Dinero y Política [Money in Politics] is an on-line database to make transparent electoral campaign contributions.
Dinero y Política [Money in Politics]
Posted by Renata Avila on Apr 03, 2010
“Dinero y Política” an initiative of Poder Ciudadano Foundation ("Citizen Power Foundation") is an interactive database and a wiki which aggregates political finance data in real time from 23 different provincial databases and tracks 713 recognized political parties (414 of which participate as members of 97 different coalitions).
The funding of political parties in Argentina follows a mixed model with public funding provided to political parties for ongoing and electoral operations and also private funds from individual and corporate donors. Political parties must disclose the origin and destination of their funds, including a list of private donors, on an annual basis. The information must be published in a national newspaper and on a website. Ten days before the election, political groups must present a report with the public and private donations and details of their campaign expenses to the Electoral Body. When they do so, each province uploads a PDF document of the information on individual website. Before Dinero y Política one would have to download 23 different documents and hand-check each one to understand the relationship between money and politics. The system did not allow for comparisons, data sorting, or any type of analysis. What formerly would take over a week to analyze can now be done
Dinero y Política developed new modes of visualizing numbers and categories to provide more effective tools to analyze the financial panorama of politics in Argentina. Its platform has made it accessible for the average citizen who can quickly visualize and understand which candidates are funded by which corporations. Even more, she can compare different districts and different parties with informative graphics (graphs, bars).
As a result people will be better informed before the election takes place and will have a tool to monitor how money influences political decisions, a key factor in fighting against corruption.
While technology solved many of the obstacles we faced, we had some difficulties at the beginning. As an example, it was quite hard to obtain the PDF form the Electoral Body uses to collect the financial campaign data. And we could not design our database without it. It was a "battle" to obtain it but we finally got it.
Also, our budget was so small, so limited, that the members of our team dedicated time and efforts because they were inspired, they were aware of the innovative tool we created, the first substantial improvement in the way citizens access electoral public information in our country.
Another difficulty was our schedule. When we started working on the project, our projection was an 8-month project, the elections were set to be held on October 25, 2009 but President Fernández de Kirchner move the elections up by four months which added pressure to our team but we still had our platform ready for the elections in June.
While we are not worried anymore with technical aspects such as obtaining the formats, or with our schedule, financial sustainability is still a concern. We applied for funding from the Knight Foundation, but our proposal was rejected and Dinero y Política is not the only project we work on.
We are increasing the transparency in the funding of political parties. With Dinero y Política anyone can access the data they need quick and easy. With our platform any citizen can query a variety of information with one click and visualize it as a bar chart, a bubble chart or pie charts using a single data set. We make available all the information about donors, political parties, alliances and expenditures during a political campaign. It is a tool that helps citizenry, journalists and analysts.
Before the existence of Dinero y Política you had to look at two dozen different websites from the 23 provinces and the District Central for the information they were looking for. Then you had to look for the link of a particular election and after that you had to click on each political party. There you found two preliminary reports and a final report in pdf format. If you consider that during the 2009 election 656 political parties participated, then it was a huge amount of data to process and analyze without any help. The dispersion and the format did not allow for data integration and certainly did not allow for prompt, accurate information for voters. But we are also aware that transparency in political finance is quite a specific subject matter and that there is not much serious interest in it. It simply is not a concern of the average citizen. That is why we were quite impressed when we noticed that after 2 months online we already had 2,500 unique visitors to our website - a lot more than we expected.
I am currently directing the area of Political Institutions and Government at Poder Ciudadano. I direct all the research and analysis of political representation and elections, including election campaigns. I have vast experience in political finance, I have been working on it the last seven years; when I wrote the process and specifications of the platform we could see that we might have found the tool we needed to monitor political finance.
Well, as I said before campaign financial records and data are available for the public via the electoral body websites. But availability of data is not enough. It is important to provide tools so citizens can access and understand the data. While it is not the electoral body obligation to do so, any public database should be "accessible". We are just helping people to overcome barriers to access the information in a timely manner, and also we are providing the tools to make such information useful for their analysis.
While the electoral body is providing the information we need for our project, it is important to clarify that Argentina does not have yet an right to information law. We just have the constitutional right to request information from the government. When we request information we have to cite international conventions and our constitution. There is only an executive order, Executive Decree 1172/03, regulating the access to information right for the information of the Executive branch and the Presidency, however its implementation still need to be improved.
