Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian’

The data revolution: How WikiLeaks is changing journalism

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

A panel discussion at the Frontline Club on how online data and its dissemination is changing journalism and the relationship between public and power.

The panel comprised Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief (via online link up); journalist, academic and freedom of expression activist Heather Brooke, whose successful campaigning led to the full release of MPs’ expenses files; media lawyer Mark Stephens of Finers, Stephens Innocent and Simon Rogers, editor of The Guardian’s Datablog.

Chaired by Paddy O’Connell, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.

Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal
By Heather Brooke
Guardian, 25 May 2010

The exemption from scrutiny under Freedom of Information shows the status gap between crown and public interest

Where there’s secrecy, there’s scandal. The two certainly go hand in hand in the picture painted by the weekend’s News of the World video that shows Sarah Ferguson accepting a $40,000 briefcase of cash while promising that, for a £500,000 backhander, she would provide an introduction to trade envoy Prince Andrew.

Any claims by the royal family to distance themselves from these shady dealings are undermined by their aversion to transparency. Among the laws rushed through in the “wash-up” of the last government was a change to the Freedom of Information Act granting an absolute ban on all communications with the royal family and royal household. Prior to this such information was still exempt but if there was a public interest in the material, it had to be disclosed.

That exemption meant, for example, one could argue that, as the billpayer, the public has a right to know the detail of how the £7.9m from the civil list is spent, about the additional £15m spent to maintain the royal palaces, and the estimated £50m spent on royal security.

July will see the announcement of a new civil list settlement. There are rumours the royals are asking to double the amount to more than £15m. In the information blackout, facts are few and far between. We will only know the deal when it is done. As Graham Smith, campaign manager of the pressure group Republic, says: “We have no idea if these rumours are true. We aren’t allowed any information about what the palace is lobbying for, or on what grounds.”

Article: Top cops’ pay should not be top secret

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Top cops, come clean
The Guardian, 10 August 2009
By Heather Brooke

Secrecy feeds suspicion of a boys’ club stitch-up. Chief constables need to be open on pay and perks

Secrecy can be sexy. It’s essential to any good mystery novel. But there should be no mystery surrounding the pay of top public officials. In October 2008 I made freedom of information requests to every police force in the country seeking the full extent of chief constables’ perks and pay. I’d heard rumours top cops weren’t just getting top salaries but all sorts of other benefits, from grace and favour homes to chauffeur-driven SUVs and private health insurance.

These perks may be perfectly acceptable – after all, it’s a tough job. What is not acceptable is the vault-like secrecy in which they are awarded. Several forces told me their chiefs refused bonuses out of principle. But of all those who accepted them only one force, North Wales, fully disclosed the amount.

Why the secrecy? The official reason is that disclosure would be an invasion of chiefs’ privacy. Here’s the response given by City of London police: “We do not believe that disclosing the exact value of the commissioner’s bonus will add significantly to the public interest. By contrast, given that the commissioner has refused consent to disclose and has a reasonable expectation that the exact value of his performance-related payment will remain confidential, we believe that disclosure would be prejudicial to the commissioner’s rights and freedoms or legitimate interests.”

What about the rights and freedoms of taxpayers to know how their money is spent? What about knowing the criteria on which these bonuses are awarded? Are chiefs paid for achieving political goals? For decreasing crime statistics? For increasing the number of ethnic minority officers? We just don’t know.

We saw what lay behind MPs’ cries of invasion of privacy. What might we find hidden behind police chiefs’ resistance? On Thursday we got a glimpse: the Belfast Telegraph published the results of a freedom of information request made by a former Police Federation chairman and member of the Northern Ireland policing board, Jimmy Spratt.

