official gazette notices, including those from Luxembourg, France, United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland, Ireland.
Gazettes are particularly useful when researching or assessing private companies, particularly critical corporate events such as liquidation, dissolution, winding-up orders, annual general meetings or director actions. In short, gazettes are an untapped and critical resource, but in their native form are notoriously challenging to work with. They are unstructured, inconsistent and designed for a pre-digital age.
OpenGazettes aims to be a significant step towards changing that. OpenGazettes is therefore working to make gazette notices perform their true public purpose, by making them discoverable, searchable, browseable across multiple countries, and, where they relate to companies, connecting them to those companies.
As well as the jurisdictions above, we also added gazette notices from the Cayman Islands thanks to a ‘bot’ written by one of the most active members of our community, Ben Parker. It was not an easy bot to write and it’s one of the first open datasets about Cayman Islands which is significant because the corporate register remains closed and it’s a favourite destination for dirty cash, ranking highly on the Financial Secrecy Scale. You can read an overview of how gazettes differ across jurisdictions here and our learning from creating the gazettes data model here.
New project: OpenOwnership
This year, working with the world’s leading transparency and anti-corruption NGOs, we also announced OpenOwnership – the world’s first open global beneficial ownership register, with the pilot supported by the UK’s Department for International Development. OpenCorporates has been campaigning for and working on public beneficial ownership for many years, and believe that this project will help significantly move on the debate, removing many of the barriers to genuine beneficial ownership transparency.
Initially, OpenOwnership is focused on two areas:
- Building a so-called Minimum Viable Product of the global register, providing a platform to collect, collate and standardise public beneficial ownership data (such as from the UK’s PSC register), allowing it be easily searchable and connected across jurisdictions.
- Creating a data standard for beneficial ownership data – to provide a clear and consistent way of thinking about and exchanging this critical data
The steering group of OpenOwnership is headed by Web Foundation, Transparency International, Open Contracting Partnership, B Team, ONE Campaign, and of course OpenCorporates.
As part of the project, we co-organised a workshop to map beneficial ownership user needs of investigators, government, procurement & tax officers at the 4th International Open Data Conference in Madrid, Spain. We used human-centred design techniques to explore the need for global beneficial ownership data, used people in the room to reflect on their workflows and needs and sketch out what a platform could like if it had to be useful for them. The B Team has also created a Private Sector Advisory group with renowned multinational companies to feed into this process. This project was launched on 3rd April 2017 and you can see it in action here and read about its data model here.
Community & Advocacy
As part of the public benefit mission that is at OpenCorporates’ heart, we regularly contribute our expertise to civil society and governments, via consultations, special interest groups, formal and informal coalitions, and events. This year was no exception, and covered everything from beneficial ownership transparency and anti-money laundering legislation, to trusts transparency and property registers, extractives and organisational identifiers. We hosted workshops, spoke at events and also helped journalists conduct investigations.
Beneficial ownership was obviously a focus, not surprising given its importance in the both business integrity and the fight against corruption.. Our efforts in this area were extensive and wide-ranging, from responses to UK government consultations on beneficial owners of UK property owners and of potential government suppliers to involvement on transnational initiatives, including the EU’s Anti-Money-Laundering Directive and amendments, as well as the B20 Anti-Corruption Working Group..
Things were especially busy in the lead up to the Anti Corruption Summit, hosted by the UK government in London in May. However, things were about to get a lot more frantic, as just a few days before the Summit, the Panama Papers leak shook the world. It was the biggest data leak of our time, with 11.5 million files exposing offshore holdings of politicians, and key figures of the business world – shining a light on the hidden mechanisms that facilitate corruption and money laundering, and giving a graphic demonstration of just why beneficial transparency is so critical..
The documents contained information more than 214,000 offshore companies in relation to people in more than 200 countries and territories, including secrecy jurisdictions such as Nevada, Hong Kong and the British Virgin Islands. As the names poured out in the public space, local and international media, journalists, politicians and citizens were coming to OpenCorporates to search people and companies.
