Government transparency doesn't matter without accountability

My latest Guardian column is "Government data like crime maps is not enough - there needs to be action," and it looks at two recent data-crunching apps for UK policing: first, the crime-maps that tell you what the crime's like in your neighbourhood, and second, Sukey, an app that helps protesters evade police "kettling" -- an inhumane form of arbitrary detention practiced by police.
When the citizenry need to build apps to protect themselves from unlawful detention by the police, it's not surprising that a new application that allows you to go down to your local police station and ask them to do something about some newly transparent crime statistic is greeted with indifference or jeers. If you can't trust the police not to detain your children on a freezing road for hours, why would you believe that you could have a productive dialogue about how they should be deploying their resources?

After all: tuition fee rises are a complete reversal of a critical Lib Dem pledge; mass NHS redundancies for nurses and other frontline workers are a complete reversal of a critical Tory pledge. When you've voted for a party that promises one thing and does the opposite, no amount of data about how rotten things are will inspire you to join a "big society" that works with the state to accomplish its aims.

Meanwhile, Sukey's authors cleverly included a facility in their app that allows the police to communicate with demonstrators who are using it - an architecture for dialogue, built right in at the code level. If this was a "big society", then the police would be using that channel to come to some accommodation with protestors that acknowledged the fundamental right to peaceful protest. But the radio silence to date tells us exactly why the crime map will serve no purpose: what good is it to know how your taxes are spent if you don't believe that anyone will listen when you complain?

Government data like crime maps is not enough - there needs to be action

(Image: A lot of yellow : TSG Police Line : Student Protests - Parliament Square, Westminster 2010, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from bobaliciouslondon's photostream)


  1. Beautifully and succinctly stated. It’s great that someone with your influence will speak out on these issues.

  2. True, this.

    The smartest thing the Cheney administration did was completely ignore the protesters. They said, quite effectively, “your protests do not, will not, matter to us. Go to the football game instead.” That tactic worked pretty well at keeping protests to a dull roar.

    The corporations and the lobbyists have figured it out too: just lie and take the public’s money. No need for complicated pretense; people are too overwhelmed to seriously protest (or even understand) all the harm being done them. Just take the money and say you are providing value, even when you aren’t.

    It is interesting that now citizens are being paid more attention than ever before – when they act in a consumer capacity. However, when we act in the role of conscience to our political and economic system, we are ignored and belittled to an extent not seen in the Western nations in a long time.

  3. A sea change is coming, if you ask me. That’s why there’s all this talk lately of tighter government control of the internet in nations all over the world. When citizens massively collaborate, they actually get a lot done. A lot more and a lot faster and a lot more responsively than the massive, clunky, top heavy, corrupted apparatus of government. The power elite are scared as hell. Too bad they’ll never stop us. Go ahead, shut the internet off, the day you do I’ll be going up and down my street ringing doorbells, stringing ethernet cables, and setting up hidden data drops, WiFi access points… we’ll build a citizen-net if the corporate and government-owned one stops working for us.

    1. The power elite are scared as hell.

      Ah, if only they were! Then the revolt would never happen, and personally I’d prefer not to live in interesting times.

      The power elite are not afraid of you, or anyone you know. They are confident that they easily can handle anything you come up with, because you need them more than they need you. These people control the sources of fuel, metals and energy, and they will cut you off if you anger them. Then you’ll have to take to the streets, and then they will just cut you down with bullets. If the regular army won’t shoot grandma, Xe will be happy to do it.

      Afterwards the TV pundits will talk about the terrorist insurgency that was put down with minimal loss of life, and why Good Citizens must not use the Internet to organize Dangerous Acts.

    2. Oh yes a change is coming alright, it’s the end of cheap and abundant energy and transport. The rich will increasingly cling to wealth and muzzle the populace to preserve the status quo. Probably until the end of civilization. After that there is no coming back. This is our one shot making a stable and advanced future, but we’re only half way there and running out of time fast. enjoy your day kiddies.

    3. If I was a despotic totalitarian, I wouldn’t be shutting the internet off, I’d be encouraging as many people as you to use it as possible! What a fantastic tool for monitoring the activity and association of millions of people in a highly economic and effective way!

  4. It’s a shame you identified whether publishing aggregate crime statistics make anything any better or not as the question, and then didn’t look for an answer.

    I’d wager a small sum of money that if the project had been axed at the last minute you would have railed against the decision, decrying it as a blatant attempt to keep an ignorant public’s fear of crime artificially high for political ends.

  5. Imag: +1+1 <3

    Also about ignoring protestors: luckily that tactic has been used before and historicly it ends with huge revolts that either forces social change or protective reform. Either way its an improvement. Sure we are more easily ignored nowadays I think but that is not a constant. I think about the bread riots here in Sweden 1917 that almost toppled society and forced huge reforms into it.

    They have to suppress us over and over again, we just need to win once.

