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Following Money and Influence in the EU: The Open Interests Europe Hackathon

This blog post is cross-posted from the Data-driven Journalism Blog.

Making sense of massive datasets that document the processes of lobbying and public procurement at European Union level is not an easy task. Yet a group of 25 journalists, developers, graphic designers and activists worked together at the Open Interests Europe hackathon last weekend to create tools and maps that make it easier for citizens and journalists to see how lobbyists try to influence European policies and to understand how governments award contracts for public services. The hackathon was organised by the European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation with support from Knight-Mozilla OpenNews.

At the Google Campus Cafe in London, one group dived into European lobbying data made available via an API: api.lobbyfacts.eu. Created by a group of five NGOs: Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth Europe, Lobby Control, Tactical Tech and the Open Knowledge Foundation, the API gives access to up-to-date, structured information about persons and organisations registered as lobbyists in the EU Transparency Register. The API is part of lobbyfacts.eu, a website that aims to make it easy for anyone to track lobbyists and their influence at European Union level, due to launch in January 2013.

One of the projects created with the lobby register data is a map showing the locations of the offices of lobby firms based on their turnover. The size of the bubbles on the map corresponds to the turnover of the firm. Built by Friedrich Lindenberg, the map is an overlay of a Stamen Design map with Leafletjs.

Screenshot of api.lobbyfacts.eu/map showing locations of lobbying firms across Europe

Other teams focused on data analysis, comparing the data from the EU Transparency Register with that of the Register of Expert Groups. Interesting leads for possible further investigative work resulted from the comparison of the figures reported by lobby firms in the Transparency Register with those collected by the National Bank of Belgium. “Some companies underreported massively to the National Bank of Belgium and some of them were making themselves look bigger in the Transparency Register,” said Eric Wesselius, leader of the lobby transparency challenge and co-founder of Corporate Europe Observatory. Wesselius’ organisation will continue investigations in this area.

A second group of journalists and graphic designers led by Jack Thurston, an activist involved in Fishsubsidy.org, discussed how fish subsidy data could be used for finding journalistic stories and explored various ways in which the unintended consequences of the EU fish subsidies programme, such as overfishing, could be compellingly presented to the general public.  

Sketch for interactive graphic showing fishing vessels, their trajectory and the subsidies they receive, made by graphic designer Helene Sears

A third group looked into European public procurement data. “Public procurement is an area that is underreported by journalists,” said data journalist Anders Pedersen, founder of OpenTED. “9-25% of the GDP in the EU is procurement – highest in the Netherlands where it is around 35%. It’s a real issue in times of austerity who provides our services,” he added.

Several scrapers were built to access the data relating to winners of contracts and the values of these contracts from the EU publication TED (Tenders Electronic Daily). A map of public procurement contracts by awarding city was created using Google Fusion Tables by geocoding the original CSV file, enriched with OpenStreetMap.

Screenshot of map of public procurement contracts by Benjamin Simatos and Martin Stabe

Pedersen’s long term goal is to create an interface and an API for EU public procurement data and to publish some more visualisations. “A lot of the work that got done here [at the hackathon] we would not have gotten done in the next months maybe. It really helped us push far ahead in terms of ideas and in terms of getting stuff done.”

 

Photo of participants at the hackahon by Mehdi Guiraud.

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