The Role of Open Data in Public Interest

“In the new data economy, money is just a certain type of data. Nothing more and nothing less.” [Stephan Noller, The Future of Targeting] 

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM -- The media has the ability to shape our perception of our surroundings. This includes culture, social issues and politics. Open data is information that is available for anyone to use, for any purpose, at no cost (Open Data Institute, 2012). In a century where the citizens demand more information about all matters, and all countries are affected by each other’s’ politics and events, open data becomes more and more important. This is because, if accurately analyzed, this data gives the people the knowledge and thus the power to take action and to express their stance on public events... Obtaining open data about politics and sharing it with the public is critical as it relates to politicians whose financial, legal and social status sometimes enables them to manipulate how this data is portrayed, and when it is revealed to the public. In this paper, we will discuss how the media can use open data to play a role in ensuring that the public is aware and able to take action. Does the availability of open data ensure that the public will be aware of it and take action upon it?



To answer this question and elaborate more on this issue, we will cite two recent political events, one from the U.S. and another from Lebanon. We chose those two countries since although they are both “democratic” countries, each has a different history of corruption. Transparency International defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. While the United States has not had many known cases of political pay and benefit corruption, there have been so many cases about this issue in Lebanon that it has become common for the Lebanese citizens to publicly express their doubt in the government’s transparency. Those two cases will both prove that obtaining data alone is not enough to stir the public’s action.

The FBI began investigating Louisiana representative William Jefferson for corruption in 2005. They suspected him of receiving over $470,000 in bribes from iGate, Inc. (Berry, 2007) A tech company, iGate expected returns for its investment. Jefferson offered to help iGate’s business. Jefferson was to persuade the U.S. Army to test iGate's broadband two-way technology and other iGateproducts, use his efforts to influence high-ranking officials in Nigeria,Ghana, and Cameroon, and meet with personnel of the Export-Import Bank of the United States in order to facilitate potential financing for iGate business deals in those countries. (Walsh, 2006)

On July 30, 2005, the FBI obtained footage of Jefferson receiving $100,000 of $100 bills in a leather briefcase at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, Virginia from an FBI informant. On August 3, 2005, the FBI raided Jefferson's home and "found $90,000 of the cash in the freezer, and $10,000 increments wrapped in aluminium foil and stuffed inside frozen-food containers." Serial numbers found on the currency matched the serial numbers of funds given by the FBI to their informant. (Lengel, 2007)

Jefferson was re-elected in December of 2006 amid allegations and scandal. (Alpert, 2006) On June 4, 2007, a federal grand jury indicted Jefferson on sixteen charges related to corruption (Walsh, 2007), and was subsequently defeated by Republican Joseph Cao on December 6, 2008. In 2009 he was tried in Virginia on corruption charges, and on August 5, 2009, he was found guilty of 11 of the 16 corruption counts (Stout, 2009). Jefferson was sentenced to 13 yearson November 13, 2009, the longest sentence ever handed down to a congressman for bribery.

On May 21, 2006, the New Orleans Times-Picayune first broke the story of Jefferson’s corruption. From that point on, there were 42 stories written by 8 different sources leading up to his re-election in December of 2006. Over the next two years, 119 different stories were written about the corruption by 19 different sources. Finally, 161 different stories were revealed over 2.5 years. Since the FBI released the affidavit regarding their findings on Jefferson’s corruption, that information was exposed to the public and thus became considered open data.

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In Lebanon, politicians also played a major role in what was considered as the “talk of the town”. For a country whose current debt currently stands at $59.1 billion (The Daily Star, 2012), $28 million a year to be paid to officials is not considered a small raise. While this raise is not illegal and cannot be legally proven as “corrupt”, the timing of it created a wave of discontentment among the public where blogs, causes and petitions were created by individuals and civil society activists in order to express their disapproval of the government’s decision. The parliament members in Lebanon now stand to make more than 22 times the minimum wage, and receive benefits that last until after they leave the office. According to Information Monthly, MPs receive other benefits as well, including, but not limited to, insurance and the right to buy a car every 4 years without having to pay customs, registration or check-up fees. (See the Resources section for more information)

In an article that presents a clear comparison between the Lebanese government officials and those of other countries, Al-Akhbar newspaper writes:

“The Jordanian government will be reducing the salaries of its ministers by 20%. The president of Greece and its prime minister gave up their entire salaries. In Ireland, the reduction was between 5 and 15 % for ministers and 20% for the prime minister. Salaries were reduced for government members in Portugal (by 5%), Italy (10%), and Spain (15%). For the French premiere, it was a 30% reduction. In Lebanon, officials are not thinking about reducing their salaries. Instead, they want to raise them.”

There is a sarcastic tone in the headline, as someone other than the performer usually does recognition and performance evaluation. Especially knowing that the Lebanese parliament has failed to pass many of the laws scheduled on its agenda, and that almost every session is either postponed or dismissed upon the members’ failure to agree about a certain topic, their decision to give themselves a raise came as a disappointment to the public. Reading the headline, it is clear that the newspaper doesn’t think much of the parliament’s efficiency or productivity. As we look at the picture, we see that the members are happy about the decision; clapping for an “achievement” they themselves did for their own benefit. The choice of the frame of the photo where we cannot see what the members are looking at seems to imply that they are short-sighted and are not looking after anybody but their personal benefit. The picture is all about them.

This event’s echo was loud in Lebanon, where the people condemned the raise on their Facebook profiles and blogs. No significant action was taken, except that the actuaries, political critics and journalists started investigating and publishing how muchthese MPs are getting paid before and after the raise. It also raised issues of the benefits that current and past government officials were getting out of their service. This event resulted in the public’s demand for more open data and transparency by the government.

In a Lebanese political television talk show called Al Fasad [which translates into “The Corruption”], actuary Ibrahim Muhanna reveals the figures mentioned above. This particular interview proves how open data is becoming more important, as Muhanna points out that people should know that they should hold the parliament members accountable for their spending and their performance since their salaries come from them [the people]. Muhanna accuses the government of not being transparent about itsspending, using its budget book as a proof to that. Out of 790 pages, only one page is dedicated to the parliament members’ retirement reimbursement, which accounts for 20% of this budget. He also asks the ministry of Finance to be more transparent and give more accurate data about the benefits, which the parliament, the military, and the retirement reimbursement plans receive.

In September 2012, a demonstration took place by the public sector’s schoolteachers to demand the approval of a raise for the Lebanese school salaries. Local newspapers and TV stations coveredthese demonstrations. The Cabinet had approved a substantial raisefor civil servants and public school teachers, but the decision is still pending the Parliament’s approval. The Daily Star quoted the protesters saying, “we don’t want delay in the [pay] scale, we don’t want a [pay] scale for [Cabinet] ministers” (The Daily Star, 2012). This quote forced the readers to make the link between this issue and that of the parliament members’ raises, and sees the discrepancy between the performance of the government in the two situations. Undoubtedly, the raise for parliament members was approved much faster than the bill to raise the salaries of the teachers of the public sector. Not only did the traditional media condemn this raise, but there was also a storm of reactions to this law on social media and blog sites. The media’s emphasis on this issue and the storm of condemnation that the public witnessed resulted in demonstrations and petitions. Our conclusion from this isthat knowing the government officials’ salaries and benefits was notenough in itself, but it took an event to happen and the media’s coverage and propaganda to stir public action.