Why C5 Launched a Global Anti-corruption Innovation Challenge

As part of my earlier career, I worked with intrepid African leaders like Mandela, Mbeki, Kuofor and Kibaki who were determined to combat corruption for the health of their countries’ democracies. In South Africa, the capacity building work I led early on in South Africa’s new democracy from 1996-1998 culminated in the formation of the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) or the Scorpions, one of the most successful anti-corruption units in Africa’s history.  

Those experiences showed me how the tentacles of grand corruption can reach to a high level across many countries. I have seen how corruption is corrosive, ruining lives, keeping people poor and threatening democracy. This often involves narcotics which is closely interlinked to the finance of terrorism.

But we are not just talking about grand corruption involving big conspiracies and criminal networks. No, it is not just the high level stuff of Netflix dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, because corruption seeps down to the mundane, to housing officials taking small bribes or seeking favours, customs officers turning a blind eye, and pharmacists taking payments for medicines never administered.

And although countries at war, or those rebuilding after being ripped apart by conflict, are the most vulnerable, no nation, even the most developed and sophisticated, is immune.

Corruption can be defeated- and innovation and technology create new opportunities to combat corruption. That is why C5’s Cloud Leadership Centre (CLC) launched the Shield in the Cloud Innovation Challenge, the first global anti-corruption innovation challenge, the winners of which will be announced in Washington on the 20th March with the legendary former District Attorney Preet Bharara as our keynote speaker.

We foster innovation across the major US cloud platforms, because we can see how it provides a new weapon in the armoury of those fighting corruption, harnessing not only the power of the cloud but also of cyber and space technology.

Perhaps its most important role is to provide the connectivity that enables people working against corruption to share information so that they are no longer operating in isolation with all the dangers that brings.

Technology also creates high levels of transparency, whether it is monitoring election booths or recording daily incidents of petty bribery, producing information that can be shared locally, nationally and internationally.

That information provides the raw material for big data analytics which can process it to map corruption, identify trends and patterns, and shine a spotlight on the links and correlations that help identify the culprits.

Blockchain is a valuable weapon in stamping out dishonesty as the digital ledger system provides a trusted way of recording transactions that offers a valuable alternative in countries where official systems are discredited.

New technology allows improved training, on smartphones, laptops, in real time or through video and text.

And it has opened up a whole new field of forensics, giving investigators the ability to follow a trail of communications and transactions across mobile phones, emails and computer systems, helping them collate evidence that courts can trust.

At the heart of all this is cloud computing which has transformed the economics and security of computing, doing away with the need to have racks of costly servers that were easily targeted by corrupt officials.

We know that anti-corruption work can be hard, dangerous, sometimes lonely and often overlooked, so we want to provide encouragement at the same time as building up networks where the best people working in the field can connect with each other and with technologists working in other areas.

The aim of Shield in the Cloud is to nurture the next phase of innovation and encourage building networks and information sharing. We have set up the challenge across five categories: not-for-profit; start-ups; government; corporate and bold leadership. Entrants are judged on criteria such as innovation, affordability, transferability and scalability. In 2018 we recognised the innovation done by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)’s Special Operations Division (SOD) in a data sharing platform with all other law enforcement agencies around arrests and cases. We also recognised anti-corruption innovation in the Ukraine in the use of blockchain by ProZorro to protect property rights, Citibank’s Tech in Integrity programme and Ushahidi, an African start-up that brings transparency to elections. 

It is not just about recognising the organisations developing new technologies and applications themselves, we want to make policy and decision makers aware of what can be done and to reward those organisations that are encouraging others.

There is a strong link between fighting corruption, financial crime and cyber security and the three areas often overlap.

Fighting corruption is really about protecting the poor because if corruption is left to fester it harms the prospects of children getting a good education or a job, it increases the cost of living, prevents people saving and makes it impossible to get out of poverty.

Anti-corruption investigations are not for the faint of heart, but technology gives anti-corruption investigators an edge and we are confident that Shield in the Cloud will drive innovation and collaboration to strengthen and sharpen that edge.

Andre D.F. Pienaar