Spratt sought the compensation package of Northern Ireland’s outgoing chief constable Hugh Orde, who is now president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He managed to unearth a compensation package that included rent-free living in a £600,000 luxury home (purchased at taxpayer expense) along with the payment of all utility bills, including phone bills, electricity, rates, heating and property maintenance. This is in addition to a salary of £183,954 plus an annual bonus of up to 15% of salary. Other extras included £360 a year for broadband, £600 for private healthcare, and membership fees for Acpo and the Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association, estimated to be £1,000 annually. Another £8,294 was claimed for oil and £13,413 for rates, while £33,904 was spent to repair “defective combined drainage system” and to replace the kitchen.

Now you might think that a member of the police board (the Northern Irish equivalent of a police authority) would know exactly what comprises a top cop’s compensation package, as the board approves it. Not so. Spratt tells me that when you have a £1.2bn budget “you can’t really keep track”.

It’s our data, make it accessible

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

It’s our data, make it accessible
The Guardian, Friday 19 June 2009
By Heather Brooke

It was rather like trying to do a Google search and getting your answers delivered as a truckload of blacked-out telephone directories. The information age may have arrived some decades ago but from the format of yesterday’s publication of MPs’ expenses, Parliament is so last century.

The 700,000 pages of scanned images put online in pdf were described by Sir Stuart Bell as a ‘great achievement’ for Parliament. And I suppose it is if you’re used to inscribing your words on animal skins.

If we truly aim to be an informed electorate then we need quick, direct access to the vast troves of information held not just within Parliament but all other public bodies.

We have moved on from static documents. For information to be useful it should be dynamic, searchable, and accessible. We book our own holidays not through a travel agent but though search engines where we can compare and find the best value flights, hotels and car rentals. We no longer call up librarians with our questions but type them into Google or post them on Twitter. We can compare prices between shops and even between countries. We no longer have to rely on traditional media for our news but can graze for it across the entire globe via the internet and the postings of millions of citizen journalists.

People are used to having great swathes of information at their fingertips, yet parliament still believes it can control both the collection of information and its presentation. Officials want to lock-down documents so they can never be altered without specific written consent. You look at most government websites and the information is micro-managed to an appalling degree. There are a few exceptions – the Electoral Commission website springs to mind – but for the most part, bureaucrats and politicians are loath to allow people direct access to the raw data.

It is this loathing that lies behind officials’ reliance on the pdf document. It is a format that is fixed and static. It cannot be analysed. So we cannot, without a great deal of effort, see how many MPs are funnelling expenses into certain companies or overall food bill. This is why the Guardian set up its own crowd-sourced spreadsheet so the data could be unlocked and made useful. What that means is more taxpayers spending more of their own time and money to fix a system built badly under the instruction of the Commons officials. A better solution would have been to throw open the data from the very beginning and elicit volunteers to help in the publication.

There are no shortage of interested and skilled volunteers. Just look at the number who have helped on the Guardian’s expense website and Tom Steinberg and the developers at MySociety have been banging on Parliament’s door for a long time. They built the websites TheyWorkForYou and PublicWhip among others. But it’s always a struggle to get the public sector to release information. I can vouch for that.

It shouldn’t be like this. This is our data. It belongs to us. We paid for it and it was collected in our name. Isn’t it time we had access to it?

Guardian cover-girl

Friday, May 15th, 2009

I’m on the front cover of today’s G2.

Is this the apex of my campaign? My 15 minutes of fame might now be coming to a close if the Commons actually comes clean, gets rid of the corrupt and institutes a new transparency regime. That actually looks as though it might now happen.

I’m in such a generous mood I feel I ought to invite Speaker Michael Martin out to lunch just to say ‘thanks for making my career.’ I couldn’t have done this without him.

Seeing through expenses transparency

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Seeing through expenses transparency
The Guardian, Thursday 23 April 2009
By Heather Brooke

Gordon Brown’s reforms may include some much-needed changes to MPs’ expenses, but they don’t go far enough

On Saturday Gordon Brown said he had more important things to deal with than MPs’ expenses.

On Tuesday morning, there was nothing more important than MPs’ expenses and their immediate reform was a top priority. What had changed in that three-day time period?

