Citizenship


11
Oct 11

Time to opt out of web censorship

Four major UK internet service providers will be limiting customers’ access to the internet under a new scheme proposed by the Mothers’ Union and supported by the government.

Under the new scheme, customers of BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media will have to “opt-in” to retain the full internet access that they enjoy at present.

The Guardian writes:

Customers who do not opt in to adult content will be unable to access pornographic websites.

But this characterisation of the system is wrong. This isn’t about pornography or “adult content”, whatever that may be.

The ISPs are setting up a filtering system that will give customers a choice between access to the whole internet and access to an arbitrary subset of the internet. Now choice sounds like a fine thing. People usually like choices. But what’s the choice on offer here?

It’s not a choice between “internet with porn” and “internet without porn”.

It’s a choice between the whole internet and only the sites that the ISP decides aren’t “adult content” at any point in time. Which sites exactly? They won’t say. Site blocking lists and content filtering algorithms are always kept secret and they can and will change at any time without notice.

So if you choose to opt out of the whole internet you literally won’t know what you’re missing. That might be a choice but it’s not an informed one.

Regardless of the opaqueness of the process and the misrepresentation of the actual choice on offer, some people will be happy to take the partial internet option. Why shouldn’t ISPs offer it?

Here’s why.

I do two main things on the internet.

As a freelance consultant I use the internet to earn a living. Not only do I design and write software for the internet, most of my business comes through the internet too. It’s my workshop and my shop window rolled into one.

I’m also an activist. I use the internet to advance the causes in which I believe. The internet is an essential tool for me to participate in the democratic process of debating and disputing ideas.

What the ISPs supporting web blocking are saying is that they can arbitrarily, at any time and without notifying their customers, block access to the parts of the internet on which I do business and advance my causes. The customers that have opted for web blocking (or not opted out of it) might not care hugely but I certainly do. It’s a restraint on my freedom of speech and freedom to trade. Web blocking undermines the default assumption of the internet: that anyone can post material, anyone can link to that material and anyone can follow the link and read it.

Even as someone who isn’t in the pornography or “adult content” business, this is a huge problem.

Recently I wrote about how Facebook and other major social networks threaten the open and independent web. This article wasn’t pornographic. It was a discussion of a technology policy issue.

Several websites picked up the discussion and wrote their own views on the issue. One was Eros Blog, a site that by its own description is about “sex blogging, gratuitous nudity, kinky sex [and] sundry sensuality”.

Eros Blog’s discussion of the social media issue isn’t pornographic. Yet it’s framed on a page that includes two nude paintings and several links to sites that are either pornography or discussing adult sexual issues.

The ISPs web blocking filters will almost certainly block access to Eros Blog and take the post about my social media views with it. There will be one less place on the web where people can encounter my ideas and other people’s perspectives on them. Not my porn ideas. Not my adult content ideas. My ideas about technology and how to run the web.

The idea that you can build a “porn” blocking system without this kind of collateral damage is fanciful. Once you start switching off the lights on whole sections of the web there’s no way of knowing which words and ideas will disappear, not least for the customers who will never be given the option to find out what’s been removed.

My message to the Mothers’ Union is very simple. If you don’t want to see porn or “adult content” on the internet, don’t look at it. If you don’t want your children to see it, bring them up to share your values. You already do? Then you’ve already got the most sophisticated and effective system possible. Not only does it give you and your children freedom from seeing things you don’t want to see, it also preserves my freedom to speak to anyone who might want to hear what I’ve got to say.


16
Aug 11

Why you can get four years jail for inciting disorder on Facebook

The jailing of two men for four years each for inciting disorder using Facebook has drawn some surprise and criticism online.

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, from Marston near Northwich, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, from Warrington, were convicted at Chester Crown Court.

It’s not clear at present whether the sentences were for encouraging riot or violent disorder but the sentences, while harsh, are easily explained.

I presume that the pair pled guilty. Either way, the court found as a matter of fact that the defendants intended for their encouragement to be followed. Had that happened, numerous offences would have been committed in the course of the ensuing disorder including burglaries, thefts, robberies and violent crimes such as assault, grievous bodily harm or even murder.

It is of no credit to the defendants that their encouragement wasn’t followed.

The courts sentence encouragement to an offence in the same way as the substantive offence itself. Encouragement to riot is sentenced in the same way as riot. Encouragement to murder is sentenced in the same way as murder.

The maximum sentence for violent disorder is five years. The maximum for riot is ten years.

