Opening up corporate data

In this next article we’re going back to the beginning and will look at why we’re branching out to corporate data.

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This year, OpenUp launched a project that interrogates transparency within the private sector, “Transparent Corporates” (TRACE). Our mission is to make corporate data freely and publicly available, and to empower everyone living in South Africa to hold the right people in the private sector accountable when they do things that affect everyday life. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of pieces that highlight some of the work we do, from looking at international shareholding to tax evasion, Trump to “paid Twitter” and much, much more. In this next article we’re going back to the beginning and will look at why we’re doing all of this.

If you’re reading this then you’re probably aware that we recently changed our name to OpenUp (it used to be Code for South Africa). This was in part due to a bit of confusion as to who we actually are, but more to do with confusion around our philosophy and core identity; internally, as well as externally. As someone smart once said, “Yes, we code, but we don’t code for a living. It is not our core offering, it is simply one of the tools we use to achieve our goals.”

The same can be said about the type of information (or data) we work with. For much of OpenUp’s life, we’ve worked with data that’s related to the public sector.y partnering with government and civil society, we’ve made municipal financial data available to even the most financially illiterate people, made Government Gazettes easily accessible and searchable, interrogated medicine prices and created a cult following around South Africa’s by-laws. While some of this information was difficult to find or access, it was out there, somewhere; we just had to dig and maneuver or way into getting it. So, while all of our work in the public sector is very much still at the core of what we do, we’ve recently branched out to the private sector and in doing so, launched our corporate data project, Transparent Corporates (TRACE).

As OpenUp has changed shape and form, so has our interest in a combination of private and public sector-related information.

TRACE was created with the vision of empowering citizens with the information they need to scrutinise corporate behaviour, by making said data freely and easily accessible. This doesn’t mean that we’re on the hunt for Panama Papers 2.0, but interrogating instances of possible company fraud is pretty much at the heart of what we do; uncovering a multi-billion rand case of corporate corruption is up there on the ‘list of things to do before we retire’, so feel free to let us know if you’re aware of any such activity, of course!

Just to reiterate the Constitution (Section 32): “Everyone has the right to access any information held by the state; and any information held by another person that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.” In other words, information that is held by the private sector is equally as relevant to our lives as information held by the government. We believe everyone should be able to access that information in order to increase transparency and encourage accountability; at the end of the day, this will only benefit various aspects of a person’s life.

What do we mean by corporate data?

Corporate data is information that empowers you with the knowledge and understanding you need to hold the private sector accountable. From community members wanting to know about land being developed near where they live, to journalists looking to investigate tender fraud, corporate data covers everything in between and more. In our research, we’re looking at a few different things:

Company structure (ownership, activity, key players); Relationship between the company and the state (tenders, ownership, conflicts of interest); Relationship between the company and its shareholders (shareholding structure, reported information, financials) and Relationship between the company and communities (environmental impact, tax evasion, social responsibility, fair business practises)

It’s also important to say that we’re working in conjunction with the private sector and not against it. As with everything else we do, we believe in partnership. We aren’t out to expose every single entity’s in-depth financials, or even pass judgement on the way companies operate; we are merely trying to answer questions that people are already asking and in doing so, are trying to make as much (relevant) data open as possible.

We’re still young, and in the teething stages of this project, but we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us on Twitter, @OpenUpSA, email [email protected], or join our discussion forum to talk to us about what data we should be collecting, how we can help you find the data you’re looking for, and to explore what we’ve already put out there.

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