13/4/2016

EU Integrity Watch: A visual database to promote accountability

 

Designed as a central hub to monitor EU decision makers, Transparency International’s EU Integrity Watch collates data hidden amongst hard to find webpages and provides an interactive interface that allows individuals to easily search, rank and filter these datasets visually

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Currently, the project contains two datasets; one with data on the activities and incomes of members of the European Parliament (MEPs), and the other on lobbying in Brussels. Data is derived from the websites of EU institutions, as published by Parltrack, including self-reported financial interests declarations from MEPs, lists of meetings and the EU Transparency Register.

By providing a streamlined means for individuals to access data on MEPs, the project seeks to increase the “transparency, integrity and equality of access to EU decision-making and to monitor the EU institutions for potential conflicts of interest, undue influence or even corruption”.

To find out more about EU Integrity Watch’s data driven approach towards promoting accountability, we spoke to the project’s Policy Officer Daniel Freund.

EJC: What was the initial vision for the platform, and how has this developed throughout the project’s development?

DF: The vision behind Integrity Watch is to use online tools to fight political corruption. For that the website uses large data sets that are in the public domain, but allows civil society, the media and citizens to access and use the data more easily. For that the tools provide easy-to-use graphic filters and a powerful search engine.

The first tool was launched in October 2014 on the outside incomes and activities of members of the European Parliament. Following the success of this tool we have developed two additional tools on lobby meetings of the European Commission and on the more than 9,000 lobby organisations registered on the EU lobby register.

What challenges did you face building the platform?

The biggest challenge so far has been to obtain reliable data and keeping that data updated. We use scrapers to extract the information we use from different sources. Often the original data is contained in Pdf documents or even scanned paper document that are difficult to read out for a machine. This means that in many cases the data has to be manually processed for each update.

Why was D3.js chosen for the platform?

When we started developing Integrity Watch we came across other websites using the D3.js technology and it quickly became clear that this was the best choice for our platform. It allows very responsive graphical filters that can be adapted to different datasets. That was exactly what we needed for our platform.

How was data chosen and collected, and how is it verified?

The datasets we are using for EU Integrity Watch are all provided by the EU institutions. So we always rely on them providing accurate information.

For the outside incomes and activities of members of the European Parliament, MEPs are legally responsible for their declarations of financial interest. We read out the declarations and check that the scraped information is the same as the information contained in the original declarations. In case of false information in the declarations of financial interest a procedure can be triggered in front of the European Parliament Advisory Committee on the Code of Conduct.

The data on lobby meetings and lobby organisations come from the EU Transparency Register (which can be downloaded) and from the meetings published on the websites of the European Commission. Again, the European Commission and the Transparency Register secretariat (and the registered lobby organisations) are responsible for the accuracy of the data. We simply make the available information more accessible and link the different datasets.

One of the main functionalities of Integrity Watch is precisely to identify false entries or declarations.

Outside of the platform, how has data being leveraged by other organisations and what has the impact of this been?

Since the launch of EU Integrity Watch in October 2014 we have had more than 50,000 visitors on the website. Integrity Watch has also been widely covered in European and global media. Since the launch we have tracked over 600 websites linking to the website, including reports by the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Guardian, the Spiegel and Politico (they liked Integrity Watch so much that they attempted to build their own). There have been reports on our findings in over 20 languages.

The findings of EU Integrity Watch and our report have also been used by other civil society organisations for their own research work. Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has used it for their study on the lobbying “firepower” of the pharmaceutical industry. The Sunlight Foundation used it for a detailed analysis of the influence of US lobbyists at the European Union.

What tangible outcomes have come out of the EU Integrity Watch project?

Based on the findings of the lobbying tool we filed 4,253 complaints against lobby organisations – or more than half of all Brussels lobbyists – for not complying with basic rules governing the EU Lobby Register. Since the complaint in September 2015, 578 organisations have updated their declarations or been removed from the register, with promises from the European Commission that the remaining 3,675 complaints will be processed. The action has shown that CSOs can have a major impact on improving an instrument whose effectiveness and accuracy had been widely called into question, in part due to lack of action by the authorities.

In the European Parliament, over 100 members have updated their declarations of financial interest since the launch of EU Integrity Watch. Many of them have stopped some or all of their outside activities and the minimum total outside incomes have declined by over 1 million euros a year from 5.3 to 4.3 per year for the 751 MEPs.

Our findings are also widely quoted in reports by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe and are now shaping the debate around the mandatory EU lobby register and the reform of the European Parliament Code of Conduct.

There is currently a national version of the platform for France. Why was this country chosen, what impact has the platform had on increasing transparency in France, and are there plans to expand the platform to other countries as well?

From the start, the idea was also that the tools would use open data formats and be available as open software for anyone on GitHub. We built the tools in a way that they could be easily replicated or adapted for other datasets and in other languages so that chapters of TI around the world could use them. In December 2015 we have launched a first national version in France, but additional national versions are currently being prepared in the UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

To create national versions of Integrity Watch we work closely with our chapters in those countries. Our national member organisations know the context, the national media scene and the available datasets. TI France was the first chapter that approached us and the first that managed to raise the necessary funds.

The French version of Integrity Watch has had more than 10,000 visitors in the two days following the launch. The launch was covered in over 50 articles, including on the front page of the biggest French newspaper 20 Minutes, in Le Monde and the Huffington Post.

In France we worked with hundreds of volunteers that converted the scanned paper versions of financial declarations of members of Parliament into digital information we could use in our database. The French High Authority for Transparency in Public Life that is responsible for these declarations now allows MPs to file their declarations electronically and all declarations should be digitized following the next elections. Our work on lobbying in France has also pushed the French government to draft a law that will create a French lobby register.

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Explore the project here.

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