Q&A: Mining new company data with PWYP’s Data Extractors

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It is a historic year for the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) movement, as oil and mining companies begin to issue new and newly-detailed reports on their payments to governments. The anticipated windfall of data is the result of new regulations in Europe and Canada, and similar transparency requirements are likely to come into effect soon for companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges.

As PWYP and its partners prepare to harvest this new supply of data, we are increasingly aware of the challenges on ‘the demand side’ of financial disclosures. Most financial data does not magically appear online in easy-to-find locations or easy-to-use formats. As companies become more open with their data, civil society organisations must become more adept at using it.

PWYP’s Data Extractors programme was developed—with partnership and support from the Omidyar Network—to build up a community of informed data users within the coalition. The programme combines capacity development, remote support, networked collaboration and international workshops to help coalition members to turn data into knowledge—and knowledge into more effective advocacy.

Following the second Data Extractors workshop in Harare, Zimbabwe, the programme’s manager James Royston, PWYP Advocacy Officer, spoke with Jed Miller, a longtime digital strategist and PWYP colleague who helped facilitate the May workshop.

The following is the first half of their two-part Q&A about the Data Extractors programme, its progress and its potential to change how PWYP’s members seize open data opportunities.

Q (Jed Miller): What was the origin of the Extractors programme, and how did the idea evolve?

A (James Royston): We realised a few years back that the fruits of our work were becoming real—companies really were going to finally be doing what we asked, and publishing the payments they make to governments around the world. We also wanted to make it harder for companies to undo the requirements for them to report by making plans for our members to use the data that was soon to be public.

With a few other organisations who had a similar keenness to use this opportunity —most importantly the Omidyar Network—we came up with the idea of a series of workshops to train our own activists to use that data, rather
than hoping that simply making the data available was enough.

What we do hope is that this data will be useful to our activists all over the world, and will help in national efforts from Niger to the Philippines, from Mongolia to Mozambique. And if it’s not useful, if it’s in the wrong format or doesn’t provide all the information our activists need, that’s useful too! We can make sure to use that challenge to inform public debate.

Q: What sort of problems do PWYP members most commonly face gaining access to company data?

A: Even when data is public, it can be hard to find or make sense of it. You often have to go to the deepest recesses of individual company websites. Inconvenient formats mean you spend too much time turning the data into something comprehensible. Otherwise, it’s next to impossible to compare data across sources.

For instance, our Data Extractor from Niger, is keen to work with data on Areva, the French mining company, to find out about its activities in Niger. To find their ‘Payments to Governments’ report, he needs to go to the company website. Sounds easy? Well, I challenge readers to try and find detailed reports on any/most mining companies’ websites. It may take a while.

Or, Marco Zaplan, the Filipino Data Extractor, who wants to learn about Royal Dutch Shell. First he’ll need to work out that they have disclosed their payments in the UK, not in the Netherlands. Then he could try and find the report on their website—. Or, if he knows that the United Kingdom Companies House has a centralised data portal, he can find the report there. But even then, he’ll have to download four separate files and work out which is which to get to the data for the Philippines.

And all of this is assuming a good level of English. You have a whole new layer of headaches if you’re a Francophone activist looking for data from an Anglophone company. I could go on.

Q: What, if anything, has changed in the landscape of extractive industry reporting rules during the course of the programme so far?

A: The big change has been the release of the first mandatory disclosures data in line with the EU Transparency and Accounting Directives, including reports by Shell and Total. These were a focus of the most recent workshop, and should provide our Extractors with plenty of information to investigate for the rest of the year. The rest of June will see a wave of new reports too, as the UK deadline for submission looms. We remain unsure how easy it will be to find certain EU companies’ data even when it is public, though partners like the Natural Resource Governance Institute and Open Oil have taken great strides toward creating centralised repositories.

Q: What are the implications, opportunities or lessons of the Panama Papers investigation for PWYP members?

I don’t think we’ll learn the full lessons of the Panama Papers for some time. But as our Data Extractor from Zimbabwe, Mukasiri Sibanda, explained in his recent blog, some information from the Panama Papers can help us fill in some blanks in our own work.

For me, it shows how some individuals and companies look to minimise the amount of money they pay to communities, and reaffirms the need for transparency so that those communities can make sure the right revenues are paid.

This the first of a two-part Q&A about the Data Extractors programme, its progress and its potential to change how PWYP’s members seize the opportunities of open data. Watch the PWYP blog for the second part, coming soon.

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