champagne anarchist | armchair activist

The network of Dutch firms

One of the ways in which firms are linked is through board members who also sit on the boards of other firms. Researchers use these board interlocks to determine which firms occupy a central position in the corporate network. This «is widely considered as an indication of a powerful or at least advantageous position», Frank Takes and Eelke Heemskerk explain in an interesting paper on the subject.

Two Dutch newspapers, de Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad, have published visualisations of the Dutch (corporate) elite and their board memberships. You can use the data from those visualisations to create board interlock networks. Below is an example using data from NRC Handelsblad from 2017:

Darker nodes represent organisations with a more central position in the network, as measured by their betweenness centrality. Below is another example, using data from de Volkskrant from 2013:

The most obvious difference is that the second graph contains far more nodes (organisations) and edges (shared board members) than the 2017 chart. But there’s more. The 2017 dataset contains only nodes that have at least two edges - probably the result of a selection criterion used by NRC Handelsblad because of the type of visualisation they wanted to make. Further, the 2013 dataset consists of multiple components: three sets of organisations only share board members with each other; not with the rest of the network.

Given the differences between the datasets, would it still be meaningful to make comparisons between the two? The table below shows the top 10 of organisations with the highest centrality scores, for 2013 and 2017. The comparison is limited to organisations that are included in both datasets.

2013 2017
VNO-NCW VNO-NCW
DNB Ahold
Concertgebouw Concertgebouw
KLM KLM
ABN Amro Schiphol
Aegon NV FrieslandCampina
Concertgebouw Fonds Philips
DSM DNB
Philips Rabobank Groep
Heineken NV Vopak

Organisations like employers’ organisation VNO-NCW, the Concertgebouw concert hall and airline KLM seem to occupy a pretty stable position at the centre of the network. VNO-NCW has a huge non-executive board with representatives from a wide range of industries. The Concertgebouw has been described years ago as the living room of the [Dutch] elite.

Aside from these stable elements, there are substantial differences between the two rankings. The rank correlation is only 0.33 and not statistically significant. This may be due to differences in the way the datasets were created; the small size of the overlap between them (only 34 organisations) and other data quality issues.

On the other hand, some changes in the ranking appear to reflect genuine changes in the position firms occupy. Two examples:

  • One of the fastest risers is Ahold. Ahold merged with Belgian retailer Delhaize in 2016. It would seem plausible that this has strengthened their position in the corporate network.
  • ABN Amro disappeared from the top 10. The bank used to have a board with well-connected members like Gerrit Zalm and Joop Wijn (both have gone through the revolving door between government and the corporate world), Peter Wakkie and Marjan Oudeman (one of the most influential Dutch women according to various rankings). In 2015, chairman Wakkie stepped down over a commotion caused by excessive executive board remunerations (the bank was still state-owned after having been bailed out with public money in 2008). Subsequently, Oudeman, Zalm and Wijn also left the bank, for reasons partly related to its upcoming flotation. It appears the current board has a lower profile.

This type of analyses could benefit enormously from having a larger dataset available. This is yet another reason why the Dutch Company Register should be opened up as open data: this will allow for better understanding of the networks of corporate control.

Method and data

Both de Volkskrant (2013, 2014) and NRC Handelsblad (2017) have published visualisations of the Dutch (corporate) elite and their board memberships. Note that these board memberships not only include companies, but also employers’ organisations, cultural institutions and other types of organisations the collectors of the data deemed relevant for analysing corporate elite networks.

Before comparisons can be made, the names of the organisations need to be cleaned up. Beyond correcting typos and dealing with additions like N.V. (plc) and B.V. (ltd), this involves deciding when to consider units as part of the same organisation. Pragmatically, I decided to treat businesses that are part of the same corporate structure as identical. This may not always be the ideal approach; on the other hand, it’s not always possible to determine what unit a name refers to (e.g. ING could refer to the holding or to one of its subsidiaries). I did treat foundations (e.g. charities linked to a company) as separate from the company.

There are different ways to measure the centrality of a node in a network. Taking my cue from Takes and Heemskerk, I used betweenness centrality, which is based on how often a node is on the shortest path between two other nodes. I calculated centrality for the entire network, that is, before taking a subgraph. I included endpoints to prevent many nodes having a score of zero.

I used the Python library networkx to analyse the graphs (here’s the code and here’s the accompanying text file for cleaning up organisation names). I used d3.js to visualise the network graphs - here’s a description of the problems I ran into and how I dealt with them.

Dutch rail passengers are observed by cameras in advertising columns

«What are those mini cameras doing in that advertising column!», a Twitter user asked today. In a response, Dutch Railways (NS) said that advertisers use the cameras to assess whether passengers look at advertising and for how long.

