Focussing on open data where it matters: accountability and action

A lot of talk of open data proceeds as if all data is equal, and a government dataset is a government dataset. Some open data advocates fall into the trap of seeing databases as collections of ‘neutral facts’, without recognising the many political and practical judgements that go into the collection and modelling of data. But, increasingly, an awareness is growing that datasets are not a-political, and that not all datasets are equal when it comes to their role in constituting a more open government.

Back in November 2010 I started exploring whether the government’s ‘Public Sector Information Unlocking Service’ actually worked by asking for open data access to the dataset underling the Strategic Export Controls: Reports and Statistics Website. Data on where the UK has issued arms export licenses is clearly important data for accountability, and yet, the data is kept in obfuscated in an inaccessible website. 14 months on, and my various requests for the data have seen absolutely zero response. Not even an acknowledgement.

However, today Campaign Against the Arms Trade have managed to unlock the Export License dataset, after painstakingly extracting inaccessible statistics from the official government site, and turning this into an open dataset and providing an online application to explore the data. They explain:

Until now the data, compiled by the Export Control Organisation(ECO) in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), was difficult to access, use and understand. The new CAAT app, available via CAAT’s website, transforms the accessibility of the data.

The salient features are:

    • Open access – anyone can view data without registering and can make and refine searches in real time.
    • Data has been disaggregated, providing itemised licences with ratings and values.
    • Comprehensive searchability (including of commonly-required groupings, for example by region of the world or type of weaponry).
    • Graphs of values of items licensed are provided alongside listings of licences.
    • Revoked licences are identified with the initial licence approvals.
    • Individual pages/searches (unique urls) can be linked to directly.
    • The full raw data is available as csv files for download.
And as Ian Prichard, CAAT Research Co-ordinator put’s it:

It is hard to think of an area of government activity that demands transparency more than arms export licensing. 

The lack of access to detailed, easy-to-access information has been a barrier to the public, media and parliamentarians being able to question government policies and practices. These practices include routine arming of authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt.

As well as providing more information in and of itself, we hope the web app will prompt the government to apply its own open data policies to arms exports. and substantially increase the level and accessibility of information available.

Perhaps projects like CAAT’s can help bring back the ‘hard political edge’ Robinson and Yu describe in the heritage of ‘open government’. They certainly emphasise the need for a ‘right to data’ rather than just access to data existing as a general policy subject to the decisions of those in power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>