More Phony Numbers–This Time on the Anticorruption Impact of Open Data

OK, I know I’m beating a dead horse. Within the last month I’ve already posted several times (see here, here, and here) about bogus anticorruption statistics, as has Rick. And I promise that after this post, I’ll move on to other topics. But I can’t help commenting on this latest release from Transparency International, criticizing the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting for not explicitly addressing corruption. As its lead example, TI faults the WEF for not addressing issues like open data (and openness more generally). I’m sympathetic to TI’s policy position, but in making the case, TI asserts, “One study suggests that open data could reduce the costs of corruption by about 10 percent.”

I was curious (and, admittedly, skeptical) about yet another seemingly precise estimate of something that’s inherently hard to measure. So I clicked on the link to the “one study” that “suggests” that open data technologies would reduce the costs of corruption by 10%. This “study” is actually a report (really, an advocacy document) from an Australian consulting firm (Lateral Economics), commissioned by a philanthropic fund (the Omidyar Network) that invests in open data initiatives. How does this “study” reach its conclusion that open data could reduce the costs of corruption by 10%? I will now quote in full the entirety of the evidence and analysis supporting that conclusion:

There is now a growing body of evidence that open data plays a role in reducing corruption. Open data can reduce the extent of corruption by both reducing its private returns and making it easier to detect. Based on the evidence, we think it reasonable to suggest that the costs of corruption would be reduced by of [sic] the order of 10%. [p. xiv.]

[And again, later in the document:] To estimate the benefits of open data in reducing corruption, we begin with estimates of the costs of corruption in developed countries…. We think a reasonable contribution of open data in reducing corruption is on the order of 10%. [p. 58]

That’s it. What’s “the evidence” on which this 10% estimate is “based”? Who knows. There’s essentially no discussion, save for one anecdote (repeated several times throughout the document) about how open data helped prevent a $ 3.2 billion tax fraud in Canada in 2007–which, it should go without saying, is not actually a measure of the costs of corruption. As far as I can tell, the 10% figure is completely made up.

I’m not sure I can really come down too hard on TI for including this bogus figure in what is, after all, an advocacy-oriented press release… But really, I mean, come on. This casual invention and repetition of fabricated figures is ridiculous, embarrassing, and–as Rick warns–could come back to haunt the anticorruption movement, ultimately undermining its credibility. That TI press release could have worked just as well, and been just as persuasive in presenting the case for the importance of open data, without all the nonsense statistics thrown in just to sound impressive.

Seriously, guys, cut it out.

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