‘In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes’.
This witty quote from Benjamin Franklin shows that people can’t run away from the duty of paying taxes. But it might not be true as always. There are some taxpayers who fail in their duty. In other words, there are tens of thousands of delinquent taxpayers who owe more than 200,000,000 (about $180,000) in South Korea only. We, the KBS Data Journalism Team, focused on this issue gathering, analyzing, and visualizing data about delinquent taxpayers to show who they are and what is taking place in our neighborhood.
A change started off just with an interactive map. Since the Data Journalism Team at KBS provided an interactive map showing ‘How Many Delinquent Taxpayers Are in My Neighborhood’ in January 2020, people could get to understand who delinquent taxpayers are. For instance, people just going to the map, immediately come to know there are about 800 delinquent taxpayers in Gangnam district, Seoul. After publishing the map, people began to pour their shocking experience of knowing that there are so many delinquent taxpayers in their community, even in their rich community. With the viral, more and more people visited the online map. Around 10 months, more than 2 million people had visited the interactive map.
And then, one of the organizations surprised by the huge response from the map was the National Tax Service of Korea itself. In the first place, the Tax Service got no interest in the map provided by the Data Journalism Team at KBS. But the Tax Service soon noticed the potential of the map. The National Tax Service had acknowledged this kind of map would be helpful to slow the spread of delinquent taxpayers. So the Tax Service decided to introduce its own version of map delivering who delinquent taxpayers are and where delinquent taxpayers live. This could be a turning point because it is the National Tax Service that has all kinds of information about delinquent taxpayers. Technically, the Tax Service could make a more detailed map than a public broadcasting company. And the Tax Service also announced to update the map every year.
So a trial of making a map showing delinquent taxpayers from KBS resulted in making a map from the authority itself. As a result, good taxpayers have come to know easily much better about neighbors who don’t pay taxes.
We used web crawling methods to get data about delinquent taxpayers from the list. And then we did data cleaning to analyze them.
At the same time, we used the FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act of Korea to get the information about how delinquent taxpayers got out of the list. We have figured out most of them who dropped from the list could escape not because they paid taxes, but because ‘statute of limitations’ had expired on tax. It means many delinquent taxpayers could get out of the public list with the help of extinction of tax obligation
What was the hardest part of this project?
The list of delinquent taxpayers is so heavy that it leads to 1,900 pages on the web. The number of people under the list was about 38,000. With these overwhelming figures, good taxpayers used to feel that it is not easy knowing who delinquent taxpayers are, where they live and what they do. After getting the data of more than 38,000 delinquent taxpayers, we had to spend quite a time cleaning the sources. Data cleaning was the first barrier for us to overcome.
And as said before, we relied on the Freedom of Information Act. We also contacted tax authorities to get further information about tax delinquency. However, it would take a long time too to get what we wanted because tax authorities didn’t understand what we were doing in the first place. And the paperwork wasn’t good enough. We should meet delinquent taxpayers in person. We had to track them based on the tips from the list. That meant we had to work both online and offline. What we have done was unambiguously data journalism but it was also a field report. Doing both data job and field job great for a better data journalism might be the hardest part of this project
What can others learn from this project?
The Republic of Korea National Tax Service usually offers kinds of information about name, address, occupational or professional licenses, and amount owed. The Tax Service says that it’s a great way to encourage delinquent taxpayers to pay off their debts. Moreover, a businessman, a local resident, or a senior citizen can happen to know that delinquent taxpayers around him or her have hidden assets. In that case, they could report these habitual evaders to the authorities. For these reasons, other tax authorities in the US or Europe do the same thing, making the list public.
However, most tax authorities across the globe just provide the information in the form of texts. We think if an interactive map of delinquent taxpayers would take effect in the Republic of Korea, these kinds of maps would go into effect in other developed or developing countries as well.
The following is the map designed by the Data Journalism Team at KBS: As the National Tax Service introduced its own version of a map, it appeared that we didn’t need anymore to update our online map. So we closed our map. But if you go into the following link, you could get to face how we made the map of delinquent taxpayers. (If needed, please turn on the Google English Translate app.)
The following is the map designed by the National Tax Service of Korea: (We could say the National Tax Service actually copied our map design but that’s fine.)
We hope our experience in covering delinquent taxpayers’ problems would be helpful to deal with this issue in other nations because we know in almost every county, there are some people who try not to pay taxes even though they can.
* You can find the following Youtube links in English SUbtitles.