Well I’d like to think a little documentary I did for Dispatches – The Westminster Gravy Train – had something to do with his sudden about-face. This film marked the culmination of my five-year battle to chisel out of MPs’ grasping hands the detailed receipts of their expense claims.

You can’t hope for a better result as a campaigner than to have the prime minister announce a major policy change within 48 hours of your documentary. Is this the power of television? Was Brown watching and choking on his dinner?

I’d love to think so, but the reality is that his announcement probably had more to do with the fact a very unpopular budget was coming on Wednesday and Brown needed some good news. Or perhaps he finally tuned into the massive public anger over the excessively generous parliamentary expense system. Maybe he understood at last that the public were so angry that they were not going to forget this issue in a few days, or even a few weeks. That’s what politicians count on. But the stories of expense abuses have kept on coming. Yesterday, cross-party talks on proposals put forward by Brown broke down. And today, Christopher Kelly, chairman of a Westminster sleaze watchdog, said politicians must not be left to decide for themselves how the system should be reformed. For as long as the House of Commons refuses to publish the receipts, the slur on all MPs’ reputations will remain.

Brown’s raft of reforms, which were announced via a bizarre video on YouTube, will be voted upon next week. They include:

Met keeps crime statistics under lock and key

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

From The Guardian, Thursday July 17, 2008
Met keeps crime statistics under lock and key
By Heather Brooke

The UK is one of the most watched societies in the world, yet the police are loath to release crime data

We may finally be let into the great secret of just how safe – or unsafe – we are as momentum builds to publish a breakdown of criminal incidents in London, though the battle is far from over. The Metropolitan Police plans to publish some data as early as next month. However, initial indications are that only property crimes (not violent crime) will be revealed, and that the data will be aggregated into large, artificial geographic regions called “super-output” areas.

I’ve long campaigned for the release of criminal incident data broken down by street, having lived in the US where it was easily available. I worked as a crime reporter, and not only were anonymised crime incidents published weekly in the local newspaper (and now online), but as a reporter I could go through individual incident reports down at the station.

Knowing what crimes happen and where is important for several reasons. First, people want to know how safe (or unsafe) they are. They need accurate and detailed data if they are to form an opinion of the safety of their neighbourhood. When they know what’s happening, they are in a better position to help or support the police. They are also better able to hold the police to account. This is perhaps what the police fear most, but it is a misplaced fear according to Richard Pope, the creator of civic website (a site that mines planning applications to local authorities and provides alerts by postcode) and

“The police are coming at this the wrong way,” Pope says. “They’re scared that people are going to use it against them, but it could really help the police.” A few years ago he had the idea of building a civic website using crime data mapped out and accompanied by a discussion forum where neighbours could talk about problems in their area and liaise with their local police officer. “But we couldn’t get any raw data,” he says, so the project never got off the ground.

It seems ludicrous that, sitting in my flat in London, I can look online to see what’s happening on a street in Chicago and yet know nothing about what’s happening outside my front door. However Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, has said that releasing crime data from the grip of the police into the hands of the public would violate victims’ privacy.

Profiled in the Guardian

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

I was profiled in today’s Guardian ‘Interview’. I rule! hee hee. The online photo is a bit dodgy but there is a much better one in the full-page newspaper version so I suggest you rush out and get a copy while supplies last.

I’m very pleased to know that I’m “one of the country’s most influential voices against secrecy in government.” Hooray for me!!

Oh – and on a side note. There’s another story in today’s papers about our friend Michael Martin.
Refurbishing the home and garden of the Speaker of the House of Commons has cost the taxpayer £1.7 million.

Could this be the reason he’s so keen to block my requests for a breakdown of MPs’ expenses? Surely not!

Article: Google maps give direction

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

I wrote this article after attending a conference on geographical information systems. It was also blogged about on the Guardian’s Free our Data campaign site.

