Elvis: tracking tax money and revealing corruption

Corruption in public spending is a problem in many countries around the world. Elvis, the data platform – not the singer, visualises European pubic spending data to help journalists find fishy relationships between governments and companies.

The platform makes tender data published by the European Commision easily searchable for journalists. Right now there are over 7.5 million rows of data, covering around ten years of public spending in several European countries. “We hope to add data on small tenders, as collected by Digiwhist, later to our platform”, data journalist Adriana Homolova explained at Elvis’ launch.

Tracking our tax money

Isabel Da Rosa, electronic public procurement expert at the European Commission, could not agree more: “It’s time for us to move into a data driven decision process. So many times we’re drwaing legal frameworks on what we think is right, while we don’t have the facts or information to create good legislation.”

Revealing corruption

“If you see company owners who are related to politicians, you know something is wrong”, Hungarian investigative reporter Ágnes Czibik states. But in order to investigate wrongdoings like this, data needs to be open and accessible. Elvis’ superpower is not so much in opening up data that was not available – but in making data accessible that wasn’t accessible before. “In that sense journalists matter a lot”, Czibik states, “journalists need that data to built their cases and get publicity for these cases.”

Public Spending visualisations from a paper by Adriana Homolova

Visualisation from the paper on public spending in Slovakia and The Netherlands by Adriana Homolova

Data difficulties

Currently tender data is published by the EU on the Tender Electronic Daily webpage. Sounds good, but the differences in data published are quite big among countries. “On average 15 percent of the mandotory information is missing in Tender Daily”, Czibik explains. “Next to that data missing, there’s also the treshold problem. Some countries publish all tenders, where other countries only publish tenders above the European treshold of 134.000 euro. We cannot say anything about the public spending universe with so many data missing.”

Charlotte Waaijer, at the time an investigative reporter for the Dutch magazine De Groene, investigated procurements by the Dutch ministery of defense: “It’s good to see data being made more accessible by Elvis and other websites. But during my investigation I found that the Dutch governments cooperates with other countries for missions in Mali or Afghanistan. A lot of the hiring for these missions is done by NATO or the coalition. Hence, a lot of the data I looked for was not available…”

Positive changes

According to Jonathan Huseman, advocacy officer open society at Hivos, the global universe of tender data is just as diverse. “In Malawi my colleagues deal with a lot of paperwork, while Indonesia is well advanced with e-procurement.” According to Huseman health, education and infrastructure are topics close to peoples hearts. “These topics tend to be the first that are tracked by civil society. For instance, in Bolivia children weren’t getting their schoolmeals. Open procurement data revealed which companies lowered the quality of theh food or didn’t deliver at all. Eventhough the same companies are responsible for the schoolmeals, nowadays, the food is actually delivered.” The power of transparency.

Luckily, when open procuement data is open, it can bring positive changes. “In Portugal the government is much more careful in how they use public procurements and which services and products they buy”, Isabel Da Rosa attests. “In Portugal procurement data is made public – even the conclusion on how the money was actually spent is open. Citizens and organisations can see the differences between contracts and reality. Government now needs to justify their costs, which has decreased the difference between contracts and actual money awarded.”

More Elvis

Elvis, the tool that helps you look into public spending, is free to use: create an account here to get started. In case you’re interested in the academic foundation the tool is built upon, you’ve come to the right place. First, there is the masterthesis by Homolova on the application of social network analysis to a network of public institutions and companies that deliver services to them. Or read her paper on the public procurement networks of both Slovakia and The Netherlands.