Airing Your Business in Public

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The US government spent $208 million on consulting services with Deloitte in 2013. That’s just with “Deloitte Consulting L. L. P.”. There are several variations on that name.

Astonishingly, almost 50% of that was paid just by the state of Virginia. One transaction paid for on the 30 July was for $7.4 million.

This isn’t to pick on Deloitte or infer anything about their relationship with the US government. After all, Virginia spent $90 billion last year in over 266,000 transactions.

No, rather it is to show what information is now in the public domain.

The Open Data revolution has been sweeping out and across the world. Data which is freely available for anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute that the source is called Open.

Kicked off by Public Access to Information laws, the Bills got teeth when the UK and US decided to automate data release through online software.

USAspending.gov, along with the plethora of Data.dot sites (data.gov, data.gov.uk, etc.) are all about the numbers. Every single transaction with the US federal government can be found in USAspending.gov.

The US are not the only ones. Sweden, along with other Nordic nations, is developing a real-time online service where all government interactions are listed as soon as they happen. That includes company tax filings, VAT payments and PAYE transactions.

Relax, this level of scrutiny isn’t coming to South Africa any time soon. Not for lack of trying – the local open data community is extremely active but their battles are ones like attempting to get Statistics South Africa to make spreadsheets of data available – instead of scanned documents – to save us hacks having to retype massive datasets.

But that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen or that you won’t be exposed. If you do business with a multinational corporation which also does business with governments in Europe or the US, chances are their transactions are likely to be subjected to similar scrutiny.

So far, so panic.

On the other hand, what’s wrong with transparency? Wouldn’t you like to know the revenues of other businesses similar to your own to figure out if you’re doing as well (or better) than you expected? How about finding out that your landlord is charging you way more than any of the other tenants near you? You could negotiate better prices with your suppliers…

In 2005, I ran a competitive business startup competition for the Western Cape Government called the 1000×1000. We asked people to come up with ideas to start a business for R1,000 and we then provided the cash and support to get them running.

As part of that competition I required that every consultant publish the business plans they produced on WikiMedia. Many rebelled, claiming confidentiality.

I have to wonder what confidentiality there is in starting a business no different from anyone else’s? We had hundreds of vetkoek sellers, dress-makers and spaza shops. Surely a single business plan for each business type ensures that all the best ideas and most important information gets into one place instead of hundreds of individual, poorly-written plans?

The consultants saw it as a threat to their livelihoods. Sure, for the worst consultants. The best would know that helping people to use information is the real skill.

So, here’s a challenge to you… what information would you like to see in public that you believe would help your business?

Would you like to see how much money the council spends in your area on safety and security? How about a crime map for every crime committed in your area, including the times when those crimes occur? Rental pricing? Property values? Delivery costs? Electricity availability?

All businesses rely on timely information. Write to us and let us know what would help you do better.

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Gavin Chait is the owner, data engineer and development economist at Whythawk. Follow Gavin on Linkedin

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