Following the Money in Latin America: Reflections from Condatos

Jorge Florez
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September 15, 2017

Jorge Florez, Global Integrity | @j_florezh
Katherine Wikrent, Open Contracting Partnership | @opencontracting | @K_Wikrent
Eduard Martín-Borregón, PODER | @ProjectPODER | @emartinborregon

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This blog also appears on Open Contracting Partnership

A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity to share with innovators in the use of open data for development in Latin America at Abrelatam/Condatos 17 in San José, Costa Rica (Many thanks to our “Tico” hosts for the great job at organizing the event!). Abrelatam/Condatos has always been a great space for discussing and reflecting on the use of open data for development and this year wasn’t the exception. The agenda was packed with key themes: open democracy and co-creation; data journalism; gender; violence and repression; natural resources; human rights; and much more! These conversations showed the maturity of the Latin American open data community and how it’s increasingly showing the value of open data to bolster efforts to understand and solve problems affecting people’s lives, and showing how to bring this idea into practice.

A hot topic on the agenda was open data about the use of public resources and the use of that data to strengthen citizen engagement and fighting corruption. There were many spaces – including a Follow the Money Happy Hour – to get to know initiatives on open contracting, budgets, extractive industries, data visualization and communication, feedback loops, user’s needs, and journalism. The ideas and experiences shared merit lots of conversation and reflection, in this blog post we want to focus on the main ideas that came up during the session we lead, “entangled”, and some questions we would like to see being discussed further in the community.

“Entangled” was a session organized by the Open Contracting Partnership and Global Integrity to share innovative experiences about opening, linking, and using open data to follow the money. The experiences presented contributed in different ways to the conversation:

  • Daniel Pineda from CoST Honduras shared the technical and political challenges faced in opening data about infrastructure projects and how the use of standards (Open Contracting Data Standard – OCDS – and CoST Infrastructure Data Standard) has facilitated the process of opening data and enabled the identification of red flags for corruption by civil society and government.
  • Irasema Guzman from the Mexican Ministry of Finance presented the progress in implementing and linking international standards (OCDS, Open Fiscal Data Package, and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), and in exploring new ways to communicate this data, enable people to understand it, and engaging citizens in the monitoring of infrastructure projects.
  • Eduard Martín-Borregón, from Proyecto en Organización, Desarrollo, Educación e Investigación (PODER), showed the projects QuiénEsQuién.Wiki, Contratistas del poder y and reflected on the role of civil society in opening and improving the quality of open data. He also shared his experience in standardizing procurement data in Mexico, linking this data with data on beneficial ownership, and using this to develop tools for oversight and to bolster data journalism against corruption.
  • Ana Carolina Alpírez and Isaías Morales, from Ojo con Mi Pisto, shared their work accessing and opening data on public procurement in Guatemala and promoting the use of that data for citizen led journalism. Their experience showed the value of connecting procurement data with a deep understanding of local realities in order to understand how local networks manipulate the use of public resources and how to better trigger citizen action.   

These experiences kick-started a rich conversation among the nearly 50 participants in the session, the main ideas discussed can be classified into three themes: opening key data that is needed to follow the money,  data quality and standardization, and the use of this data to fight against corruption and address local problems.

The conversation around opening key data had two strands. Participants highlighted the challenges with getting access to the information, the relevance of requests for access to information to get the data, to validate the data, and to obtain additional information that is needed to carry out in-depth analysis and to communication. This led to a discussion about the value of transparency requirements in law (from Access to Information laws to requirements to open particular data sets and the information they need to contain), the importance of promoting collaboration in around locally prioritized issues, and, even further, the definition of requirements for the publication of data about public resources from actors beyond the executive, including other branches of government, extractive industries, public enterprises, and public private partnerships.      

The conversation about data quality and standardization explored some of the causes of problems and potential ways to address them. There was mention of political and technical causes, and how the usually are interrelated. Technical causes, from the data being produced in response to government needs, to how the lack of public funding and understanding about the value of openness perpetuates the incidence of human error and the publication of data in ways that are not systematic and do not generate public value. The political causes included pressures within government due to institutional inertia and the protection of interests that benefit from corruption and mismanagement of resources. Some alternatives discussed to tackle these problems include: the use of international standards and commitments by countries to implement them; the deployment of trainings about the relevance of openness and how it can contribute to producing public value; the streamlining of data gathering to prevent human error (although it has implications in terms of time and costs for implementing them); and the mobilisation of administrative, legal, and social incentives to counteract power structures and promote openness. Opening and improving the quality of data should always be done in collaboration between government, civil society, and the private sector.     

Even though increasing access to data and improving data quality are needed to promote use, participants emphasize the relevance of moving forward using existing data – as well as linking different datasets and other sources of information – to explore innovative ways to connect local reformers in using this data to address local problems and improve development outcomes. Some opportunities for innovating on this include: rethink the dichotomy between supply and demand for data while exploring the role of citizens and civil society in producing, opening, and standardizing data; exploring new ways to craft stories that can add value to open data and make it more useful to citizens; innovating in citizen generated data and linking it to official sources of information to strengthen the public debate and citizen oversight; and strengthening the community following the money in the region so there is a space for continuously learning from current innovations, providing support, and getting advice on addressing particular challenges.   

Finally, some questions that remain and which we hope are explored in future conversations about following the money in Latin America are:

  • What do organizations following the money in the region need and how can exchanges among these organizations be facilitated? How to strengthen this emerging community?
  • Until what point can projects following the money be escalated and replicated across the Latin America given the political, social, economic, technological, and legal differences among countries? What are the resources needed to escalate this kind of work?   
  • How to move towards putting people and their problems in the center, so they are the basis for rethinking the idea of supply and demand of data to follow the money?
  • How can we measure the success of efforts to follow the money both qualitatively and quantitatively? What indicators can allow us to monitor and assess our progress in the mid and long term?
  • What are the incentives for governments to open data about the use of public resources? How can civil society better balance putting pressure and celebrating progress to ensure governments open sensible data?     
Jorge Florez
Jorge Florez
Manager, Fiscal Governance

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