While these sentences are heavy, they take into account the actual consequences had the defendants’ intentions succeeded, with all the injuries, economic loss and anxiety that would have followed. The people of Cheshire can be thankful that Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan didn’t succeed and a very clear message has been sent to anyone considering a similar course of action.

Update 17 Aug: Both defendants pleaded guilty. The charges were encouraging riot, for which the maximum sentence is ten years.


11
Aug 11

Croydon Reeves Corner fire — what did you see?

I’m trying to put together a clearer picture of events around the fire that burned down the House of Reeves furniture shop in Croydon on Monday evening. This isn’t part of a police investigation nor am I a journalist. I’m just a Londoner who wants to understand the situation better and help to tell the story.

If you were near Reeves Corner and you saw the fire at any stage or if you were in Croydon town centre on Monday evening you may be able to help.

Please leave a comment below (which will be public) or email me privately at [email protected] if you don’t want to leave a public comment. I’m also on Twitter as @adrianshort.

You don’t need to use your real name but if you’re happy to do that it’ll help.

Any email address you use in the comments below will not be published but I may use it to get in touch with you to follow up.

Please can you tell me:

  • Where were you and what did you see?
  • What time was that?
  • Did you phone 999 about a fire or anything else? At what time? What did they say? Use your phone’s outgoing call log to get the times of your calls.
  • Did you take any photos or videos? Are they online? Where and at what time were they taken?
  • Did you send or receive any text messages with other people who were in the area? What did they say and at what time?
  • Did you post to Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites about the situation in Croydon? What did you say and at what time? Please post any web links that you have.
  • Did you see any fire engines or other fire vehicles or staff in Croydon on Monday afternoon or evening? Where were they? How many vehicles were there? What were they doing? What time was that?
  • Did you see any police officers and vehicles in Croydon on Monday afternoon or evening? Where were they? How many vehicles were there? What were they doing? What time was that?
  • Where were the lines of police blocking off streets? At what time did you see those lines? Roughly how many officers were there on the line?
  • If you work in a shop or business in Croydon, what time did you close on Monday? What time do you normally close on Mondays? If you closed early, why did you decide to do that? How many staff were working with you on Monday?
  • Were there any problems using public transport such as services cancelled or stations/routes closed? Where and at what time?

Any help or information you can give is really appreciated. Together we should be able to build a clear picture of exactly what happened in Croydon on Monday and help to prevent a similar situation happening again.

Please post this page to your social networks so that others can contribute.

If you have any specific information about a crime or criminals connected to the Croydon riots please phone the police on 101.

Thank you for your help and for getting the word out.

 

 


7
Aug 11

Were the riots inevitable?

It’s become a cliche among many people that rioting is an inevitable consequence of deprivation and injustice. Last night’s rioting in Tottenham inspired a predictable – one might say inevitable – crop of examples on Twitter:

It’s because David Cameron turns a blind eye to corruption between Murdoch and Metropolitan Police that alienation makes riots inevitable. – derekrootboy

I don’t agree with riots but was inevitable when working classes are being fucked over like this. – mollymccowen

Riots inevitable in people who cannot express their anger in any other way. Historical precedents a-plenty. – Jos21

The riots were inevitable. That’s the first thing I said when I heard about the shooting. Anger and hot summer nights are a lethal cocktail – iheni

tottenham riots Soh dem mash up Tottenham, !!! Was inevitable after the shooting of Mark Duncan (sic). Wasn’t rocket science in my book – Mafia1065

Historically it’s inevitable there are riots when there are cuts like this – HelenReloaded

the climate in our country is terrible and riots were inevitable but the looting and destroying of places of work saddens me – evey_moriarty

This was inevitable..tory government. Riots. Protests. Cuts. Unemployment. Disaffected Youth. Strikes. Recession. Police Brutality. – xxlucyxlucyxx

When people are attacked by ideological cuts and suffer racism from the police, riots like this are inevitable. – PennyRed

Riots were inevitable given building unhappiness with the manner in which the police conducts itself – dr_rita39

The Guardian is giving front-page space today to a video from a week ago in which a young man from Haringey asserts that the closure of local youth clubs will lead to riots.

Dave Osler at Liberal Conspiracy skilfully avoids the i-word but you can tell he means it:

[S]uch is the degree of disconnect between all the major parties and the street that the chances of positive engagement are next to zero. There is instead the recourse of riot.

