Interview: Emma Prest on the value of transparent company data for investigations

Emma Prest is the Chief Technology Officer at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and recently joined OpenCorporates as a trustee. We sat down with Emma to hear about her work at the intersection of data, strategy and investigations. She explains why she thinks transparent company data is important – and why she thinks the freshness, quality and open nature of our data means that: “OpenCorporates provides access to company data in a way that no one else does”. 

Tell us about your professional background and the work you do at the OCCRP

In my role at the OCCRP, I run the data, technology and research teams. We support a network of investigative journalists doing cross-border investigations to follow money across various jurisdictions. This means they need to access a lot of different data, but also get expertise on what that data means in different contexts. 

We provide products and services to enable this network of journalists to do their job. We run a huge investigative data platform called Aleph which contains over two billion entities. As part of this, we use a lot of OpenCorporates data and combine that with information from leaks and all kinds of structured and unstructured data.

I’ve been working in the technology and accountability space for a decade and a half, predominantly where NGOs and technologies overlap. I’ve worked on freedom of information trying to access information about  government activities. I worked on projects related to digital rights and privacy. Then I was on the technology side, where I worked for DataKind UK as an Executive Director, using data science for social good.

What drew you to join OpenCorporates as a trustee?

I have known about OpenCorporates and worked with the data for a long time and I’ve always been impressed. OpenCorporates provides a spine of information that is needed to do investigative and accountability work. It does this at a scale which is incredibly useful. 

Three main things drew me to OpenCorporates:

  • Mission
    OpenCorporates’ mission to make company data open to all aligns well with me and what I think the world needs.
  • Quality & scale of data
    OpenCorporates offers data at scale but with good quality. I was already a fan of the product but it has become even more usable and I was excited about the idea of getting more involved.
  • Disruptive ambitions
    OpenCorporates’ ambition is to disrupt the company data landscape so that everybody, including investigators, benefit from transparent data. As part of this, the company is at a point where it is growing – so it will be interesting to help them wrestle with this scale-up challenge.

How does your professional background inform how you see the value of company data in the world?

People using company data for due diligence can often take the information at face value. But most of the work that we do at the OCCRP is focused on tracking down people and companies on the assumption that they are trying to hide. So when we search company data, we are not expecting to find a smoking gun but a breadcrumb. An address in a company record might connect back to a lawyer, who connects to another company. This helps us to make sense of what is happening.

Why is it important that company data is made openly available for all to access?

We need to understand the full picture of what certain people and companies are up to, and to do that we need information on companies as data. It is essential that information about companies is made openly available because these companies play a large role in our societies, plus these days it is far too easy for one to hide information about company ownership ‘offshore’. We need to crack down on that and open company data is critical to this.

Making company data open and accessible is particularly important right now because it’s becoming easier to hide money. There are regimes in the world that are acting anti-democratically and open data is not high on their agendas.

As a technology leader, what characteristics do you look for when assessing or procuring an external data source? What does ‘good’ look like?

At the OCCRP we procure a broad array of data to help us track people and companies, including business and land registries, court archives, financial records, and cross-reference that with data leaks. 

We look for the following attributes:

  • Jurisdictions
    We look at which jurisdictions are covered by a data source because some are really difficult to get information about.

  • Bulk data
    We are looking at networks so we don’t need individual records on companies but we want complete datasets in bulk, which we can connect and cross-reference.

  • Technology and structure
    Some databases are searchable, but not in ways that are useful. For example, the Luxembourg company registry can only be searched by a company’s number, not their name – so you had to already know who you’re looking for.

  • Changes
    We are interested in how information on a company has changed over time. If someone stopped being a director at a certain point in time, that might matter to an investigator.

What impact do you think it would have on the world if a resource like OpenCorporates didn’t exist?

OpenCorporates provides many journalists and NGOs with access to company data in a way that no one else does – there isn’t an equivalent or an alternative. So if it didn’t exist, this would be a genuine problem for a whole bunch of teams doing investigative or accountability work. The information wouldn’t be found, leads wouldn’t be found and people and companies just wouldn’t be investigated in the same way. 

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