“Follow the pandemic money” | 6 reflections from NICAR 2021

Governments around the world have allocated trillions of dollars to help companies and individuals survive the economic effects of Covid-19. 

The pace and scale this funding has been provided in has left journalists, civil society and enforcement agencies struggling to catch up – as they attempt to investigate potential instances of fraud and other malfeasant activity among those who received such funding.

Company data has proven however to be a vital enabler for these investigations.

Rebecca Lee, our Chief Impact Officer, recently joined a panel discussion at the NICAR 2021 conference to share how OpenCorporates’ company data is already helping aid reporters to investigate covid-relief funding. She was joined by investigative reporters from The Washington Post, NBC News and NPR for a session on how to “Follow the pandemic money”.

So if you’re looking to leverage data for investigations, you may find Rebecca’s 6 reflections from the discussion useful:

Data is already out there

Some of the data needed to spot potential red flags in Covid-19 relief funding is already in the public domain. For instance: the Small Business Association (SBA) in the US and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) in the UK have released datasets listing some of the companies that received financial support. 

The data needed to verify which businesses in lists like these correspond to which legal entities is openly available via our database.

Start small: you don’t need to be a technical expert

It’s possible to leverage datasets such as these to investigate Covid-relief funding without needing to be a technical expert.

If in doubt, investigations can start small. 

As an example, this can start by doing something as simple as comparing the incorporation dates of companies that received funding. From this, one can see whether any appear not to have been eligible, where they may have been incorporated after a particular date set by the relief funding provider.

Rebecca also delivered a workshop on how you don’t need to be a technical expert to use our API. She illustrated how anyone can start by using an internet browser, Microsoft Excel or an open source tool called OpenRefine to get data back in a structured form or to match a dataset that you have with the OpenCorporates database.

Data is making an impact

If the above sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. Recent investigations into Covid-relief funding conducted by a range of organisations were powered by OpenCorporates’ data. 

When the SBA published data on businesses that had been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) last year, the Anti-Corruption Data Collective and the Miami Herald used our API to compare the names and incorporation dates of these entities against the OpenCorporates database. 

They found that dozens of companies were incorporated after 15th February 2020 and should therefore have been ineligible for the loan under the SBA’s terms. Bloomberg also carried out a similar investigation using OpenCorporates’ data.

Start with a question or a hypothesis

Datasets can be overwhelmingly large and it can be hard to know where to start. The first step should be to identify a question you want to ask or a hypothesis you want to test. 

In the example mentioned above, one of the Anti-Corruption Data Collective’s hypotheses was simply that some of the companies that received funding might not have met the eligibility criteria. 

From there, you can identify the datasets you need to answer that question and use APIs and filters to drill down to the data you need to test the hypothesis.

Combine datasets for deeper insights

The Anti-Corruption Data Collective’s investigation shows the value of combining two separate datasets to reveal anomalies or insights. The same process can be applied to other datasets for any kind of investigation – whether it’s news data, legal enforcements or anything else you can think of. But investigators should consider the potential accuracy and provenance of each dataset when they are using it. They should also take the right steps to investigate and try to verify potential results, as you would do in any normal investigation.

Apply these 5 steps to any investigation

The principles above can be applied to any dataset or investigation. Whatever the focus of your investigation, the chances are that legal entities will be involved in some way. OpenCorporates provides the reference set for the legal entities that exist in the jurisdictions we currently cover, and so is a foundational dataset for many investigations.

You may also be interested in…

  • Accessing our data at scale
    Find out more about our API & Bulk Data.

  • Public benefit project?
    Are you an investigative reporter or similar professional working for the public benefit? We can provide access to our data at scale for free for public benefit use cases.
    Enquire here

  • Case study
    Read about how the Anti-Corruption Data Collective used our data to investigate the US government’s Paycheck Protection Program.
    Read case study

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