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Digging out data to shine a light on public buying in Mongolia

Mongolian Data Club participates in the youth campaign and data exhibition titled "Freedom of data - Right to Know"

Mongolia’s economy is dominated by large state-owned mining companies that control much of the country’s wealth. But what they do with that money remains hidden. A series of scandals shows just how little accountability there is. 

To tackle this problem, the country has proposed wide-ranging legislation, including an anti-corruption package with measures to standardize the operations of Mongolia’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and ensure they follow consistent rules throughout processes like tendering and procurement, among others. 

Public oversight is also seen as part of the solution. A commitment in Mongolia’s Open Government Partnership action plan proposes engaging with civil society on public procurement. The National Anti-Corruption Program, recently approved by the Parliament, gives civil society organizations (CSOs) and media a greater role in preventing corruption and “strengthening an ethical, corruption-free public service.” 

But effective implementation of these plans is being hampered by a lack of reliable, factual and understandable information sources for citizens and civil society to monitor the operations of state-owned mining companies for efficiency and corruption risks. 

Enter Data Club

This is where our work at the Mongolian Data Club comes in. We decided to do something to help citizens access factual information about state-run mining companies. We designed a data analysis project to show how public open datasets can be used to uncover important issues and bring public attention to who is supplying what, for how much and whether there are any links between suppliers and high-ranking public officials. As part of that project, we developed two data-intensive but user-friendly tools for CSOs and journalists to help them write data-driven investigative stories. 

First, we’ve created a knowledge graph tool, based on Neo4J and Linkurious. While the information on government data portals is tabular and does not allow for making connections visible (see screenshot A), our tool is not only more user-friendly, it also links up the data (see screenshot B). Connecting the data in our own database and making it available in an “umbrella” platform is critical. This tool helps journalists understand the network and connections of suppliers with politically exposed persons or high-ranking public officials. 

Screenshot A: the information displayed on the government data portalScreenshot B: the information displayed on Mongolia Data Club’s tool (The tool will be launched publicly in November 2023)

Secondly, we’ve developed a data analytics and visualization tool using PowerBI software to help journalists extract insights from the data and navigate specific patterns in SOE procurement, such as the top 10 suppliers, the most expensive goods and services, or the most frequent purchases. 

Resolving challenges

Mongolia puts a lot of effort into disclosing information in databases on public procurement, beneficial ownership, and declarations by public officials about their assets and income, but the data quality is low and not interconnected. For example, you can find the name of a company winning a contract and its owner in the beneficial ownership database, but the names may not be found in the public official’s declaration of interests due to errors or misspellings. Manual entries into the two main government databases at the Ministry of Finance and the Independent Agency for Anti-Corruption have created hundreds of errors. For example, the name of the state-owned mining company Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi appears with 818 variations on the government portal. 

As part of our team’s effort to prepare the data, we cleaned it and successfully linked four government databases. As a result, we found that:

  1. Out of 4,000 suppliers, only ten companies supplied almost 70 percent of the US$1.7-billion procurement market over two years
  2. There were links between 535 mid-level public officials and politicians with suppliers

Our main challenge during the development of the knowledge graph tool was identifying individuals with the same names and surnames, which we solved by requesting more disaggregated data from the national registration agency. Then, we faced another challenge in identifying whether a certain beneficial owner is a wife, husband, sibling, or other relative of a high-ranking public official. We hope to fill this gap through investigative journalism. 

Using the data

As part of a data journalism program with the support of the NGO «Open Society Forum» and the international project «Open Extractives», we built the capacity of journalists to work with data analytics tools and dig into the power brokers for the country’s state-owned mining companies along with their spending and procurement. 

A group of journalists found links between politically exposed persons in a coal transportation company with the help of our tools. They revealed that only five beneficial owners (umbrella companies) owned 30% of the total “C permits” that authorize companies to transport coal between Mongolia and China. Using this data, the journalists challenged decision-makers to fulfill their responsibility as stated in their policy to allocate the C permits fairly.

The remaining stories were published on our Medium platform and participants’ media channels. 

What’s next

We’ve received many reactions and comments from our readers and requests from other organizations to receive access to our database and tools. Our main focus now is to publish a user-friendly knowledge graph tool to empower citizens and journalists with data. A capacity-building curriculum is vital too. By helping CSOs and the media increase their exposure to open data and ability to work with it, we increase public oversight of corruption risks and conflicts of interest in the procurement of SOEs.

Our tools can be useful for businesses, too. They can help ensure compliance as part of business integrity efforts and to understand markets by providing detailed data about their competitors and volumes of contracts. 

Of course, the more reliable and continuous the government data supply is, the better. We established an agreement with the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs to save costs and time in collecting the data and ensuring data quality

As data enthusiasts, we believe that the data itself should reveal the truth when it is used effectively. To hold leaders to account, we must continue to provide powerful tools that connect different datasets and provide a holistic view. We think informed citizens are the power. They deserve better.

Photo credits: Mongolian Data Club

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