Panama Papers Show Need for Transparency; Value of Structured Data

Posted on April 8, 2016 by Dave Nitchman

There’s arguably no bigger data related story in the news this week than that of the so called “Panama Papers”. The cache of 11.5m files (representing 2.6 TB of documents) were leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung from the database of law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialises in setting up offshore corporations and accounts for its clients. Such accounts are utilised for a variety of legal reasons, but can also be used in illegal ways. Either way, their use poses a challenge for anyone interested in obtaining the full financial picture of an organisation.

Without regard to the contents or passing judgement on the specifics of this case, for anyone as interested as we are in making data more usable, the Panama Papers case presents a fascinating case study. The journalists seeking to gain insight from the Mossack Fonseca data faced a significant challenge, one long understood by regulators or any organisation collecting large amounts of data . . . it was unstructured.  The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), dug through the millions of scanned documents using optical character recognition and analytical e-discovery software from Australia based Nuix. Although obviously quicker than reading the documents, the process is time consuming and costly.

This is in sharp contrast to the growing number of countries in which XBRL is used to make vast amounts of corporate data available online and often at no cost to anyone who wants it. This data is structured, searchable and able to be analysed using an increasing number of tools. It’s more easily used for enforcement, or by the enterprise looking to gain a more nuanced view of their own finances. The federal governments in Brazil and Spain use XBRL data to identify budget and spending trends across municipal, state and national tiers. It is increasingly used for non-financial reporting as well.

Not all data will (or even can be) structured at the time of collection. But when it can be, it should be.  Our consortium members are advancing solutions in this area and it will be the topic of many discussions at upcoming events. We are looking forward to hearing your views both at these events and in the course of our work.

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