    (also: wonderful column by Cory, almost forgot)

    1. I am actually surprised that the ultra-rich haven’t figured that out. When they push the balance too far, everything goes down.

      But we all seem to keep living out the cycles over and over…

      1. To paraphrase Order of the Stick: if someone controls the country for his own benefit for thirty long years, and then some revolutionaries upset everything and kill him, what do you think he’s going to remember as he lays dying? That he got to live like a god for three decades! Sure, the last ten minutes sucked, but you can’t have everything.

  6. Well society changes in many ways between “reincarnations” based on the economical systems available that needs to be protected or upheld… I don’t wan’t to quote Zizek (yes I do) but “see you in hell or in communism” (referring to communism as the classless society, not the statesmanship of 20th century Russia)

  7. Sure, transparency would let us know what was done by who and to/with/for whom. Accountability would let us make sure those that did it got to either pay or be rewarded for doing it. But what about the important bit in the middle – getting stuff done as promised and/or needed? That would be nice to see.

    And having some political philosophies that actually had some sense beyond the whole “vote for us so we can stick it to the people you don’t like” might be pleasant.

  8. The NHS pledge was not to cut the budget, not to maintain every job, I guess that would have interrupted rhetorical flow.

    Also, seriously, what is wrong with you people? I know the government isn’t exactly to many people around here’s taste but christ, it’s a market in political ideas.

    This is exactly the sort of thing that should be welcomed by boing boing. Government data freed for the masses in a useful, hackable form. Data that can be used by cunning happy mutants to make the world a better place. “Mumble, mumble what good will that do, mumble” the people reading this should be busy imagining what they can do with this and Cory should be cheering them on.

    There is plenty of space on the internet to moan about all the bad things the government are doing, but if they do something you like, especially if it is fairly novel, be enthusiastic about it. Say yes please do this, and do more of it. Prove it can work, prove it can win them votes. Even if you only vote labour you should cheer this so that the labour party hears and sees that it is good.

    To criticise good policy because of the mouth it comes out of is the sort of tribalism that makes politics worse for us all.

  9. I’m all for carping about the crap coalition in the UK and their lies and hypocrisy but I don’t see mass layoffs of nursing staff just yet. Likely to happen of course, but isn’t yet.

    1. First they came for the communists,
      and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

      Then they came for the trade unionists,
      and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

      Then they came for the Jews,
      and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

      Then they came for me
      and there was no one left to speak out for me.

  10. You see a pattern all across the world, in poor countries in rich countries, on small levels and big levels.

    There is a specific type of organization we rely on for many of our most important services.

    And yet, in many different places, in many different ways, this type of organization is failing us.

    I’m talking, of course, about government.

    Sure, sometimes it is helpful and positive. But much more often it’s destructive, and becomes a dread tool of the worst people in the world.

    How are people so blind to this fact? Why do they cling to the illusion that government will one day do good? Why do they retain this false hope?

    Of course government is unaccountable! That’s like criticizing fire for burning your house down.

    Democracy, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, has utterly failed.

    Maybe it works OK in Scandinavia, where sociologists have found people are more honest than the world average, but it sure as hell hasn’t worked anywhere else.

    If you set up an organization, give it the power of force to enact its will, and force every person to pay for it, whether they like it or not; whether they love it or abhor it; whether they benefit from it or are harmed by it..they

    Look! We live in a system today where every person who wants to put a roof over their head must pay for mass murder and genocide. And we call it freedom! We march in the streets against the war, and then go home and get out our checkbook and PAY for it!

    Comcast or Exxon Mobil or Walmart might suck. But at least we have the power to not PAY for their crimes. Use biodiesel, smash your TV, buy local – how hard is that? It works beautifully, because MONEY is the language that these people speak.

    Unless, of course, there is a strong state in place, vulnerable to co-option, that can force us to continue to support them in various ways – through subsidies, enforced monopolies, etc.

    Money is energy, money is power. If the people don’t have the right to withdraw their monetary support for government, it will inevitably be corrupted, and used by bad people for bad purposes, while the good people look on in horror as they are forced to continue to support it with their precious time and money.

    The US constitution FAILED. It didn’t restrain the government. It didn’t keep the government from being overtaken by criminals.

    Government, as a concept, is a dead and failed idea. The state is an intellectually bankrupt idea, which only promises to clean up messes that it and its select corporate cronies create, then fails to deliver on that promise.

    We need to figure out a better way of doing things.

    1. “We need to figure out a better way of doing things.”

      Maybe we could start with the Egyptian model for initiating change…

      1. Well, you’re damn right.

        The reason most of these big protests, IMF, anti-war, etc. have been ineffective is because, at the end of the day, everyone goes home – goes back to their jobs, comfortable houses, universities.

        People want to “express their voice,” but when push comes to shove, no one wants to actually RISK anything.

        The strength of the Egyptian people comes from the fact that they had nothing left to lose: most of them had no jobs, etc.

        I do hope that if America should reach that point economically, we have the collective guts to do what they’re doing.

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