The temptation for public officials to use their positions of power to accumulate wealth has always been there. The iconic picture of the luxury cars owned by Teodorin Obiang, eldest son of the autocratic president of Equatorial Guinea, being towed in Paris comes quickly to mind: how could he afford that on a salary of less than US$55,000 a year?
It is important but difficult to track the assets of those in power to see if their lifestyles are commensurate with their pay packages and not the result of corruption.
In Argentina, civil society teamed up with a national newspaper to develop an online tool that lets anyone do just that, based on the asset declarations of public servants.
Transparency International’s Argentine chapter, Poder Ciudadano, worked with two civil society groups, Fundación Directorio Legislativo and Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, as well as La Nación, a national newspaper, to build a visual database that’s not only easy to use but provides people with a way to hold their officials to account.
It just won the 2014 Global Editors Network award for best data journalism application. And the great news is that the technology behind it is available to other organisations, all over the world, to build similar applications. So, spread the word by sharing this link.
HOW IT WORKS
Public officials in Argentina have to file asset declarations. These are publicly available but not easy to access or understand. Thirty volunteers, however, took all the data from 1,540 affidavits filed by more than 800 public officials and keyed them into a database that is searchable and presents the information in a visual format.
So now it is possible to create a picture of how people in office have accumulated assets over time and what they bought. Icons representing buildings, homes, cars, motor cycles, land and financial instruments represent the assets of the individuals. Ten little houses equal 10 homes, and if you roll the cursor over the icon, you can see exactly what each building is worth.
Civil society can now track the wealth of individuals in power. It can’t determine if someone has enriched themselves through corruption, but it can raise red flags.
This is an important tool for holding officials to account and a reminder that there will be scrutiny and difficult questions asked if a person’s wealth outstrips their salary.
After the first two interactive visualisations appeared on the website, the president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, announced that the government would promote a national law regarding asset declarations for all public servants. Unfortunately, the new law regulating public officials’ affidavits passed but it omits asset information of the children and spouses of public officials in future affidavits.
Civil society will continue to have to work hard to make sure this loophole is not used to disguise wealth amassed through corruption.