Back at the Guardian, Dave Hill offers a slightly more nuanced explanation:

In such a climate [of economic deprivation and government cutbacks], an event such as the shooting dead by police of 29 year-old father of four Mark Duggan on Thursday night is more likely to provide in some minds, especially young ones, a pretext, a rationale or an opportunity to jettison any respect for the law or regard for fellow citizens and let rip.

These widespread views about the supposed inevitability of rioting need closer examination.

Those who make the case for inevitable rioting are rarely speaking about themselves. Journalists and commentators on comfortable middle incomes are less likely to be seriously affected by a sluggish economy, government cutbacks and police thuggery than those at the bottom of the social pile even if they’re as angry about it as anyone else. They won’t be out at 5am torching John Lewis or looting the local Jigsaw.

Nor will the people in the Guardian’s youth clubs video or those discussing the rioting on Twitter. Many of these people are likely to be in very similar circumstances to those burning, looting and attacking the emergency services.

What’s notable about the Tottenham riots and rioting in the UK in general is the scale – not how large and commonplace riots are but how small and rare. Anecdotes suggest that people were coming from across London to join a riot just a few hundred strong in Tottenham. As some of those arrested give their home addresses in court this week we’ll see whether this can be confirmed. Rioting as an activity relies on the disinhibition and physical protection of strength in numbers. Tottenham by itself may have been too small a place to recruit a critical mass of rioters.

All of which suggests that the rioting in Tottenham may be far more about the those few rioters themselves than the society in which all of us live. Rioting stems not from the social grievances and frustrations of the many but from the desire for mayhem and the lack of self control of the few. Even in boom times the UK has around a million people unemployed and looking for work. Why isn’t there a riot every day of the week?

There are adequate good reasons to provide effective public services and social opportunities for people of all backgrounds without resorting to political blackmail: do this or riots will inevitably follow. Whether you want better student funding, good youth clubs or a competent and honest police service, public policy shouldn’t be run like a protection racket. Politicians should fear the masses casting ballots not the mob casting stones.

So people need to be very cautious when talking about the supposed inevitability of riots. If one person riots but the majority of his neighbours in exactly the same circumstances do not, that’s a matter of individual differences not social breakdown. The solutions to this kind of behaviour are found in psychology and criminology not politics.

Those who talk about the inevitability of riots show gross disrespect to the vast majority of people who live peaceably with their neighbours and abide by the law despite deprivation and injustice. They show disrespect to the rioters too. If some people can’t help themselves rioting they are put outside the proper demands of the community and the law, stripped of any meaningful citizenship. They’re robbed of their moral agency too – deprived of their ability to discern the right course of action whatever the circumstances and to act accordingly.

We need to have higher expectations of everyone than that.


20
Apr 11

Waste minimisation and the quantified self

Last month, Sutton Council was looking for ways to save £925K a year in waste collection costs. There was an online discussion where residents were asked to come up with ideas for making savings and also give their views on suggestions made by the council.

Some of the ideas such as reorganising waste collection shifts to enable the council to halve the number of vehicles are efficiencies that would have a relatively minor impact on residents. Others inevitably are focussing directly on how much of their household waste is being recycled by residents and how much is being sent to landfill.

Rewards for recycling

Rewards for recycling or fines for not recycling enough are among the options. Introducing penalties for bad behaviour isn’t a very popular idea among the public and also in many councils who would rather have constructive rather than punitive relations with their residents. Moreover, there are many practical difficulties in running a punitive scheme. It’s easy enough to put your waste in someone else’s bin unless every bin is fitted with a lock. A trial in Norfolk failed due to numerous technical problems and also led to a 250% increase in fly tipping.

Windsor and Maidenhead are in the process of rolling out a borough-wide recycling rewards scheme after a successful trial with 6500 households.

You can get fantastic rewards at participating businesses like M&S, Legoland, Magnet and Windsor Leisure Centres or you can donate your points to the RecycleBank Green Schools Scheme.

Chip and bin

As with the Norfolk scheme, Windsor and Maidenhead are using so-called chip-and-bin technology. Residents’ recycling bins are fitted with an RFID chip identifying the household to which it belongs. The bin is weighed automatically as it’s emptied into the collection vehicle and the weight is added to the appropriate household’s account. RFID is a short-range radio system that unlike barcodes doesn’t require manual scanning and enables bins to be identified automatically as part of the emptying process.

While we wait to see whether Windsor and Maidenhead’s scheme will have a positive long-term impact on residents’ recycling habits, there’s another approach we could consider. Instead of the council weighing your bin, why not do it yourself?

