The Finnish parliament keeps a log of people who meet with members of parliament. Finnish NGOs and journalists used FOI requests to access this information, in order to research lobbying and understand who influences legislative work. Open Knowledge Finland (OKF) photographed 2000 pages of these paper records and turned them into a searchable database. This information was shared with journalists, and led to a number of investigative pieces on lobbying in Finland. Data journalists affiliated with OKF also produced an analysis of the data. Its visualisations demonstrated how industry groups had privileged access to MPs and how there were differences in how centralised parties were when dealing with stakeholders.
An english overview of the project can also be found here: https://blog.okfn.org/2017/11/16/how-mundane-admin-records-helped-open-finnish-politics-an-example-of-impolite-transparency-advocacy/
The Finnish parliament, like virtually any public building, keeps a log of people who enter and leave. These visitor logs are kept ostensibly for security and are not necessarily designed to be used for other purposes. Yet Finnish activists and journalists, associated with the NGO Open Ministry and the broadcaster Svenska Yle, seized these records to study the influence of private interests. After an initiative to reform copyright law was dropped by parliament in 2014, the group filed freedom of information requests to access the parliament’s visitor log, to see who had met with the MPs influential in the case. Parliament refused to release the information, and over two years of debate in courts followed. In December 2016 the supreme administrative court declared the records public. Nevertheless, the parliament still slowed down access to the visitor’s log, and made it public only in the form of printed paper records.
We made FOI requests to get access to the finnish parliament visitor log so as to study the influence of private interests. After the attempts to secure them digitally were not fruitful, we physically went to photograph the records (2000 pages in total). These were digitalised with OCR and cleaned to make almost a 24 000 row dataset.
On top of the original data, with a team of about 8 volunteers (including journalists) we crowdsourced information on the affiliations of the most frequently visiting guests on the level of organisation and organisation type.
We also scrapped and matched MP, committee data and party lists so as to identify the host affiliations both on the party level and their role (eg. MP assistant).
This way when we provided the data to journalists there was already a clean dataset including visits, party affiliations as well as the guests organisations of the most frequent 500 visitors.
Overall the resources were stretched out from June to October 2017 with 8-10 people contributing at some point during the process (eg. in photographing, crowdsourcing, volunteering etc). There were two people working on this actively during those months and two more as the publication date came closer. The project was realised with a total budget of 25 000e that was awarded by the Sanoma Foundation.
– At least 60 articles were written in response to the release of the data.
– Four political parties, out of the eight represented in parliament, declared that they would start publishing their own meetings with lobbyists.
– Parliament changed its way of releasing the data, and is now further considering how open lobbying will be implemented. We are currently receiving and automating daily FOI responses on the same data
– Several media also managed to run more in depth investigative articles. Suomen Kuvalehti ran a feature that included investigations into the private companies that were most active lobbying. YLE, the Finnish public broadcaster, described the privileged access that representatives of nuclear power enjoyed, while the newspaper Aamulehti showed how individual meetings between legislators and the finance industry had managed to shift regulation.
– Citizen initiative started with key lobbying organisation backing it.
– The project was awarded the Chydenius Medal for transparency in lobbying 2017
Before any claim could be made on the influence of private interests from the visitor logs, we had to use OCR on the picture taken and go through quite rigorous data cleaning to have the names and affiliations in a usable format. The photographing itself took several days.
Coordinating the crowdsourcing effort, needed a considerable effort as well, even more when we aimed to have all crowdsourced affiliations, verified.
Lastly, the visitor’s log includes personal information for example from visits of personal nature. We wanted to ensure secure handling of the dataset both when crowdsourcing and also later when sharing it with journalists so this was definitely a constraint we were working with.
Finally, It took several months until we were actually able to analyse the data and generate visualisations with our findings.