‘Geospatial industry must connect with the audit world’

‘Geospatial industry must connect with the audit world’


Saskia J. Stuiveling
President, Court of Audit, The Netherlands

Governments and public auditors will only use new possibilities if they are made to understand what these new techniques could do for them, says Saskia J. Stuiveling, President, Court of Audit, The Netherlands, as she explains how her office is pioneering the use of geospatial information and technology in audit work

What is the mandate and mission of the Court of Audit, The Netherlands? How does it collaborate with audit organisations of other countries?
The Court of Audit, The Netherlands, is an independent institution which checks whether the central government’s revenue and expenditure are received and spent correctly, and whether the government policy is implemented as intended. Like all central audit organisations, our mandate is to audit the government’s annual budget execution on a national level.

We collaborate with other national audit organisations under the umbrella of the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions [INTOSAI], which has 200 members. We have seven regions with regional conferences and a world conference every three years. Between conferences we have intensive contacts in working groups which look into topics that are of interest for the whole audit community. For instance, we have a very active working group on environmental auditing, which focuses on environmental policies of various governments. The environment doesn’t have fences or borders— water flows regardless of whether it’s Nigerian, Indian or Pakistani. So we send working groups and try to make joint audits. For instance, we have done one such audit recently in Europe around the Danube river to make one stream of information about how the quality of water was being monitored by different governments in that region.

Geoinformation could help us in these kinds of audits where location is important. Location is the key element in a lot of government policies. So if we could combine public finance public policy with geo technology, it could not only help implement a better policy but also help us know more about the public finance, its regularity and its use. That is why I am interested in combining the two worlds.

How did it all start, the idea of incorporating location in audit work?
The first time I understood the powerful possibilities of integrated information was when I was the chair of the Global Working Group on Environmental Auditing. This was around 20 years ago in Peru. The governments of Peru and neighbouring Brazil both suffered illegal logging in the shared Humboldt forest area and were accusing each other.

So the audits offices in the two countries joined forces. They painstakingly mapped the permissions for legal forestry and reconstructed a map about how the forest should look from air. Then they took aerial photographs of the forest to map the actual scene. The outcome of the comparison of the theoretical map and the real picture was more than enlightening: the forest was logged in such a way from both sides of the border that a road cut right through it. This was an eye-opener and called for an immediate re-look at the permission granting process for logging.

The results of this audit could not have been obtained and visualised so clearly without making use of geospatial information. So far, we had only seen its implementation in administrative work but this audit was designed to compare the information available with the administration with a totally different set of information.

How can geo technology be used to audit national programmes?
The key to good governance is sound information. The need for sound information is as old as the world. But the form in which information can be gathered and analysed has dramatically changed. For instance, you have statistics about various illnesses in The Netherlands or the population of the aged and how they are located. Now, you can follow their location and find out if the money meant for the elderly or the ailing is really going to the right people.

This can be used in any project involving distribution for social and health care. Checking on subsidies, for instance, is a good example where location is used for auditing. Take the example of Baltimore in the USA. There were about 15 different subsidies related to housing in the poorer areas. Auditors so far audited each subsidy separately and found them to be alright. Then came a new auditor who took a map of the area and plotted the recipients by zip code and subsidy by subsidy until he had in the same map all 15 different subsidies. The outcome was again an eye opener for the policymakers: the accumulation of different subsidies for different purposes on but a few zip codes contrary to what the policies where designed for!

When you put location-based data and other data on a map, it gives you a better insight as to what and where to look for. All governments should make all policies with a location element in it, and could then combine these with the geo-presentation techniques.

The Netherlands Audit Court’s another successful project has been one on money laundering. How did you use geospatial technology for studying something like money laundering?
We made maps out of data available from different courts in the country and checked how many such cases were filed over a period of, say, six years. We found there were a lot of money laundering cases in the northern parts and asked prosecutors about the reasons. We realised no one had ever given a thought to it! The study raised questions about the money trail in those parts or if the police was uniformly vigilant across the country.

We also mapped the money flow to developing corporations. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not know how the money stream over time was distributed to countries. They said they had a policy, and they roughly knew what went to which country, but that data was not fairly reliable. So we plotted all the money on the first-recipient basis for two years. We could see that about one-third of the money directly went to New York and Washington because the World Bank, United Nations, UNDP et al are based there. So the proportion of money going to the multilateral organisations was far bigger compared to the little money streams going to individual countries. That was the first outcome.

There was also a second outcome. The government has what it calls a list of ‘concentration countries’, or real poor countries which need urgent attention. Over the years, the list keeps on changing with new ones being added while the older names are not struck off. Now, you can’t have 17 countries on the concentration list while the 3-billion euro fund is actually going to 42 countries! That is not the meaning of concentration. Geospatial helped us plot and map the money flow. Things become more explanatory when you have a map.

Do you think this technology is being widely used by auditors across the world?
I don’t think so. And the reason is that the geospatial industry is not reaching out to others and making them understand what all could be done with this innovative technology. Auditors on their part are also not looking outside their normal processes to check out new methods and whether these could improve their existing processes.

It is a double-sided problem; a typical problem of innovation. Innovation tends to be a problem if the people who are innovating do not understand how wonderful their innovations are. They normally tend to club together and close the door to the outside world, which then becomes a problem of the existing culture and existing methods.

Which countries have evolved in this aspect?
England is active about open data on spending. The US has very nice Website called recovery. gov where you can follow the money for recovery. Brazil has some active open database with maps. But I don’t think this is enough. It’s not a structural place in the technique of the auditors to use geospatial techniques and my aim is to bring this technique to the audit world so that they use it as a normal method.

I want governments to use these techniques as part of their workflows. And this shouldn’t be only for infrastructure projects where geospatial is more or less present. The government and the geospatial world should work together in other domains like social welfare, deprived areas, neighbourhood projects, environment…

So would you say your office is doing this from a pioneering standpoint and it is something unique in its way?
We are pioneering in the audit world. But the technique in the geospatial world is more mature than our use. In that sense we are pioneering, not innovating things. We do not even have a special geo division within the Court of Audit. We hire from outside. But we do have a special group that has the responsibility of coming up with ideas in this area, both within our office as well as others.

How do you advocate this technology to the audit world?
Young people are looking forward to it. Some of them are intrigued because I keep coming back with the same idea. But they do need examples to make the usefulness of this technique vivid and they have to support each other.

What is your message to the geospatial industry?
I would request the geospatial industry to take an interest in the world of public finance and public audit. Governments and public auditors will only use new possibilities and technologies if we are made to understand what this technology could do for them. The geo industry has to reach out to connect their and our worlds.