Open data can unravel the complex dealings of multinationals

 in The Guardian: “…Just like we have complementary currencies to address shortcomings in national monetary systems, we now need to encourage an alternative accounting sector to address shortcomings in global accounting systems.

So what might this look like? We already are seeing the genesis of this in the corporate open data sector. OpenCorporates in London has been a pioneer in this field, creating a global unique identifier system to make it easier to map corporations. Groups like OpenOil in Berlin are now using the OpenCorporates classification system to map companies like BP. Under the tagline “Imagine an open oil industry”, they have also begun mapping ground-level contract and concession data, and are currently building tools to allow the public to model the economics of particular mines and oil fields. This could prove useful in situations where doubt is cast on the value of particular assets controlled by public companies in politically fragile states.

 OpenOil’s objective is not just corporate transparency. Merely disclosing information does not advance understanding. OpenOil’s real objective is to make reputable sources of information on oil companies usable to the general public. In the case of BP, company data is already deposited in repositories like Companies House, but in unusable, jumbled and jargon-filled pdf formats. OpenOil seeks to take such transparency, and turn it into meaningful transparency.

According to OpenOil’s Anton Rühling, a variety of parties have started to use their information. “During the recent conflicts in Yemen we had a sudden spike in downloads of our Yemeni oil contract information. We traced this to UAE, where a lot of financial lawyers and investors are based. They were clearly wanting to see how the contracts could be affected.” Their BP map even raised interest from senior BP officials. “We were contacted by finance executives who were eager to discuss the results.”

Open mapping

Another pillar of the alternative accounting sector that is emerging are supply chain mapping systems. The supply chain largely remains a mystery. In standard corporate accounts suppliers appear as mere expenses. No information is given about where the suppliers are based and what their standards are. In the absence of corporate management volunteering that information, Sourcemap has created an open platform for people to create supply chain maps themselves. Progressively-minded companies – such as Fairphone – have now begun to volunteer supply chain information on the platform.

One industry forum that is actively pondering alternative accounting is ICAEW’s AuditFutures programme. They recently teamed up with the Royal College of Art’s service design programme to build design thinking into accounting practice. AuditFuture’s Martin Martinoff wants accountants’ to perceive themselves as being creative innovators for the public interest. “Imagine getting 10,000 auditors online together to develop an open crowdsourced audit platform.”…(More)