Hacking Corruption: Data for Democracy

If they’re looking for material, Ian Rankin, Louise Penny and other police/crime thriller fiction writers need only read Montreal news. But they don’t have to change much, the plot’s right here.

The Charbonneau Commission, an inquiry into the “awarding and management of public contracts in the construction industry,” is in fact a probe into corruption, revealing the extent of corruption among civil servants in Montreal and the city of Laval, a populous nearby suburb, and just how far Mafia tentacles reach. The hearings have heard testimonies from witnesses about money stuffed in socks, a safe in the office of  the ruling municipal party so crammed with illegal cash donations it would not close, a city engineer who accepted kickbacks in exchange for ensuring certain Mafia-linked construction companies were awarded city of Montreal contracts. Testimony revealed similar problems in Laval, with allegations that the mayor accepted kickbacks.

Many Montrealers have grumbled in disbelief at the revelations and there was plenty of anger when the city’s ruling party recently introduced yet another property tax hike even though opposition parties at city hall say property tax hikes have added up to nearly 16 per cent over the past four years. When mayor Gérald Tremblay resigned earlier this week after a Charbonneau Commission witness swore the mayor knew what was going on (Tremblay insisted he was unaware of corruption connected to city contracts for most of the 11 years  and says he informed police whenever wrongdoings came to his attention and lobbied for the setup of the Charbonneau Commission), some people celebrated.

Yesterday there was even more fallout. Laval’s mayor, Gilles Vaillancourt, finally resigned after taking a sick leave/period of reflection while facing a slew of corruption allegations at the Charbonneau Commission.  Michael Applebaum stepped down as chair (president) of Montreal’s executive committee, apparently because his colleagues opposed Applebaum’s wishes to publicly release a report confirming Montreal pays 30 to 40 per cent extra for municipal contracts. Applebaum’s critics question whether this is the true reason for his resignation since he was passed over as his party’s candidate for interim mayor of Montreal.

While this weekend’s Hacking Corruption hackathon has been in the works for months, it couldn’t come at a better time.

There’s something inspiring about young, optimistic computer developer, software engineer and startup types inviting other citizens to do something about this dark and depressing problem. There’s something incredibly cool about people believing in using open data to solve corruption, improve democracy and fuel citizen engagement.

They’ve even invited Jacques Duchesneau, who’s developed a reputation as a crimebuster. A former Montreal police chief who once headed up a special anti-collusion unit investigating the workings of Transport Quebec, these days Duchesneau is a member of Quebec’s National Assembly and justice critic with Coalition Avenir Québec and he’s advocating for changes in how municipal parties receive and spend donations.

It may be impossible to create a corruption-proof system for awarding city contracts and collusion among contract bidders, but why not try. Instead of whining about the Mafia ripping off taxpayers, why not create apps and other tools to watch where who gets contracts and who benefits when contracts are awarded. Computers software apps, tools and sites designed to track these contracts and flag increases when costs supposedly rise would definitely make a difference, especially for journalists but also for citizen watchdogs.

The Montreal Gazette’s Roberto Rocha, a judge for this weekend’s anti-corruption hackathon, reports projects will include:  a “contract vigilence” applinking data from the Montreal Gazette’s database of Montreal and Laval city contracts with the Quebec government’s SEAO database of public tenders and another app linking business donors with political party donations. Datasets will include  information from the Quebec government registry of Quebec companies, public calls to tender and donations to political parties.

The open data movement may even change Montreal’s bureaucratic, outmoded way of governing. Why not effect change by convincing politicians and civil servants to see the benefits of being transparent with civic information and taxpayer dollars? Pressuring the city to divulge this sort of information in an open data format that computers can easily handle will make it easy to create more tools to engage people in their city’s government. It will make transparency a given. It’s time we eliminate secrecy in city contracts and trade it in for accountability. We need to know as much as possible about who bids on the contracts, who gets the work and how.

If you can’t make Québec Ouvert’s  Hacking Corruption Hackathon this weekend, this Thurday the Montreal Semantic Web Meetup Group is examining “the role of the semantic web as an interface between government and the governed.”  Soon technology may play a big and useful role in helping the “governed” keep a watch on their governments.

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