The quantified self

We’re all familiar with large organisations collecting data about us, whether it’s some part of government, or the supermarket recording our every purchase for their loyalty card scheme. Many people are sceptical about or outright hostile to the increasing amount of intelligence gathering directed at us as citizens and shoppers. Whether well-intended and well-managed or not, this database-building nonetheless chips away another little bit of our privacy.

But technology observers have recently been following the trend for some people to collect this kind of data about themselves. This concept of the quantified self pulls together a diverse set of self-monitoring and self-improvement practices in which people collect data about themselves, analyse it and use it as evidence to support decision making and behaviour changes.

Some quantified self (QS) applications need you to type data into a website. Want to ramp up your drinking? Try DrinkingDiary. Sex life too hot to handle? Bedpost can help you cool it down. Others use common gadgets like smartphones. Runkeeper will track how far and how often you run, where you’ve been and will let you share your progress with others in its own community.

Some QS apps are sophisticated product service systems that come with their own custom hardware that takes the pain out of data collection. Fitbit gives you a tiny clip-on device that works as a pedometer to track your exercise levels while you’re awake and monitors your sleep time and quality while you’re in bed.

The Withings Body Scale is no ordinary bathroom scale. It doesn’t just let you weigh yourself, it wirelessly and automatically transmits your weight to a central database, from where you can monitor your progress on the web and through various mobile apps.

So if we can weigh our bodies, why not our bins?

DIY chip and bin — the pilot project

My own “pilot project” for tracking my waste disposal has so far taken around ten minutes of my time and cost £3.50 in hard cash. The money went on a portable luggage scale that I picked up in my local newsagent and the time went building a simple Google Spreadsheet and form that lets me easily type in the weight of each bin bag before I put it out into the bins. Here in Sutton we’ve got a brown bin for landfill waste and a green bin for recycling. I’m weighing both. When I fill in the Google form the numbers get automatically added to the spreadsheet along with the current date. Then I can just total up the columns and see how much I’m landfilling and recycling over time. It’s a good start.

Despite its low cost and relative simplicity, my system requires a fair bit of effort to get started and to diligently weigh and record each bag as it goes out to the bins. But what if we could buy kitchen bins that did the weighing and recording for us like the Withings Body Scale? I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we can. Technologically it’s almost the same product, though the software would need adapting to the different context of having two or more bins recording weights of different waste products rather than a single scale recording many people’s weights. This isn’t rocket science.

But will you behave better?

What’s likely to be much harder than collecting this data is using it to help people actually change their behaviour. Someone who goes to buy or contrive a weighing bin is at least starting off with some motivation and a good intention. Sustaining that might be hard. As with many fitness apps, a social networking component where the user could share and compare their data with others in similar households might provide sufficient motivation and social reinforcement to keep going. A web-based system could send occasional suggestions for ways to waste less and recycle more, even in the form of advertisements for eco-friendly packaged products like those in Amazon’s 100% recyclable Frustration-Free Packaging.

Twenty minutes into the future…

Now imagine what could be done if this system had access (with your permission, of course) to your supermarket loyalty card data. Suggestions on how to substitute poorly-packaged products for comparable ones based on your actual shopping habits? Suggestions on how you could buy larger packs of existing products that would have proportionally less packaging? Having access to this info on your smartphone while you’re in the shop? Discount vouchers as a little extra nudge to get you started? It’s all perfectly feasible.

If people can do data for themselves, do councils still have a role to play? One way might be to sidestep the whole issue of people getting their own weighing bins and providing bin weight data collected through chip-and-bin straight to residents without operating a local penalty or reward scheme. Residents could then participate in any third-party reward scheme that they chose, most likely operated by a supermarket or another retailer. People would appreciate the choice and flexibility of being in control of how their data was used and could pick a reward scheme that suited them best. Retailers would have greater incentive to work with their suppliers to improve packaging. Councils would benefit from lower landfill taxes and greater recycling rates without going to the trouble of running their own reward schemes or getting out the thumbscrews.

Whose data? Our data!

The biggest barrier to making this happen isn’t the technology. We’ve already got that. The problem is getting the organisations that collect data about us to give us access. We need a new deal with the organisations that know more about us than we know ourselves: If you want my data I get to use it too and I get a secure way of sharing it with trusted third parties that can do something good with it that benefits me. If you want to log my phone calls or my purchases or the weight of my bin every time you collect it — show me your API. Quid pro quo or GTFO.

We’re starting to make good progress with the open data movement to get government to release its non-personal data for everyone to use. The next step is to get equal access to the personal data that government and business holds about us so it can work for us as well as it works for them. Then we can have an information society in which everyone benefits rather than an information technology society that just reinforces the status quo. It might start with our bins but it won’t end there.


