Can artificial intelligence stop corruption in its tracks?


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AI and data have the potential to prevent corruption. Graphic: Nicholas Nam/World Bank

The amount of goods and services that governments purchase to discharge their official business is a staggering $10 trillion per year – and is estimated at 10 to 25 percent of global GDP.  Without effective public scrutiny, the risk of money being lost to corruption and misappropriation is vast. Citizens, rightly so, are demanding more transparency around the process for awarding government contracts. And, at the end of the day, corruption hurts the poor the most by reducing access to essential services such as health and education.

For its part, the World Bank has in place robust mechanisms to sanction firms who are found to have engaged in fraud and corruption in Bank-financed operations. But an ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure. As systems and procedures continue to become more digitized, there are more opportunities to leverage available data to find the red flags that can indicate corruption and other integrity risks. But how can human beings sift through vast amounts of data to connect the dots necessary to pick up on every red flag that hints at corruption – without slowing down the government procurement process and ultimately public service delivery? 

This is why we’re looking at the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) to help us harness the power of technology to promote transparency in all aspects of government administration. AI could help prevent and mitigate corruption risks as early as possible.  This is part of a larger initiative that we are undertaking to help countries navigate how technology can positively transform the public sector.

Working with Microsoft’s Research group, we had the opportunity to see the power and potential of artificial intelligence to digest huge and diverse data sets to detect patterns that hint at the possibility of corrupt behavior. This would allow us to see links in bidding patterns of the winning and losing bidders to numeric patterns under “Benford’s Law,” along with beneficial ownership information from around the globe.  It can also allow us to better map networks of relations, locations, use of shell companies, off-shore jurisdictions, and banking information of bidders to address potential risks before a contract is issued. These are just a few examples of indicators that can be assessed to reveal potential concerns.

If we are able to collect and interrogate the available data we have on World Bank-financed procurement, and possibly combine it with datasets from other international organizations, national procurement data, and beneficial ownership or other corporate information, we can gain greater insight on how to make better decisions on public spending to assure greater value-for-money and mitigate the corrosive effects of corruption.  What’s even more exciting is the potential to take this exercise to scale and make this tool available to governments worldwide.

The promise is great, but much work remains to be done. In this early exploration of the potential of AI to improve public procurement, we’re collaborating with Microsoft, a leader in advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning to explore the potential of data driven corruption prediction and to identify data sets that prove to be of greatest value in detecting problems, and understanding what other types of data would be useful to probe. As we progress, we will be adding sets from other sources, expanding the pool of information to be probed, and further refining the tool’s potential to serve as a global public good.

Promoting the use of technology for more efficient, transparent, and responsive service delivery is a fundamental aspect of the World Bank’s commitment to fighting corruption.  Partnering with technology firms who are exploring a new frontier of possibilities will be critical to our success. This week at the Anti-Corruption Collective Action Conference, we will be sharing the initial findings of our work and hope to benefit from the input of leaders who are looking at revolutionary ways to stop corruption.

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Anand Gupta
November 16, 2018

A brilliant initiative. The work done under this initiative can be of great help in improving the management of public expenditures all over the world. I have published an article on "Improving the Management of Public Expenditures: Evidence from India" and will be happy to share it.

November 16, 2018

The entire issue in respect of corruption in government awarding contracts rests with the level of transparency that individual governments are willing to accede to. In my view until and unless governments enact a freedom of information legislation where every citizen is allowed to have access to information which they legitimately are entitled to, corruption will continue to flourish. Hence, the World Bank and all responsible institutions have a duty to ensure that unless a "Freedom of Information Act" is in force, no financial assistance will be made available. Moreover, very often certain governments regularly resort to "confidentiality" clause apparently imposed by donor countries. Such practices can be the very source of high level corruption.

Yitayih Fentie
November 16, 2018

It is very interesting view that can initiate people to satand against corruption. Corruption is a vital cancer of citizines that kills alive.

Patrick Henz
November 17, 2018

Artificial Intelligence (including Machine- and Deep-Learning) can be an efficient tool to fight corruption, as it is superior in identifying patterns and statistical relations, this also to create different predictive scenarios.
On the other hand, AI alone does not solve human problems, it requires human determination and creativity.

Terry Hill
November 21, 2018

What role do you see for Blockchain in conjunction with AI, in this pursuit?

November 23, 2018

Thank you for sharing the constructive use of AI to harvest useful information by imploring available diverse data sets.
The procedure may be complaint with the agreed procedure but fails in principle i.e., fulfilling the basic tenets of procurement!. Though the undercurrents of various practices with malicious intentions were exist before, but the analysis would be difficult by manual methods/or by traditional computer tools like spread sheets and/or statistical software. Now with the availability AI, technological platforms and data, appropriate use of AI will generate insightful information, which may be used for decision support by the policy makers and other stakeholders. As mentioned in the blog, this information may be used to plug the gaps and loopholes in the processes. The evident end result is enhanced transparency and reduced corruption.
Now the time to use AI effectively to map various routine processes in the governance, particularly in procurement domain. In parallel, need to develop a professionals capable of using harvested information to day to day decision support: corrective and concurrent feedback! rather than post event corrective measure. This may streamline processes, integrate seamlessly with other vertical and horizontal functions with internal as well as external clients/stakeholders. In turn deliver mandate of accountable Governance function i.e., Development effectiveness... Efficacy.

December 07, 2018

Wouldn't making this available to governments worldwide give the corrupt governments to be more efficient? food for thought

January 25, 2019

AI helps in answering basic queries which allow humans to tackle more complex problems and improve the speed and efficiency of decisions. Thank you for this article.

Jesus A Arroyo
February 09, 2019

An excellent project, in particular for less developed countries. AI and algorithms may be adapted for those countries since data sets concerning public spending transparency are lacking or incomplete.
We are working in developing a virtual network of anti-corruption citizens in order to share a standardized procedure for identifying corruption providing accurate prove as possible. Fist we will focus on public works where corruption is larger and more complicated to be identified. We are working on other projects related to public policy at The Institute of Advanced Studies in Social Networks and Internet (IDEA-RESI ORG.) in Mexico.

AI Start-up: 5 Significant Things You Must Keep In Mind
April 13, 2019

Excellent blog.

Rich Kilchrist
April 30, 2020

I am very interested in AI being used to actually aid in providing all a level honest playing field where the benefit of everyone outweigh the decisions of the powerful few.

Luis García
April 30, 2020

Me gustaría saber sobre estos temas y avances. Por favor podría enviarme más information y referirme a otros investigadores del tema?
Muchas gracias

January 06, 2022

This is brilliant! I am currently researching the same topic, though from a different sense.
I think we could use this idea to aid in the reduction of corruption at a personal level, rather than an industrial level, meaning that we could have an algorithm that watches a specific position and the person in that position, that can send out alerts if they get 'to corrupted' by the standards of a group of collectives of people.
I would love some feedback from more experienced minds