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Photo by Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press

Houston — The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today announced a grant to the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) to expand its anticorruption research hub at Columbia Law School. CAPI is bringing investigators, prosecutors, oversight authorities, academics, and ethics officials together to develop the alliances, tools, and insights needed to tackle corruption at all layers of government. A major portion of the center’s expanded efforts will be focused on developing best practices for harnessing data to deter and combat government fraud.

Corruption costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year and drains funding from essential public services such as education and public safety. Despite the size and scale of the problem, little progress has been made in improving the way governments identify and address cases of fraud. Agencies often rely on inefficient investigation methods, such as random audits and tips from whistleblowers, to detect instances of bribe-taking, bid rigging, theft, and waste. With the $425,000 grant from LJAF, CAPI will seek to develop protocols that will improve the effectiveness of anticorruption agencies and make it easier for investigators to uncover abuses of public authority for private gain.

One of the center’s top priorities will be to create a set of best practices for using data analysis to help detect corruption. Cities across the country have used data to track and respond to violent crime hot spots, and CAPI will work with experts in data collection and corruption to build a similar framework that can be used to pinpoint areas where fraud is likely to occur. The framework will help investigators and agencies direct limited resources to the most probable problem areas and will address common challenges such as how to collect data efficiently, how to determine what questions data can be used to answer, and how to measure whether prevention efforts are working.

CAPI will seek to create simple data-driven solutions for reducing corruption that can be implemented by local governments without costly data analysis systems. It will analyze various strategies to identify promising approaches. One such approach may be based on a mapping project focused on scaffolding inspection violations in New York City. By plotting all of the violations, city officials noticed that inspectors assigned to certain neighborhoods were diligent about issuing citations, while inspectors in other areas issued very few, if any, citations. CAPI explained that this prompted the city to investigate the lax enforcement practices, leading to numerous arrests and other disciplinary actions, as well as recommended structural changes aimed at preventing a recurrence of the problem.

Other promising anticorruption measures include cross-referencing vendor data to find businesses that are under contract with one city department despite failing to provide services to another, and comparing state and city payroll data to identify employees who are collecting a city paycheck while simultaneously receiving state unemployment benefits. CAPI says these types of simple exercises will allow all governments — even those with limited budgets and experience with data analysis — to strengthen oversight and improve the way they manage taxpayer dollars.

“Corruption is not just a financial problem. It erodes trust and transparency, and ultimately makes it difficult for government agencies to serve the public,” LJAF Vice President of Venture Development Kelli Rhee explained. “CAPI’s data toolkit and its additional resources will allow anticorruption agencies to develop innovative systems that can be used to help make government more open and accountable.”

“Corruption is notoriously difficult to identify and expose. The large amount of data collected by governments at various levels can give cities a real edge in rooting out corruption, but only if properly utilized,” explained CAPI Executive Director Jennifer Rodgers. “With the support of LJAF, CAPI is creating simple and inexpensive ways for cities to hone in on true corruption risks, which will increase both the efficiency and efficacy of their anticorruption efforts.”