29
Mar 11

Sutton Bookshare is not a library

Sutton Bookshare is a project that I’ve been designing for Sutton Council. It’s a website that lets local residents list their books on a website and then share with each other.

Bookshare is part of a wider project called Sutton Open Library that’s about opening up the library service to innovation. The whole project is funded through a grant from NESTA (a charity distributing lottery money) under their Make It Local funding scheme.

As well as the book sharing website, Sutton Open Library also opens up the main library service’s database so that independent software developers can access it and build their own apps for it.

Is Sutton Bookshare an attempt to cover for library cutbacks?

Many people have asked this question. It’s a fair question to ask.

While I work temporarily as a contractor for Sutton Council I do not speak for the council. So these are my personal views.

It would be very hard to see how Sutton Bookshare could substitute for any significant part of the library service. It has certainly not been designed with that aim in mind. In fact, the whole design direction of the project has been led by the principle that Sutton Bookshare is not a library. Every time I start transplanting library concepts into Bookshare I remind myself that Bookshare is unique and different and needs to work in a very distinct way.

One of the aims of Sutton Bookshare has been to make books that aren’t available in the library available for people to borrow. Most of my own books aren’t in the library service, so if you’re interested in design theory, urbanism and software development you now have access to books that you didn’t have previously.

Another aim of Sutton Bookshare is to build and reinforce personal relationships and social networks. Libraries can do this to an extent through clubs and other activities but the core library services are about borrowing items from the library, not other people. When you lend or borrow something in Sutton Bookshare you don’t just exchange a book, you get to meet someone who lives or works locally and almost by definition has a shared interest with you.

Sutton Bookshare also improves the library service. When you look at the page for a book in Bookshare you get a direct link to that book’s page on the main library service’s catalogue. This gives you options: Borrow it in Bookshare or borrow it from the library. For many people it will be more convenient to borrow it from the library. Bookshare provides another way to find books that are in the main library service.

What Sutton Bookshare doesn’t do

Sutton Bookshare isn’t a library.

Bookshare only lets you borrow books, hence the name. No CDs or DVDs.

Bookshare doesn’t give you a desk where you can sit down and work for a few hours in a quiet atmosphere.

Bookshare won’t let you catch up on the day’s newspapers or recent magazines.

You can borrow my books but you can’t pitch up in my living room for the afternoon. Sorry about that.

Open data makes the libraries better

The open data side of the Sutton Open Library project is all about improving the library service. We’re doing this by giving software developers the opportunity to build apps that help people find books more easily. This is nothing to do with cutting back the library service. It’s about making the library service better. Sutton Council has been fortunate to be able to attract outside funding for this work that will not just pay off in Sutton but will help to set standards and make similar work easier in other councils.

All software developed under this project is free and open source. Anyone can use or modify it themselves for any purpose. The code is here on Github.

So what about the cutbacks then?

Like all councils, Sutton Council is reviewing its services in the light of funding cuts from central government. This includes the library service. If you’re a local resident and you want to get involved in the discussions about the future of the library service you can start here on the Speak Out Sutton website, the council’s consultation site. I have no more information about this process or influence on it than any other local resident.

But it’s my view that the scale and nature of Sutton Bookshare makes it a useful supplement for the library service but not a substitute for any part of it. My hope is that Bookshare becomes a useful thing in its own right. It’s more like a club than a public service, albeit one that’s organised by the council rather than independently. I also hope that the open data work on this project will make libraries more accessibile than they are at the moment.

A postscript for Amanda Craig

I’ve just listened to the discussion on BBC Radio 4′s PM programme with Sutton Council’s Daniel Ratchford and the author Amanda Craig.

Amanda seems to hold some odd views about books.

The first is that books are far too precious to lend. While I’d agree that books are definitely valuable in the sense that they’re useful and enjoyable, they don’t do any good sitting on your shelves. So I’ve listed 130 of my own books and while I’d definitely like them back, if I lose the occasional one then I can stand the loss. I offer things to share because I know that most people are honest and responsible. If you believed otherwise you probably wouldn’t engage in almost any kind of relationship, personal or commercial.

Amanda also thinks that sharing books is tantamount to stealing from authors. This is because when you borrow a book from a library the author gets a small payment (the Public Lending Right) but when you share a book with a friend the author gets nothing.

I think this is terribly narrow-minded.