A spokesperson of Exterion, the owner of the advertising columns, told Dutch broadcaster NOS that as many as 35 such cameras are already observing passengers at Amsterdam Central Station. Reportedly, the cameras can determine the gender of people and estimate their age. In the future, facial recognition and emotion detection may be added, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

Exterion assures that images will never be stored, but doesn’t make that claim about (personal) data gleaned from the images. They told another broadcaster, RTLZ, the cameras only register «‘ones and zeros’, for example whether someone is male or female, so no sensitive data from a privacy perspective». Such a statement may not be the best way to convince people you take privacy seriously.

A spokesperson of the Dutch Privacy Authority told NOS that they will investigate the matter, but «in general, cameras in public spaces may not be used for advertising purposes». The party leader of the Green Party in Amsterdam, Rutger Groot Wassink, has called for direct action: «Who will join me tomorrow in taping up these bloody things».

UPDATE 11 September 2017 - According to media reports, Exterion has announced it will temporarily turn off the 35 cameras in advertising columns at Amsterdam Central Station, because of «the commotion» they caused. They ascribe the commotion to insufficient communication, which suggests they see nothing wrong in the cameras as such and may turn them back on in the future. Members of Parliament have asked questions about the cameras (SP, D66).

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Scraping LinkedIn profiles could be legal. Is that creepy?

An interesting American court ruling discusses whether the company hiQ Labs may legally scrape public LinkedIn profiles and sell analyses based on that information.

LinkedIn tries to portray this as an attack to its efforts to protect the privacy of its users. Some media seem to buy this line: Having a public profile just got more risky (the Independent); Is your boss checking up on you? Court rules software IS allowed to look for changes to your LinkedIn profile that suggest you’re quitting your job (Daily Mail).

It’s worthwhile to read the actual ruling. Judge Edward M. Chen pretty much trashes LinkedIn’s argument:

LinkedIn’s professed privacy concerns are somewhat undermined by the fact that LinkedIn allows other third-parties to access user data without its members’ knowledge or consent.

LinkedIn specifically refered to users who use the don’t broadcast feature, which prevents the site from notifying other users when these users make profile changes. hiQ could be violating these users’ privacy by informing their employers about profile changes, which may be an indication that they’re looking for another job.

However, hiQ presented marketing materials from LinkedIn suggesting LinkedIn does exactly the same:

Indeed, these materials inform potential customers that when they ‘follow’ another user, «[f]rom now on, when they update their profile or celebrate a work anniversary, you‘ll receive an update on your homepage. And don‘t worry – they don‘t know you‘re following them.»

All in all, LinkedIn has credibility issues when it claims it’s protecting its users’ privacy. Perhaps what hiQ does is creepy, but not more creepy than what LinkedIn is doing itself. (It’s a bit reminiscent of Facebook, which limited access to user data through it’s public API, claiming it was protecting its users’ privacy.)

There’s more to the case than just the privacy issue. For example, can a website owner prohibit the automated retrievel of otherwise public information? Can they sanction specific users for even looking at their website («effectuating the digital equivalence of Medusa»)? And is it ok for LinkedIn to use it’s dominant position in the professional networking market to stifle competition in a different market? It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Via. Ruling downloadable from the Register

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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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Bike share in Amsterdam: who benefits

Over the past weeks, Amsterdam has been flooded by rogue bike share bicycles that can be rented with a smartphone app. Big business, according to newspaper het Parool. Amsterdammers responded to this commercial junk by placing bicycles at bulky waste disposal sites. The municipality has announced it will remove all bike share bicycles, and subsequently regulate the market.

What should a new policy look like? The use of public space must be properly regulated, as well as the quality of the bicycles. It would be nice if availability and usage data would be made available as open data through an API. Further, many people are asking whether the bicycles are meant for tourists or for Amsterdammers. The next question that should be asked: will they benefit all Amsterdammers?

American research has shown that residents of lower-income neighbourhoods are interested in bike share. Nevertheless, the bicycles are primarily used by rich, white residents. Some cities and operators do try to make the system accessible to all residents.

In Amsterdam, bike hire operator Donkey Republic focuses mainly on the central areas of the city - at least, that’s what their map suggests (the map doesn’t show actual bike locations, but it does show how they present themselves). Competitor Hello Bike focuses exclusively on the Zuidas business district.

Of course, this is not specific for bike sharing. More people ride bicycles in the richer central areas of the city than in the peripheral areas anyway. But if permits for bike share operators are to be introduced, you might as well require them to make their product attractive for and accessible to all Amsterdammers.

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