It is changing the way citizens, journalists and academic researchers access the information related to money in politics. Our database is easily comprehended and easy to use. We have made available a large amount of data that was not easy to find and even harder to process. We provide tools to facilitate the investigation and analysis and even the effects of money in politics.
The two most important newspapers in Argentina covered the press conference when we launched Dinero y Política and afterwards they used our platform as the source for their analysis of the money involved in the recent political campaigns. With our platform any investigative journalist can obtain an specific data she may need for her analysis quick and easy.
I do not have a precise answer to your question. It depends on the stage of the project, and it is not my only activity at Poder Ciudadano but the planing stage and the stage before our launch were the most time-consuming phases.
While we were in the planing stage, it took a while to design the architecture of the platform, and then our technology developer and his team dedicated many hours to build the platform. When the platform was ready we had to fix and modify some details on it. We needed a tool to fit our needs. For the next election it will require less time since our platform will automatically collect the data sets from different sources. It will be a real-time database, connecting with the information units of each local database and capturing the data from it. The platform will be fed from various sources automatically.
The hardest part was to find all the relevant information and then to create a user-friendly website architecture. To create a clear, easy to use research platform is hard. But our software developer did an amazing job, and found solutions to all our requests.
It made easier to analyze the elections and how money influences the elections in general. With a click you will know how much money is spent in a political campaign in Argentina. Argentina is a multi-party system with more than 700 political parties so the analysis is complicated. The last election I analyzed data from up to 300 different political party alliances. Before the existence of our platform I had to use a calculator to manually add data, one by one, category by category. Now it is possible to do it automatically.
Now any researcher, including Poder Ciudadano, can analyze and arrive to conclusions in a short period of time. Then the press will be able to provide analysis sooner, before the election takes place, which leads to more informed voters (actually that was the whole purpose of requiring the reports on campaign funding sources 10 days before the election takes place).
We do not verify the identities of participants. We do not even require any registration. The platform is open, the wiki requires registration if you wish to edit it, but we are fine if someone protects her or his identity using a nickname. I should mention that anyone can download our data sets in html, csv, or JSon format. It is public information.
With the use of new technologies. Before we stated using new technologies, we used to publish a book, a paper... and our impact was limited to those reading the book, but we realized that new technologies offered a unique opportunity to reach more people and increase the awareness of the impact of money in politics and the impact of corruption in general. As a consequence of the adoption of new technologies, the number of people interested in financial campaign details increased exponentially.
Its announcement by the most important newspapers or Argentina had a positive effect and from that point the number of visitors is increasing. We have local traffic but also visitors from different countries around the world. Poder Ciudadano is the Argentinian Chapter of Transparency International and its network has helped us promote the initiative.
Mostly Google. Directly from our website or from our main organization main website. While many blogs and sites have links to us, we did not collect such information.
In different blogs, digital news portals, different newspapers and news shows too. Our visibility increases when mainstream media mentions or uses our projects as its source. Some media said that our project was the Argentinian equivalent of Sunlight Foundation to make our politics transparent.
No. Not at all. We use public information. Our database is registered in the National Registry of Databases. So far we have not had any legal problems.
The first metric will be how our tool made simple, quick and easy the analysis of financial data related to political campaign. As users of the platform we were satisfied with our performance on that and we realized that we have now in our hands a powerful instrument to make our work better and easier. The second metric will be the number of users, we were expecting around 100 unique visitors at most, but now we have up to 2000 unique visitors. As I said before, the financial aspects or political campaigns is not a popular field of study or an interest of the average citizen. It is a rather complex issue. But surprisingly more and more people are realizing its importance and checking the available data. The third metric is the good feedback from journalists and researchers who used our platform. They were satisfied and happy with the new tool.
I will emphasize once again the importance as citizens and voters the importance of transparency in political finance. It is an important tool to limit corrupt practices in the funding of political parties. If you know where money comes from, how it is distributed and where it is spent, then you are able to uncover the motivation linked to donations. It is important to understand corrupt networks and how it is related to political campaigns, not only in Argentina but around the world. It is a pervasive system of corruption where groups of interest use their campaign contributions to shape public policy and donors ask favors in return of their campaign contributions.
The subject matter is so important that our next step, if we get funding, will be to promote crowd sourcing, to involve researchers from every district and invite them to dig deeper, to carefully analyze the situation in their provinces. We are just starting and our tool offers unlimited possibilities to involve more people, more data and increase the quality of our research.
