What can be learned from data practices to render offshore financial flows visible and actionable for advocacy, policy and public debate? How can data visualisations be used to narrate the scale and dynamics of offshore financial activity? How can they convey uncertainty without insinuating sublime unfathomability? How might the communication of what we know and what we don’t know about offshore finance both draw on, complement and modify existing visual cultures, practices and aesthetics of uncertainty? What might critical or inventive data practices for visualising offshore finance look like?
This paper explores the making of an Atlas of Offshore FDI as a collaboration between the Tax Justice Network, a network of researchers and research centres and the Public Data Lab. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is supposed to reflect bricks-and-mortar investments and “real” acquisitions by multinational corporations, and is often considered to be the backbone of globalization (Haberly & Wójcik, 2015). However, roughly two thirds of total global FDI is either from or in jurisdictions widely used as domiciles for shell companies and corporate inversions – most often for purposes of tax avoidance. Despite international action to address offshore tax avoidance and financial secrecy, there is still no publicly available dataset that allows for the FDI entering countries via particular offshore jurisdictions to be traced back to its ultimate origin. The Atlas of Offshore FDI aims to explore the scale and significance of this offshore activity, as well as to shed new light onto its contents, by creating the first publicly available database of global offshore investment. The project explores combination and modification of visual practices for making sense of transnational economic activity and financial flows, as well as visual practices for representing uncertainty. While public data practices often emphasise and value the production of certainty, this project considers what data projects may learn from diverse cultures for visually representing, managing and articulating uncertainty, including in physics (electron clouds), meteorology (weather conditions), statistics (confidence margins) and art history (landscape painting). As well as reflecting on the prospects of critical data practice around financial flows, the paper situates the atlas project against broader debates around the knowability, unknowability and governability of transnational economic activity and the infrastructural configurations of relations between markets, states and citizens. [based on joint work with Jonathan Gray, Daniel Haberly, Tommaso Venturini]