Meet our trustees: Mike Olson

The OpenCorporates Trust is the entity that guarantees OpenCorporates’ public-benefit mission and ensures we always operate to open up company data for the public good.

One of our trustees is Mike Olson (@mikeolson), who co-founded Cloudera. He served as its CEO until 2013, and its chief strategy officer (CSO) until June 2019. He was also heavily involved in setting up the Cloudera Foundation, and was chair of the board of DataKind, which encourages the use of data science to solve humanitarian challenges.

In this Q&A, Mike explains why he supports OpenCorporates as a trustee and how his previous commercial experience informs his view of the impact of open company data and OpenCorporates.

Video: Hear Mike explain why he supports OpenCorporates at our fundraising event last year, whilst he was still serving as Cloudera’s CSO and board chair.

Tell us about your background?

I am a computer programmer by training and inclination. I did my undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of California, Berkeley and I was a key early contributor to an open source database project that was created there. 

I left academia to join a company which commercialised this project, which led to a career in the database industry. I later transitioned to more customer-facing and sales roles in software development. 

Eventually, I became the CEO of two companies in a row and sold a company to Oracle in 2006. I stayed for two years and when I left I had the idea for what became Cloudera, and co-founded the company in 2008.

How does this background inform your role as an OpenCorporates trustee?

When I was at Cloudera, the core industry shifts we wanted to participate in were: the use of way more data than had ever been available before, and powerful new ways of analysing that data – which would let customers do things they simply couldn’t do before. 

There are lots of examples of how big data has transformed industry. For example in financial services, anti-fraud and anti-money laundering work benefits from the use of data at scale and graph-based analysis. In healthcare, we can use historical patient data and machine learning techniques to diagnose and predict disease.

That got me interested in the use of large datasets and big data problems in general. Open data on companies is getting collected at taxpayers’ expense, so OpenCorporates’ role is putting it to work for the benefit of society by collecting data from local registries and building a global connected database.

Why do you support OpenCorporates?

There is no question that the public benefits when regulatory investigators in the financial industry or journalists investigating government officials can find out the answers to questions such as:

  • Who owns what companies? 
  • Who are the directors of those companies? 
  • What are the relationships among those directors worldwide? 
  • What other companies are they involved in? 
  • What other people are they affiliated with? 

Being able to explore that data in the interactive way that OpenCorporates allows has already helped journalists and regulators find instances of illicit activity, as well as supporting organisations to expose or take regulatory action against them. 

I love that OpenCorporates has found ways to help root out corruption and discover kleptocracy while at the same time building a viable business and revenue stream based on the commercial use of that data.

What is the commercial potential of OpenCorporates?

Let’s look at regulated entities, such as financial institutions, to illustrate this. They are required by regulators who oversee them to know their customers. When they help a company with a bond issue or stock sale, they are required to understand who they are dealing with, and the OpenCorporates database is a proven tool to support that activity. 

I love that OpenCorporates is able to approach regulated entities that need to conduct this kind of due diligence, give them a high-quality and easy-to-use global dataset, make a decent living doing it, and use the revenue to underwrite its public benefit mission.

What does a future without OpenCorporates look like?

In a world without OpenCorporates, a big risk would be a failure to understand legal and company relationships across borders. Many of the registries we collect data from are very local. In the US they are state-wide, in Europe they are national. This means that company activity in registers in Holland or Delaware would not otherwise be recognisable as related unless someone collected and aggregated the data themselves. 

This is exactly the mission OpenCorporates has set for itself. Collecting this data and making it usable is time-consuming, expensive and requires real expertise, which OpenCorporates has spent the last few years building.

How do we ensure access to company data is open for all?

That is one of the reasons OpenCorporates exists. 

It will require a lobbying effort. We must speak to government officials in all jurisdictions and convey to them why this data, which was collected at taxpayer expense, must be made available for taxpayer benefit at no additional cost. 

In addition to this lobbying effort, we may have to litigate in order to get the access to data that we need. OpenCorporates takes on that risk and has had recent successes.

I think it is a really important concept that when taxpayers pay for the collection or production of data, that it really should be available for the benefit of society. Yet this is sort of a new idea for a lot of folks not steeped in the law or data ethics.

Are you noticing any trends which will make OpenCorporates’ work more important?

I think it is going to get easier and easier to create companies. That will mean the OpenCorporates database needs to be increasingly agile. We are going to have to respond to the creation of businesses not just on a daily or weekly basis, but on an hourly basis or even once a minute. 

This explosion of company creation will mean OpenCorporates needs to make faster data connections and better integrations with company registries. The ease of creating new companies on demand will be a powerful tool for crooks to hide their tracks better by creating more complicated structures. 

So the work OpenCorporates does will need to become more sophisticated. We may need to extend relationship graphs and further enable our users to automate the exploratory work that investigators do to highlight places where there may be trouble.

Finally, tell us a bit more about you?

I have lived in Berkeley, California since 1979. I came out for undergraduate school and never left! I dropped out of college for a while and travelled the world, but found my way back there. Since retiring from my operating role at Cloudera in the summer of last year, I sit on a few non-profit boards including the Cloudera Foundation. 

Separately, I am working on projects that interest me. I am doing a lot of work on the climate crisis right now. I think it is the most important problem of our age and it is also really interesting. I am working on it with a lot of smart, exciting people doing cool work.

Want to know more?

Find out more about the OpenCorporates Trust.

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