Councils bypass Ordnance Survey for Google Maps
The Guardian, Thursday May 31, 2007
Local authorities are increasingly using the free application from the search giant on their websites

Navigating your way around a local authority’s websites can be a painful experience, especially if it involves maps. Perhaps, for example, you are looking for a school on an online map that is generated by survey data from Ordnance Survey. This can be particularly frustrating, with data fields going missing as you zoom in, maps updating slowly and overly complicated interfaces.

If that’s your impression, it’s backed up by a survey carried out for the Society of Information Technology Management. The society tested local authority websites against four key indicators: only 56% of councils had clickable maps; just 35% offered a way to find schools on a map. And only 13% offered a help facility.

But while maps and geographical information are vital to local authorities and their websites, the prices and licensing policies of Ordnance Survey, the government’s mapping agency, mean that some councils have decided to bypass OS and use free maps from Google to create mashups of information for their websites.

Traditional geographical information systems provide “complex data, complex systems”, said Dane Wright, IT service manager at Brent council in north London, at the annual conference of GIS in the Public Sector earlier this month. Google Maps, by contrast, provides “complex data, simple systems”.

Primary interface

Wright told the conference: “What we are doing is moving to Google Maps as the primary interface for casual use by public users. This will leave the GIS system for more specialist users. The reason for doing this is to provide a better user experience – familiar interface, easy to use, integrated aerial imagery, attractive, no need for training or large manuals.”

Article: Access denied to the laws that govern us

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

I’ve written an article for the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign that appeared in today’s paper:

Access denied to the laws that govern us
The Guardian, Technology August 17, 2006
By Heather Brooke

Shhh – don’t pass it on. It’s the kind of secrecy one might expect for a database of proposed nuclear reactors or plans to go to war. But a database containing the laws of the land? Surely the only way to obey the law is to know what it is in the first place? On August 2, the government rolled out the second stage of a long-delayed project to make the consolidated law of parliament accessible to the people. So how does it look? The public – who paid for the whole project – can’t get a look in.

No free public access sites have been granted permission to view the current system and testers of the database – predominantly from commercial legal publishing firms – have been told not to share their login and password. Even so, some testers are not entirely happy with what they’ve found after logging on to the top secret database of our country’s laws.

Firstly, an astounding Crown copyright notice greets the reader: “The Statute Law Database and the material on the SLD website are subject to Crown copyright protection. The Crown copyright waiver that applies to published legislation generally does not apply to SLD because it is a value-added product. Any reuse of material from SLD will be the subject of separate and specific licensing arrangements. No such arrangements have yet been entered into. Users should not therefore reproduce or reuse any material from SLD until further guidance is issued.”

Democracy advocates outraged

No matter that the value was added by public officials at taxpayer expense. Small commercial legal publishers and democracy advocates are outraged. “It is appaling that a government feels it should sell the laws it makes to the general public who must obey them,” said developer Francis Irving, who last month won two New Statesman new media awards for his web sites (the contribution to civic society award) and (advocacy award). “Because the DCA’s data cannot be reproduced, it makes it impossible for anyone else to compete by providing new and innovative ways of accessing and learning the law.”

Irving had hoped to create a free, user-friendly legal database to rival his previous successes. As such he filed Freedom of Information Act requests last year asking for the raw data held by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Instead of thanking Irving for his interest, the DCA denied his request. Matthew Elliot, the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, is appalled by the government’s response: “Any information collected by the government at taxpayers’ expense should be freely available to the public. If private organisations are willing to collate information at no expense to the taxpayer, why on earth is the government spending money doing exactly the same thing?”

DCA spokesman Alfred Bacchus says that the copyright notice is only for the pilot system. “For live running it will be suitably amended. We have always quoted that there will be a level of free access for the general public but there may be a charge against some of the value added data (defined under the terms of the Treasury’s Wider Markets Initiative) depending on the outcome of the commercial strategy. This is being discussed at the moment.”