Everyone wanted to connect people to companies and companies to other companies. Our site got so many hits that it initially struggled to cope (and props to our Sysadmin Ben for dealing with the surges)! Visits to OpenCorporates.com from Argentina increased by 11,467% and in a 3-day-period 84,826 people searched for information on officers. We were inundated with requests from journalists from around the world who wanted to either confirm what was in Panama Papers or dig further. And when the Panama company register went down, OpenCorporates was the only public source for that information, further consolidating our standing as essential data infrastructure.
Much of the attention from the Panama Papers came organically, but we did also work directly with the ICIJ, to help them release a part of the 11.5 million files as open data, and connect company and director names to OpenCorporates.
Amongst the fallout from the Panama Papers revelations, there is one that stands our for us. This is about the story broken by El Pais based on information found on Panama Papers and OpenCorporates, which led to the resignation of José Manuel Soria, the Minister for Trade & Industry of Spain.
There is a delicious irony in Soria being brought down in part by open data (obviously the main credit goes to the journalists who tracked the story down), given that the Spanish Company Register is locked behind a paywall – you can’t even search to see if a company exists without giving your credit card, and they have been adamant that they will not open up the register, still less make it available as open data (not surprisingly they score zero on the Open Company Data Index).
Other investigations powered by OpenCorporates data
We strongly believe that free, and independent press is essential for a functioning democracy which is why we go don’t just provide data to journalists, but also try to help journalists in their investigations. This year we provided data to The Economist, Sunday Times, The Financial Times, OpenSecrets, ICIJ, Guardian, LaPresse Canada, Reuters, Bristol Cable, UQAM, De Correspondent, CNN, Evening Times, Private Eye, Le Monde, Los Tiempos, KyivPost, and El Diario amongst other independent journalists. We’ve already spoken about the investigation into Spanish Trade Minister Soria. Here a few more.
The Sunday Times created a database with OpenCorporates data to let public query names in Panama Papers. While they were putting this together, they found many anomalies which can be seen here.
Another powerful story was from La Presse Canada. By running the records of video lottery terminal licences through the corporate data, they found organized crime controls parts of the Québec’s video lottery terminal (VLT) industry, and that there was an disproportionate number of terminals in vulnerable communities (his became a viral story and led to the government committing to investigate the situation).
Through multiple investigations, Naked Capitalism showed how one New Zealand company was offering ‘offshore accounts’ services and advertising itself as a New Zealand bank despite not having a banking licence. Despite having red flags raised in connection to fraud in NZ, UK, Russia, the firm was able to continue business for several years in other jurisdictions through its vast network of subsidiaries and partners.
As in previous years, we also provided data to students and academics from Cass Business School, City University London, LSE, University of Southampton, University of Birmingham and others.
Continuing our strong partnerships with NGOs, this year we gave data to Global Witness, NRGI, Sunlight Foundation, Nesta, Transparency International, ContratsOuvertsMtl, Wikirate, Business and Human Rights group, TSC Report, OpenOil and many more, usually for research and investigation purposes.
One such example was that done by Thomson Reuters and Transparency International UK, which found that there is no data available on the real owners of more than half of the 44,022 land titles owned by overseas companies in London. This is concerning as nine out of ten of these properties were bought through secrecy jurisdictions, such as those found in the Panama Papers.
Alongside Global Witness and DataKind, we participated in a data dive in November to examine the UK’s beneficial owner data. Around 35 data scientists and journalists got together in London and were divided into four groups: insights, patterns, investigations, and network analysis. The weekend generated some really interesting results. Up until November 2016, only about 30 beneficial owners have been successfully granted the right to keep their name off the register due to concerns about their security. This number is a critical datapoint, undermining the argument given by countries such as Germany that releasing beneficial ownership information publicly is problematic for personal security reasons..
