2019 has been a busy and productive year for Open Ownership. We appointed our first executive director, Thom Townsend, and hired several more key staff in response to rising demand for our expertise. Alongside significant change internally, the wider beneficial ownership (BO) transparency field has been shifting, as more countries begin to disclose or consider how they can disclose BO data. In this blog, the Open Ownership team share the stories and developments that got them excited in 2019, and that they believe will significantly shape the beneficial ownership transparency field going forward.
This was the year when beneficial ownership moved to the top of the Open Government agenda. Back in 2018 at the Open Government Partnership Summit in Tbilisi, beneficial ownership was talked about in side events. This year, at the Ottawa OGP summit, it was a mainstage topic. I was delighted to see the work of Open Ownership feature in the State of Open Data Book that I was at the summit to launch – and even more delighted to get the opportunity this September to start working again with the Open Ownership team. I have been contributing to developing technology and providing technical assistance that can address the tough problems of representing complex cross-border ownership structures in simple and accessible ways.
If 2019 has been the year of policy breakthroughs, then 2020 is set to be the year when more data starts to flow, raising new challenges as the theory of making data open and accessible meets the reality of country systems and data collection processes. That’s why a big focus of our technical work over 2019 has been on the fundamentals: thinking about the design of data collection forms, and designing planning tools to show the connection between policy choices and practical implementation of beneficial ownership transparency.
2019 has felt like a breakthrough year for beneficial ownership transparency. The pace of commitments has continued to accelerate, accompanied by real progress on implementation. More than anything else, the reality of a world where beneficial ownership transparency is possible is starting to hit home.
The early movers, like the UK and Ukraine, are demonstrating that open registers quickly become integrated into the workflows of the private sector, the public sector and civil society. Both countries are engaged in legal and technical reforms to improve how beneficial ownership transparency works in practice. This is great to see – and a reminder of what a huge endeavour ‘implementation’ really is.
We are also seeing increasing demand for beneficial ownership data from users and from a growing number of sectors. It is hugely exciting to see a standard-setting body like Financial Action Task Force (FATF) endorse – though not yet mandate – central registers as part of its best-practice approach to collecting beneficial ownership information. From asset recovery to tax justice, the language of beneficial ownership has entered common parlance, indicating that registers are set to become an established part of the data landscape. We can expect that demand for useful and usable data will continue to grow and increasingly shape the way we design tools and policies to collect beneficial ownership information.
2019 was the year Open Ownership explored the reality of open data on the ground, engaging with users for whom beneficial ownership really matters: banks and financial institutions, corporate data services, financial and legal service providers, anti-money laundering (AML) consultants, journalists and transparency organisations.
Thanks to one-on-one interviews, events including a datadive for experts from all over Europe, and dedicated community engagement, we were able to define a minimum set of requirements to support investigative, know your customer (KYC) and AML work.
We set out to add these requirements to the Open Ownership Register and make them available on a free open licence basis. Over the course of 2019, we developed a register which offers data that is regularly updated from source, backed up with a complete historical audit. The data is fully formatted following the Beneficial Ownership Data Standard (BODS), partially cleaned (by address lookup and deduplicating), complemented with OpenCorporates data, and filling in gaps for missing names and/or identifiers. By using the register’s graph visualisation tool, users can now apprehend entire corporate ownership networks, from beneficial owners through to parent companies and child entities. Finally, data is made available to bulk download, so that it can be imported into other data services and analytical tools.
This hands-on work helped us uncover the true cost of accessibility and ultimately the real meaning of ‘open data’. Feeding into the UK’s consultation on the role of Companies House in corporate transparency, flagging issues in Slovakia’s sole trader/public partner data collection, and seeing fixes through to implementation, or supporting Ukraine in opening up the Unified Register (EDR), are some of the many changes Open Ownership has driven in 2019. I am looking forward to seeing what greater good this unique evidence-based model can achieve in the coming year.
As two important aspects of our work are that we operate internationally and provide expert support to both policy and technical professionals, it is important that our communications are clear, precise and unambiguous.
In 2019, we completed our first translation into Russian of BODS' support website. In doing so, we built on the previous work of the Open Data Services Cooperative of editing a good deal of the site so that it is now in plainer English.
As more countries disclose beneficial ownership data, we are now well placed to provide translations supporting those publications as high-quality BODS data, especially as ODSC software developers have also created a framework to support future translations.