Actually we do not need assistance with our expertise or with any skills, in fact we are experts on the subject and we outsourced the technical aspects. We are satisfied with the amazing work done by our developer. But it is really interesting to see and learn from different projects around the world. In the future we will like to synchronize the Dinero y Política database with other public information databases. As an example, we can create a Congressional Vote database we can monitor the way a member of the Congress votes and then combine such data with the donors of her or his campaign. Such data can shed the light on the interest she or he supports or feels compelled or coerced to vote in a specific way.
Argentinian NGOs do not have many funding opportunities. It is a whole different panorama for us if we compare our budgets with our peers in Central America and the Caribbean. We dedicate a lot of time and efforts to our projects but we have limited resources. In fact we deliver high quality results with ten times less money. We will like to do many things but we do not have certainty about the financial future of our project.
The Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German philanthropist organization sponsored our project but did not have any influence in its development. It just provided the money to create it. Dinero y Política was exclusively done by Poder Ciudadano.
In fact we designed and participated actively in the development of our tools. We want to take a step further and share our tools and experiences with our countries. We can provide training services and our expertise to other countries, we have done that in the past helping our colleagues in Bolivia, in Paraguay, in the Dominican Republic.
Official representatives were invited to our launch event and that was the only contact we had with them. But I can assure you they are using our tool too.
Before Dinero y Política, we created a Database to monitor the allocation of governmental advertising in media and advertising spending. While the technology we use to build it is simple, it was the first project we created using new technologies to increase transparency and accountability.
What a tricky question, to answer that I must meet my whole team, evaluate our budget, our priorities and our objectives. It is not easy to answer off the top of my head. But certainly we would like to expand the scope of our work. We want to be able to monitor each area of the country, every province in Argentina, and we will like to deepen our analysis, especially in each district. As I mentioned before, we will like to pay researchers in every district and open our platform to create crowd-sourced analysis using the data we facilitate.
Now we just cover national elections, but in our federal political system many elections take place on a local level and we consider that it is really important to cover it, to localize our national efforts and to provide the tools so anyone can watch their electoral processes and increase its transparency.
I can share with you many ideas we have in mind, ideas we consider extremely useful to increase the transparency and accountability in our country. We will like to create a system to analyze together different data sets from different sources, synchronize key databases and analyze all together data from media coverage, financial aspects of political campaigns and records from Congress. To monitor media and its role in politics is really important. 90% of political campaign expenses are spent in media, right there in the intersection between political finance and media is where I see a link, a connection between our databases. As I explained before, the architecture of Dinero y Política is open. It should not be difficult to add more data, more tools and more functions to it. We are also discussing the importance of public procurement, of contractors and how it influences politics. Money in politics is closely connected with transparency too. You can compare who funded a party with the benefits obtained from public procurement contracts granted to those who contributed to the official party.
Another project we will like to create is the mass media role during presidential campaigns. We want to document the coverage of each presidential candidate, if the coverage is favorable or unfavorable, her or his opinions on a topic, candidates opinions by topic and space dedicated to cover a candidate on which topics is more extensive. It will provide a tool for voters to allow them to reconsider if their candidate shares their views, values and goals. It will be useful to improve the objectivity of media during elections.
You mentioned before that while Central America and the Caribbean receive more funds from international donors, opportunities for an organization in Argentina are reduced, could you explain more about it?
Many donors from agencies and private foundations label Argentina as a “developed country”, as a country with higher rates of economic conditions. But we struggle with our budgets and it is really difficult to obtain funds for our initiatives.
Many times international aid focus its donations on a trendy topic at a particular time: it can be global warming and environmental issues, the “fight against poverty”, natural resources. Donations are closely connected with an agenda and it usually does not resemble the need of civil society in a country. Indeed, poverty in Argentina is not as rampant as poverty in Central America or Africa. But it is reasonable to consider that similar projects will require a proportional amount of funds and results. Many times in poor countries a project will cost ten times more, in Central America and the Caribbean they do the same work we do with thousands of dollars in their budget. We have never work on a project with a million dollars budget and our results are optimal. We are often surprised with the large amounts of money that international aid donates for developing countries. I will do a project with $15,000 while in the Dominican Republic a team will do a similar project with a million dollars. We are one of the oldest, most experienced organization in the continent working on issues related to transparency and elections and we have never worked with such huge amounts of money. And you can see and compare the results of our work.
That it will be great to discuss the role of technology against corruption during the International Anti Corruption Conference IACC in Thailand. I see technology, new technologies and the web as an opportunity that is opening many doors, expanding the impact of our initiatives against corruption and reaching many people, making them aware of the importance of transparency.