Following the money

Conversations with Data: #38

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They say that ‘money makes the world go round’. If so, that means there’s a whole lot of stories to be found by looking into how people and organisations spend their dimes.

In this edition of Conversations with Data, we’ll be showcasing some of the ways you’ve investigated money trails, and resources that you can use to dig into the data behind Euros or Yen, dollars and pounds.

How you’ve followed the money

For inspiration, let’s start with an example of powerful reporting from the Netherlands.

Pointer, together with Reporter Radio and Follow The Money, decided to take a closer look at the financial statements of Dutch home care companies. After a broad analysis, their Care Cowboys project revealed that 97 care providers together made more than 50 million Euro in profit, paying more than 20 million Euro in dividends. In short: a lot of people getting rich in a publicly funded sector.

So, what was the secret to their project’s success? In addition to collaboration and opening up data, Pointer’s Jerry Vermanen emphasised the importance of finding relatable stories in data. “It's easy to report on a number,” he said, “but it's a good story when you can find victims of this fraud. Invest in your sources, talk to employees and clients.”


Just two of the stories that Care Cowboys unearthed.

Moving along to the Canadian Dollar, Kenya-based Emmanuel Freudenthal joined forces with Canadian journalist Hugo Joncas to examine money laundering in Montreal’s real estate market. But with nearly two million private dwellings to get through, this was no easy feat.

“To find purchases by politically-exposed persons, we matched two sets of data: one database of real estate owners in Montreal and a list of African politicians collected from news articles. This came up with a couple dozen hits. Then came the tedious work of looking through each of these politicians to find those whose salary didn't match the purchasing of million-dollar properties without a loan,” Emmanuel told us.

Ultimately, their project (articles here and here) found CAD 25 million worth of real estate purchased by politicians from seven countries, whose legitimate activities couldn't explain the source of the funds.

Africa Montreal

Can you guess which countries the politicians were from?

Likewise, Sylke Gruhnwald from Republik, shared her experiences from reporting on VAT fraud in Grand Theft Europe and an expensive tax loophole in The Cum-Ex Files.

“Following the money means following the people and the document trail. As a reporter covering money laundering, financial fraud, and corporate corruption, I have to connect the dots, using human sources, records, and a network of trusted experts in the field,” she said.

“Once I have financial records of a company on the table, I check the balance sheet and the notes section. I plug in the numbers in a spreadsheet to compare business years sourced from annual reports. In a next step, I check business registries as well as land registries, consult information from fiscal authorities and stock exchanges. This forms the foundation for any further investigation in corporate misconduct, offshore activity, and financial crime.”

Following the money can also lead to important stories on more niche issues too. Over at DeSmog, the team spends a large portion of their time looking at the money behind this network of quasi-academic 'think tanks' that push an anti-environmental message.

“When it comes to following money trails, particularly on politically sensitive issues like lobbying against climate action, it's important not to stop at the first association. Fossil fuel companies and high-profile individuals have got wise that direct donations to climate science denial campaigns could have a significant negative impact on them or their companies should the funding be uncovered. So instead they fund conduits or mediators to do the dirty work for them,” explained Editor, Mat Hope.

But despite the breadth of stories that can come from these threads, as Jennifer LaFleur pointed out, “searching across public datasets can be arduous, particularly on deadline”.

That’s why the Investigative Reporting Workshop created The Accountability Project.

“Seeing a need to streamline public datasets, we built The Accountability Project to put much of that data in one place so journalists, researchers and others could search across otherwise siloed data,” she said.

“We have a small team that has gathered, standardised, and mapped more than 300 databases with more than 530 million records. We continue to add data in new categories and are planning for some enhancements in the coming year. We also are taking suggestions for other data we should add to the site. We just accepted our first story pitch, but are seeking more. We're excited to see what newsrooms can do with the data.”

And that’s not the only tool on the market. At OpenCorporates, they’ve built the largest open database of companies in the world, with over 180 million companies from 135+ jurisdictions. Their CEO, Chris Taggart, shared how journalists have used their tool:

“Our data was used by the ICIJ in the Panama Papers, and is routinely used by investigative journalists, law enforcement, tax authorities, and corporate investigators. A great starting point is OpenCorporates Guide For Investigators.

Open Corporates

A search for all company officers with ‘Smith’ in their name.

The Financial Times’ Gillian Tett spoke about the importance of OpenCorporates and other civic tech organisations who are fighting for greater transparency in her FT article and you can read more about how an AML investigator uses OpenCorporates as part of his workflow when investigating companies.”

For our US-based readers, there’s also by the National Institute on Money in Politics. Their website provides a number of tools to help journalists query data on candidates, political donors, lobbyists, and legislatures. According to Executive Director, Edwin Bender, their data was instrumental in shaping this Pulitzer Prize winning story, from Eric Lipton of The New York Times, on how donors influence state attorneys general.

There’s tools available for those non-traditional story angles too. Tactical Tech is one of the leaders in this space.

“With our Exposing the Invisible project at Tactical Tech we’ve been working with all these investigators to test, apply, and share innovative ways in which evidence can be traced in various contexts, and most of this work consists of alternative approaches to the good old ‘follow the money’ mindset. We are collecting this knowledge, experience and cases in a resource for investigators called the Exposing the Invisible Kit. Here, among others, we look at how creative digital investigation techniques can help uncover who owns and runs websites and why some may want to hide their connections to certain platforms; how hidden financial (and other kinds of) information can be found online with simple techniques like dorking; how users of a social app end up often unknowingly sharing too much data about their financial habits to the broader public, or how our personal data has turned into a gold mine and a financial asset for marketing firms and political parties in electoral campaigns,” explained Laura Ranca, Project Lead at Tactical Tech.

Exposing Invisible

A snapshot of tools from Tactical Tech’s Exposing the Invisible Kit.

Our next conversation

In some exciting news -- hot off the press! -- this week, is launching a new video course, Fundamental search for journalists, by Vincent Ryan. Using Google’s tools, the course will cover techniques for making your research faster and more accurate. To celebrate the launch, we’ll have Vincent with us for an AMA in our next edition. Comment to submit your questions.

As always, don’t forget to comment with what (or who!) you’d like us to feature in our future editions.

Until next time,

Madolyn from the EJC Data team

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