|Enigma.io offers users a simple search feature.|
Analysts, journalists, and citizens seeking to use government records to trace a company’s activities face a daunting task.
Since the U.S. federal and state governments don’t use common identifiers, researchers often expend considerable time and resources to identify information reported by the same company to different government agencies.
That’s where Enigma comes in. Enigma, one of the Coalition’s newest members, has pioneered a novel way to illuminate relationships between companies.
“We’re trying to piece this puzzle together out of currently available bits and fragments,” says Enigma’s founder and CEO Marc DaCosta. “We have to operate in creative ways to bring these disparate data sets together to produce new insights.”
Enigma scrapes a wide variety of federal and state level government websites to glean such fragments. Enigma also petitions for and buys additional information from agencies and commercial vendors. Once all those pieces of data are on its platform, Enigma applies its own algorithm to pull them together and link them to the same entity.
A recent New York Times profile exemplified how Enigma’s platform is able to pull together disconnected data points to paint a clearer picture of a company:
Ask Enigma for facts about Lockheed Martin, for example, and here are some of the disparate details that surface: Last year, this military contractor entered into agreements with the government worth about $40.7 billion. Another interesting tidbit about the company is that in 2013, Marillyn A. Hewson, the chief executive, visited the White House five times; on two of those occasions the “visitee” was “POTUS,” meaning the president of the United States, the logs indicate. And company employees reported giving about $51,000 to the presidential campaign committees Obama for America and the Obama Victory Fund.
There are many disparate identifiers in use across the federal and state governments to identify private-sector companies. Without an algorithm like Enigma’s there is no way to map the many separate identifiers to one another to track one company’s filings and activities across government.
In 2010, the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research (OFR) announced it would seek to rally U.S. financial regulatory agencies to adopt a common identifier for the companies and firms reporting to those agencies under the securities, commodities, and banking laws. But that identifier, the Legal Entity Identifier (LEI), has so far only been put in place for derivatives reporting to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). And outside financial regulation, progress toward common identification has been even rarer.
Enigma founder Marc DaCosta says that if government identifiers were standardized, Enigma’s platform could become even more powerful, offering access to more, and more reliable, data. Enigma has recently joined the Data Transparency Coalition as the trade association’s fourth Startup Member. DaCosta says he hopes the Coalition can persuade governments not only to make more data available overall, but also to make sure that it is standardized through common identifiers.
DaCosta says that the open Internet serves as a good model. When you type in a web address, for example, you need not know on what server that website is located. The Internet works so well in part because identifiers for websites–uniform resource locators or URLs–are universally used and freely available to the public. In a similar way, citizens should be able to run a simple search for a company and have access to all of that company’s public data in one place.
Through its advocacy of government-wide data reporting standards in federal spending, financial regulation, and elsewhere, the Data Transparency Coalition is seeking to make DaCosta’s vision a reality.