The data dive also found that 9,800 companies listed their ‘beneficial owner’ as a foreign company, with almost 3,000 companies with beneficial owners who listed addresses in secrecy jurisdictions. Initial findings suggest 19 senior politicians (known as politically exposed persons), 76 people from the U.S. sanctions list and 267 disqualified directors were listed as beneficial owners. And astoundingly, there were also 2,160 beneficial owners born in 2016. You can read the rest of the results here.
These findings were presented to the UK government, who have taken up many of the suggestions for improvements. We believe this is one of the most impactful partnerships we were a part of, showing a really innovative way for civil society, data users and governments to work together and create a feedback loop. These findings have been examined, presented and analysed subsequently in major conferences on fighting corruption, transparency and policy.
Throughout the year we also spoke at countless different events around the world, and our CEO, Chris Taggart, also sat on the Open Banking Working Group steering committee, served as a board director of the Global Legal Entity Foundation, and played an active role in the B20 Anti-Corruption Working Group.
Despite Panama Papers shining a light on the importance of company data, 2016 also showed there’s much more to do, and not just in the area of beneficial ownership. In October, Spain hosted the International Open Data Conference, and yet despite revelations in Panama Papers and campaigning from civil society — the Spanish company register remains closed. The open data portal lacks any substantive open data sets and has PDFs (the antithesis of open data). OpenCorporates, Web Foundation, Transparency International with many Spanish civil society groups including Civio and Info Access launched an open letter to ask Spain to do more. No official response has been received to this day despite the letter being hand-delivered twice.
Of course, we were featured in loads of places in the media, but a few notable ones were TechWorld (19 innovative UK companies using open data 2016: UK open data businesses),Guardian (9 ways to reduce corruption), Financial Times (Connect the corporate dots to see true transparency), Guardian (Fears that EU measures against financial crime will be weakened), and Quartz (Here is everything Donald Trump has disclosed about his finances, digitized for your perusal).
FlashHacks & resources created by users
This year we continued with FlashHacks, with a stronger focus on networking mapping with 12 FlashHacks, 4 data dives and supporting 4 hackathons with free API access. Our volunteers mapped the corporate connections of Donald Trump and his family, as well as those of Hillary Clinton, European politicians and the Arcadia group.
We also hosted workshops and spoke at International Open Data Conference (IODC), International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC), Open Government Partnership Summit and other data conferences.
Our community of bot writers, journalists and analysts wrote many resources that might be of use to you. Sam from Global Witness wrote about how they used the OpenCorporates API for its investigation into the Myanmar jade industry (You may also remember the related white paper from last year). Another user wrote a tutorial in french on how to use OpenCorporates and OpenRefine, and Max Harlowe from Journocoders wrote this one from on how to use our API.
There are many such unsung heroes in the open data movement and in our community, but one that really deserves mention here is Waldo Jaquith, who helped free up Virginia’s corporate register. We got him to spill the beans on how it happened, which you can read here.
Changes and challenges
As you can tell, it’s been a pretty intense year; a good one, but not without its challenges (for example dealing with the fallout from the Panama Papers). We moved into bigger offices within Level39, in Canary Wharf, and we had some significant moves in the team, due both to expansion and saying goodbye to some long-standing team members.
After 3 years at OpenCorporates, our first CTO (and in fact first employee) Seb Bacon, tleft to start a new adventure as Technical Director at the rather wonderful Evidence Based Medicine Data Lab. He was instrumental in growing OpenCorporates, as was Peter Inglesby, our friend and coworker who left to become a full-time father.
With Seb’s help, we were fortunate enough to persuade Ben Symonds to run lead the OpenCorporates considerable tech side (read more from how he’s handling that here), and grow the tech team into a world-beating unit..
We also welcomed Szymon Rybicki, Account Director; Alex Skene, Head of Data; Alex Angelov, Data Analyst; and Zosia Sztykowski, Project lead for OpenOwnership.
With the addition of these new colleagues, we’re stronger than ever to make more company data available for the world.
Bring on 2017.