Sharing books on a relatively small scale doesn’t threaten authors. People stopping reading books threatens authors. Sutton Bookshare is a small project that in its own way will help people discover and read new books. Authors will benefit because those same people will be far more likely to visit a public library or buy books subsequently. It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that someone might borrow one book by an author on Bookshare and then buy another.

When you’re looking at a book page on Sutton Bookshare you’re also three clicks away from buying that book on Amazon. Bookshare links directly to Amazon’s search for that book.

The threat to authors comes largely from other things. It comes from the time people choose to spend doing things other than reading books because they now have more options. Watch YouTube or read? Fool around on Facebook or read? Play computer games or read? Listen to internet radio or read?

A project like Sutton Bookshare and Sutton Open Library is the wrong target. We’re getting people hooked on books not taking money out of authors’ pockets. Authors, libraries and of course readers will benefit.

I’ve always spent a lot of money on books. I probably always will because it’s very unlikely to be convenient or even possible for me to get all the books I want through borrowing from people or libraries. Authors should be scared of Facebook and World of Warcraft not book sharing.


1
Feb 11

police.uk official crime maps — there should be a law against it

It’s always good when open data makes the headlines, albeit slightly for the wrong reasons today. Nonetheless, too much traffic to our website is a problem we’d all like to have. It shows public interest if nothing else. After all, who wouldn’t want an easy way to find out how much crime is on their street and in their neighbourhood?

But before we fall over ourselves to be grateful for this latest attempt at transparency we should exercise more than a little caution.

This won’t be news to anyone who thinks seriously about data, but a map is a visualisation, not the data itself. It’s one way of representing the underlying data. In as much as the data is accurate, complete and relevant, the police.uk website is simply giving us a single way to look at it that’s already been decided for us. No matter how often we’re reminded that the map is not the territory (and let’s be honest, most people have never heard that saying, let alone considered the issues in any depth), if you’ve only got the map it might as well be the territory. Psychologically, the two become conflated.

Perhaps apocryphally, Stalin said that it’s not who votes that counts but who counts the votes. Likewise, we should be hugely cautious about giving too much weight to official visualisations of data. As the policing minister Nick Herbert wrote today (my emphasis):

We live in the age of accountability and transparency. The public deserve to know what is happening on their streets, and they want action. By opening up this information, and allowing the public to elect Police and Crime Commissioners, we are giving people real power – and strengthening the fight against crime.

So what we’re looking at here isn’t a value-neutral scientific exercise in helping people to live their daily lives a little more easily, it’s an explicitly political attempt to shape the terms of a debate around the most fundamental changes in British policing in our lifetimes.

Transparency isn’t wrong. It’s absolutely vital to make a meaningful contribution to public debate, but we need to distinguish pseudo-transparency from the real thing. Spatial visualisation and analysis is enormously difficult to get right and even thoughtfully-designed visualisations require a fair bit of understanding to interpret correctly. Slap it on a map works fine when you just want to see where your local recycling centres are, but as soon as you start to classify crimes by type and bound them into streets and neighbourhoods you’re into the realm of professional spatial analysis. You need to know what you’re doing and have access to tools that enable you to shift category and spatial boundaries to account for anomalous effects. The newspapers that have run lists of the most crime-ridden streets in the country today might want to consider the fact that longer streets will on average have more crime than shorter streets, just to take one simple example of a relevant factor that’s not accounted for if you want to visualise this data in that way.

Whether police.uk is trying to pull a fast one on us or is simply naive about the possibilities for doing something meaningful for a general audience with this data, the result is the same: plenty of heat and very little light. Mark Monmonier’s How to lie with maps provides a good starter text for the myriad ways in which maps can deceive, intentionally and otherwise.

On a more positive note, we’re also getting the data itself to use. This is a good thing, in as much as the data itself is, as stated above, accurate, complete and relevant. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s derived data that’s already been classified, rounded and lumped together in various ways, with a bit of location anonymising thrown in for good measure. I haven’t had a detailed look at it yet but I would caution against trying to use it for anything serious. A whole set of decisions have already transformed the raw source data (individual crime reports) into this derived dataset and you can’t undo them. You’ll just have to work within those decisions and stay extremely conscious that everything you produce with it will be prefixed, “as far as we can tell”.

£300K for this? There ought to be a law against it. Worse than useless, it’s thoroughly misleading. In future, we need fine-grained datasets for these kinds of applications and a big head start (six months?) between publishing official data and the commissioning of official expensive projects around it to ensure that everyone really understands what can and should be done with it.