VoteWatch Europe quoted in POLITICO
21 August 2015
Coders and open-data advocates have created several free, online tools to make sense of the EU machinery.
By Laurens Cerulus
Holding politicians’ feet to the fire is becoming something of a sport in Brussels. Some Members of the European Parliament even complained in June about negative media coverage they were getting for their voting records.
Since the European Commission kicked off its transparency initiative in 2008, the European Union started publishing gigabytes of data in different places and formats.
To help the public connect the dots and tally figures, a series of “hacktivists” and open-data advocates have created several free, online tools. European Union lobbying, voting and spending are now on mostly full, and sometimes embarrassing, display.
However, it can take hours of clicking from page to page to get a sense of the EU machinery, and at times a high level of technical skills is required.
To help, POLITICO reviews seven, free tools that offer a data-driven peek at how the EU runs.
Tool: EU Integrity Watch
Transparency International launched EU Integrity Watch in late June.
The lobby watchdog pools the data from the EU’s transparency register, the meetings with lobbyists that EU commissioners reported, and the MEPs’ declarations of financial interests.
The tool allows people to calculate how much, say, Google spends on EU lobbying (between €3.5 million and €3.7 million a year), see which Commissioner meets the most lobbyists (Miguel Arias Cañete, energy commissioner) or which MEPs earns the most money outside Parliament (Michèle Alliot-Marie).
“[Integrity Watch] has the means and contacts behind it to make sure the data doesn’t just sit on a server somewhere on the Internet,” Daniel Freund, project coordinator for EU Integrity Watch told POLITICO earlier.
The project is managed by Transparency International’s Brussels office and received funding from the Open Society Initiative for Europe and the King Baudouin Foundation.
Fun fact: Home sweet home, the tool’s data shows that EU commissioners tend to meet up with organizations that have their headquarters in the commissioners’ home countries.
Do MEPs actually … well, vote?
Tools: VoteWatch, MEPRanking, Parltrack
Several tools help measure political involvement.
VoteWatch is arguably the best-known tool to browse and scrutinize the data.
VoteWatch’s data include calculations of the times MEPs show up for votes, whether they vote along party lines, what coalitions dominate the plenary chambers decisions, and whether parliamentarians show up to vote at all. It also has a section about the Council, which looks at how member countries are voting.
“The platform still digs up masses of hidden information and makes it accessible in a searchable format,” said Ronny Patz, a blogger involved in the EU’s open-data community for years.
When the Parliament celebrated the first year of the current (8th) term, VoteWatch showed that UKIP was “the laziest” party in Europe: Nigel Farage’s MEPs were around for about 6 out of 10 votes.
Founded in 2009 by Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics, and Doru Frantescu, the organization’s current director, VoteWatch gets funding from grants, paid-for services like reports, sponsorship and donations.
MEPRanking is very much alike, but ranks MEPs by how many motions they table, written opinions they contribute, their participation rate and other criteria.
MEPRanking churns out long lists of the most- and least-active MEPs per group, country, and so on. It’s an accessible and simple tool, but those looking for a deeper dive will probably prefer VoteWatch.
Parltrack could be one of the most obscure tools to the wider public, but hacktivists claim it is a corner stone for the transparency movement.
“The hard work put into Parltrack has meant so much for so many projects,” said Joel Purra, a hacktivist and developer involved in several open-data projects on EU affairs. “Without it, many of the investigative and visually appealing transparency tools would never have gotten off the ground.”
Parltrack turns MEP documents, voting records and profile pages into structured data, and has become a de facto application programming interface (API) for the europarl.europa.eu domain.
What’s the secret? In contrast to VoteWatch, Parltrack is open-source. Its code is hosted on GitHub, the world’s foremost platform for collaborative coding. It relies on volunteers to improve and maintain the tool, and takes donations via its website.
The pen behind EU’s data protection rules
LobbyPlag deserves a mention.
“The data scraped and presented by LobbyPlag is impressive. Within thousands of documents and amendments they found links between lobbyists and MEPs who copy-pasted from lobbyists’ documents,” said Purra, the hacktivist and developer.
LobbyPlag, founded in early 2013, focuses on the data protection regulation only, which has been one of the EU’s most contested rules in recent years. It scans the regulatory drafts for textual similarities to the stacks of leaked and public documents in its database.
Fun fact: When LobbyPlag debuted, then-Liberal MEP Louis Michel (and father of current Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel) came under fire for tabling more than 200 amendments, many of which were remarkably similar to industry proposals. His response to national media was that he “never spoke to a lobbyist.”
How many lobbyists does it take to…?
LobbyFacts tracks spending of lobby organizations based on their entries in the Transparency Register. That in itself isn’t revolutionary — as other tools use the same information (often LobbyFacts’ through API) — but the tool puts the information in an easy-to-read table with a search function.
If you want a list of French trade unions lobbying the EU, for example, you can then drill down to read about the four people advocating for Champagne wines.
Teaser: Erik Wesselius, senior policy researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, which manages the tool, said they are working on a “way-back machine,” which would allow visitors to scroll back and forth in time. They’re hoping for a year-end launch.
Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Founded last year, Thumbs of Europe aims to gauge people’s support for EU proposals — in a Reddit kind of way. Visitors can browse proposals and give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It’s a mix of e-governance and citizen participation.
The platform was created by two youngsters working in Brussels and a developer in Silicon Valley. The team works with volunteer contributors to collect and summarize EU bills. It relies on a nascent, but growing community to vote on the bills and crowdsource more information.
Funding is on its way: The project won this year’s Advocate Europe idea challenge.
One-stop for EU data
Tool: The EU’s own open data portal
The institutions’ data portal also has some value. It publishes data by the European Commission, Eurostat, numerous EU agencies and other institutions.
The portal, which went live in December 2012, is supposed to boost “economic activity,” “better policy-making” and “administrative efficiency,” as well as “an image of openness,” according to its description.
Teaser: The EU data portal is expecting a sister named the Pan-European Data Portal. The project, led by technology company Capgemini and costing €8 million, will streamline data coming out of EU members. It will take up 2,500 terabytes of server space, or about 15 percent of the European Commission’s in-house capacity, IT Pro reports.
Follow the money
The tenders electronic daily is the EU’s public procurement journal, publishing projects and tenders. Analyzing the data is tricky, to say the least, and so a group of journalists, developers and researchers started OpenTED.
The website has published the data in an accessible, text-friendly format since 2012. It takes some spreadsheet skills and a slightly more powerful computer to have a go at it, but OpenTED takes a first crack at opening EU spending data.