Open data obstacle? OpenCorporates claims it is being blocked by Ireland’s CRO
Chris Taggart, a leading proponent of the open data movement and a gatherer of information on close to 50m businesses worldwide via his OpenCorporates.com site, has told Siliconrepublic.com that the Companies Registration Office, not Iris Oifigiuil as originally reported, has blocked his IP address, preventing him adding information on businesses to his site.
Clarification: We originally reported that Ireland's Official Gazette 'Iris Oifigiuil' was preventing OpenCorporates.com from gathering data on Irish businesses. That was incorrect. Taggart has clarified that the Companies Registration Office of Ireland is currently blocking OpenCorporates' IP address, preventing it from scraping data on Irish companies.
At the time of writing, OpenCorporates.com has information ranging from court orders to financial filings and more on some 49,232,857 businesses around the world. This assembly of knowledge includes data on some 512,302 businesses in Ireland, including company address information, companies' office information, trademark registration, and more.
The open data movement seeks to open the vaults on a lot of information that sits on servers inside government departments, local councils and other establishments, with a view to using the data for the public good.
In Taggart’s case, opening publicly available information and data on businesses to a wider audience via the internet will empower other businesses and consumers to make correct decisions based around how solvent a company is, the history of its directors, and so on.
He told Siliconrepublic.com that the Companies Registration Office has blocked his IP address, preventing him from ‘scraping’ basic information and filings by Irish businesses.
“Everything we gather is all about the public record,” Taggart explained. “It’s about making public records usable.”
“We are tying millions of pieces of data together, including official US government suppliers lists.
“We would love to have more Irish information but the Irish Government doesn’t seem to be very keen on open data.”
“In terms of Ireland, we are only seeking basic information, such as notices of creditors meetings, etc, in some countries we do more and we are working very closely with the UK government on opening up corporate data to the public.
“We worked as an early tester with the Norwegian government when it adopted the open data model. We have a good relationship with New Zealand’s government, which publishes everything free of charge.
“On a public basis, Ireland has relatively limited information you can get hold of but it seems they don’t even want us to have that.”
Taggart has spoken to a number of financial bloggers in Ireland who have suggested the policy of blocking OpenCorporates.com has been deliberate.
“I think it’s a mistake given the financial situation in Ireland where some people over the last 10 years have become very rich and lots of ordinary people have become much poorer.
“To not be able to see that information seems a little odd at best,” said Taggart, who has just returned from Basle, Switzerland, having served on an advisory group for the G20 Summit and in recent weeks addressed the European Parliament.
“We are about moving towards making official data more open and accessible. At some point in the next three weeks we will have reached our 50m milestone of companies we have information on. It’s all about open data, just being able to search in one place and gather together streams of relevant data.
“If you were a tax investigator or a journalist, to be able to search different jurisdictions is in itself a huge enabling factor and makes a huge difference.
“We have compiled information from the SEC, UK government spending, health and safety notices, central contractors to the US government, the US banking institutions that actually are regulated.
“In our journey we have discovered how complex an area this can be. When Lehman Brothers went bust, according to the SEC there were 200 to 300 different subsidiaries. The Bank of International Settlement did an audit two years later and it found that there were 2,985 different entities in the group.
“The World Bank recently published a report citing how criminals use companies to launder money for dictators like Mubarak and Gadaffi to take money out of their country. When we allow this information to be difficult to get hold of, enabling all of these bad things and fraud to happen,” Taggart warned.
He said the reason companies exist in the first place is because it is in the wider community’s interest.
“There is a real benefit for companies that are good to publish relevant information as required by law. Companies that scrimp on data have something to hide. People should be empowered to have relevant information available to them so they can know if a company has scrimped on safety information.
“People can make informed decisions about what companies can do in their area. Not only does that penalise the bad guys but it also benefits the good guys.”
The early days of the open data movement
Taggart said we are only in the early days of the open-data movement.
“OpenCorporates.com is where OpenStreetMap was about three years ago. We’re already useful and we’re being used by auditors of Big Four firms and we are being used by journalists and governments and anti-fraud investigators. It is not because these professionals like the idea of data being open, it is because we are providing something that is useful to people by putting nearly 50m companies in one place. We have 35m directors on this, for example, so it allows people to research an individual they might be dealing with and make informed decisions.
Taggart said the only other government body that has been unco-operative is the US State of Delaware.
“We have 7m current British and past companies, 2.6m Californian companies, 5.6m past and present Florida companies. There are 500,000 Irish companies and another 40,000 we have to add.
“What is the public benefit to hiding that information? Who is really benefitting from doing that? It’s a legitimate question. Two weeks ago, the UK started publishing and providing free access to directors' information with 12m directors’ details available. That’s great because traditionally directors and shareholders are generally meant to be public. What we are trying to do is empower people to see how these people are connected or whether any people with influence, such as politicians and shareholders, are involved with other companies.”
Taggart said that given Ireland’s financial situation it would be useful for people to know which companies have received public money, as well as who’s been bailed out by NAMA.
“But when you've just had billions paid to bail out to people – that money went somewhere. Somebody somewhere became rich and in terms of their losses innocent people were left holding the baby. If it happened here in the UK I’d definitely want to know.”
Taggart said he intends to stick doggedly to his mission of making corporate information that is by definition supposed to be open to the public anyway more accessible.
“As well as being one of the world’s first open corporate businesses, we are a classic disrupter. The internet is about two things – it’s about disintermediation and about making connections, allowing you to see what is connected to what.
“In companies huge amounts of fraud and criminal activity and money laundering is enabled precisely because it has been historically difficult to connect bits of data,” Taggart said.