It was another momentous year for OpenCorporates. Over the course of 2017 we laid the foundations to secure our public mission for the long term, advanced our relentless campaigns, and of course continued the complex work of opening and cleaning up company data. We’ve also grown in size, welcoming a whole load of newbies (and saying a fond goodbye to a couple of long-standing team members).
First, we want a moment to say, ‘Thanks!’ OpenCorporates exists to allow journalists, NGOs and others to use our data for good, and in return the community has been invaluable – you’ve joined our campaigns, developed connections with government, and provided vital local expertise.
So, to celebrate our collective achievements, and ring in another year of liberating company data, here’s what we achieved in 2017!
A Corporate Structure for the Public Benefit
OpenCorporates has grown a long way from the plucky start-up of 7 years ago. We’re rapidly becoming essential infrastructure, and the go-to experts about company data, but with increased power comes increased responsibility… and that means more than banal platitudes about connecting the world, or not doing evil.
To protect our values for the long term – and in particular to ensure that OpenCorporates remains independent, can’t be sold, or deviate from our public-benefit mission – we’ve been working incredibly hard to create a new corporate structure to do just that. This is not a trivial piece of work – involving tackling some tricky legal and governance issues – nor is it cheap. But it is important.
It’s also important to us that this work provides a model for other socially minded businesses that provide essential services in the modern world. Too often the goal seems to be just how many hundreds of millions you can get from selling to Google, Facebook or other behemoth – increasing their power, and further unbalancing society and competition.
We think there needs to be a better way, and believe there are plenty of people out there who would rather create something of lasting value to society, and get a reasonable return, than be another bored, super-rich person who’s helped increase the power of the global tech companies. So the new structure will cap the return the founders can get, prevent them transferring control to a third party, and over time transfer their voting and economic interests to a trust set up to defend the public interests.
It’s worth mentioning that this restructure will also allow OpenCorporates to accept ‘’patient’ investment (investment predicated on long-term social and financial returns, rather than some large exit), which will in turn allow it to grow more quickly, increasing its impact.
Interestingly, the move has been well received not just by civil society but also by our commercial partners, who recognise the need for a data supplier that focuses on quality, has a long-term mission and – crucially – will not be bought by a competitor. We hope to finish the process in Q1 of this year, and we’ll be writing more posts to join the existing ones.
More Datasets, More Features
We wrapped up 2017 with over 138 million companies in 125 jurisdictions, adding 23 million companies, while constantly improving freshness, quality and depth. We undertook the detailed work of collecting, analysing and ingesting companies from jurisdictions as diverse as France (our second largest database behind the UK, with 10 million companies), Ukraine (1.5 million companies), Bolivia (170,000 companies), Greece (1.35 million companies), Belarus (1.3 million companies), and Curacao (130,000 companies).
We increased the number of charity registers we’re ingesting, to include the Netherlands and Northern Ireland (with more planned), and made improvements to our work on government gazettes.
We also made significant improvements to our search for directors and officers, adding extra filtering and allowing querying not just by name but also address – a critical feature for investigations, whether by law enforcement, journalists, or NGOs
Another area where we made significant strides was in trademarks (as part of the EU ChainReact project). First, we added trademarks from the US Patents and Trademarks Office to OpenCorporates, adding to our existing collection from The World Intellectual Property Organisation, which means we now have over 5.4 million trademarks in total. We also reconciled these to companies, and more than that, added the ability to search for company by trademarks held by that company – effectively allowing you to search companies by their brands.
And finally, we’ve been doing complex groundwork on corporate events, to ensure cross border, cross-lingual data about key events in the life cycle of a company (for example, incorporation, dissolution, changes in structure, liquidation, mergers, winding up orders, annual general meetings and director action) is made more easily accessible. We’re very excited to bring you more news on this in the oncoming year.
Fighting for Open
Right from the beginning, OpenCorporates has been campaigning for company data to be made freely available for all as open data that can be analysed, interrogated, and accessed when and how it’s needed. Bit by bit, the message is getting through, and with more and more jurisdictions opening up their registers. This year saw the opening up of French, Ukrainian and Israeli company data.
We can’t claim all the credit for this – we work with many civil society organisations and good people inside government who are pushing for open data. We support them with arguments and evidence and provide expertise, such as this UK government consultation on public beneficial ownership data for overseas entities owning property and government procurement contracts, or the US’s General Services Administration’s Request for Information on moving away from the curse of proprietary DUNS numbers.
