champagne anarchist | armchair activist

Open company data in the Netherlands

Awkward: according to an Open Corporates ranking, the Netherlands is among the least transparant countries in Europe when it comes to company data. In many countries, the company register has been opened up as open data. Examples include the UK, France, Belgium, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Norway and Denmark (according to Open State).

In November 2015, the Dutch Lower House adopted a motion asking if the Dutch Company Register can be opened up. It took a while, but on 17 July this year, the Chamber of Commerce has published two datasets. Open State, an organisation that advocates for government transparency, is not impressed. Is their criticism justified?

The data

Two datasets have been published, and they will be updated on a weekly basis. One contains company data from the Company Register, including city, industry, establishment date, etc. The other contains data from annual accounts. The accounts are in a zip file containing 580,000 xml files.

The data has been anonymised. According to the Chamber of Commerce, this is necessary in order to protect the privacy of entrepreneurs. Incidentally, non-anonimised data is still available at a charge from the Chamber of Commerce.

Research institute TNO has also looked into the matter. It agrees that the privacy of entrepreneurs must be protected, but deems the solution (anonymising all data) unnecessarily drastic.

Anonymising data not only makes it impossible to look up data about individual companies, but also restricts the possibilities for data analysis. For example, it’s not possible to track changes over time at the company level.

The annual accounts

The open data contains only those annual accounts that companies have submitted digitally, in the right format. It contains 185,000 annual accounts for 2016, whereas 255,000 companies have filed their annual account for that year with the Chamber of Commerce (according to the Company Register dataset). Especially the accounts of some of the larger companies appear to be missing. For 2015 and before, even more accounts seem to be missing.

This means, among other things, that it’s not really possible to calculate aggregate amounts for industries. However, the Chamber of Commerce expects that more companies will file their annual account in digital form in the future.

Almost all annual accounts in the open data contain at least a few items from the balance sheet, but other essential data is missing:

  • In almost all cases, the income statement is missing (small companies are not required to file their income statement, but this information is also lacking for larger companies).
  • The number of employees is missing.
  • Over half the annual accounts lack an industry code.

Significant step?

Open State has called the publication of the data a «first small step». Given the limitations of the data, I can see their point.

The Chamber of Commerce quoted Minister Henk Kamp, who spoke of a «significant step». His statement was based on a report by the Chamber of Commerce. The report suggested that it would be possible to aggregate data by number of employees, or to analyse concentration ratios.

I’m afraid that’s not possible with the current data. In fact, one may ask whether it’s at all possible to draw conclusions from this data (I’m not the only one who’s asking that question). Hopefully, this is indeed just a first step towards a truly open company register.

Here’s a Python script that will download and unzip the data and store the annual accounts as a csv. This may take a while.

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