There were also developments on the legal front. In March, the European Court of Justice ruled that company data is not subject to the right to be forgotten. The judgement recognizes something we have consistently argued: that access to company information, including dissolved companies, is essential for healthy democracies and businesses. Read our blog for more background on the ruling, and why it matters.
In April, we decided to take the Quebec company register to court to ensure that data about Quebec companies remains available to all users, particularly journalists and NGOs.
The campaign was backed by civil society, signing a letter of support for OpenCorporates. A week later, CBC Radio filed an additional suit against the Quebec register for violating freedom of the press by refusing to allow searches by officer name (something OpenCorporates allows). The Quebec register’s actions show that while opening company data moved up the agenda in 2017, there’s still plenty of vested interest in keeping company data closed. We’re sure there’ll be developments in 2018, and we’ll keep you updated as the case unfolds.
Knowing who really owns and controls companies – more commonly known as beneficial ownership –is not just a fundamental requirement for tackling the criminal and anti-social use of companies, it’s also essential for good business. If you don’t know who you’re working for and with, then you are exposing yourself to both legal and reputational risk.
In 2017, the launch of OpenOwnership was a significant step forward, creating an open, global beneficial register. On first anniversary of the Panama Papers, and with the support of the UK’s Department for International Development, the OpenOwnership platform launched as a Minimum Viable Product, with for over 1.9m companies in 26 jurisdictions. Alongside playing a vital role driving the momentum for the project, OpenCorporates provided essential tech implementation and expertise to get it off the ground. To see a walkthrough of the register, and find out more about beneficial ownership, you can watch the launch event, and read our reading list.
OpenOwnership has already made significant progress, including creating a global data standard for beneficial ownership, and both, Ukraine and Ghana agreeing to collect public beneficial ownership that would integrate with it. To round off the year, in December the EU announced revisions to the 4th Anti Money Laundering Directive, allowing public (although sadly not yet open data) access to European beneficial ownership registers.
The campaign for open beneficial ownership is still in its infancy, and there’s plenty more work to be done to bring this data into the light and make an impact with it. But the success of OpenOwnership shows the power of civil society pulling together to demand greater corporate transparency, and we look forward to seeing OpenOwnership mature in 2018.
OpenCorporates is a core tool for investigators of all sorts – from journalists and NGOs, to law enforcement and anti-corruption investigators, but because the website is open to use, (without even requiring registration), we don’t always know who’s using it until we bump into them and they tell us. This also means that many don’t realise some of the less obvious power uses of the website, or API.
In 2017 we made a small but significant step to bridging this gap through a number of resources. We’ve started hosting training workshops, launched our investigators’ newsletter with streamlined tip and tricks, and published the first draft of the investigator’s handbook. The handbook has tips and tricks for finding leads, examples of investigations, helpful blog posts, and tutorials. It’s also living document, so if you have any suggestions, get in touch.
We’ve already presented workshops at Data Journalism UK, and Open Data Manchester, the World Bank in Washington DC, and to UK law enforcement agencies, with more planned for the new year. If you’d like us to host a workshop at your organisation, contact us!
Over the course of the year OpenCorporates has been used to break a number of investigations, including:
- Uncovering the Truth Using Comprehensive Data Analysis on Overseas Company
- Investment in the London Property Market [Thomson Reuters / Transparency International]
- Digging into mandatory disclosure data: highlights from ONE’s datadive with
- DataKind [ONE foundation / DataKind]
- Narco-a-Lago: Money Laundering at the Trump Ocean Club, Panama [Global Witness]
- One London address, 4,300 Chinese companies [Private Eye]
- The Spanish Connections of Jeroen Piqueur [De Tijd]
- Ministro Alemán vinculado a millonaria licitación [La Estrella]
- Who Owns Birmingham? [DataUnlocked]
If you’ve used our data for investigative journalism, remember OpenCorporates is entirely free to use – all we require is attribution.
If we haven’t included your story on the list above let us know!
Despite the progress we’ve made in the past year, there’s still a long way to go. Today, more than ever, it’s critical that information about companies is available to all – to ensure a free and fair society, to provide a good business environment, and of course to provide a hostile environment for the use of companies for fraud, corruption, organised crime, money laundering and tax evasion.
As we move into 2018, OpenCorporates looks forward to continuing our essential work improving corporate transparency and opening up company registers. To keep up to speed, sign up to our newsletter!
Photo by Pawel Nolbert via Unsplash