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Open Data and the Greek Debt

March 7th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

This is the first of three or four posts on Open Knowledge and Open and Linked Data.

For some time I have been looking at the movement for Open Knowledge, mainly from the viewpoint of teaching and learning. Open Knowledge pushes back at the attempts to privatise knowledge through ever more draconian intellectual property laws. And of course such laws are being introduced precisely because of the capability of the internet from opening up knowledge resources and sharing knowledge and knowledge artefacts. Recently I have been looking at the potential of open and linked data, an idea whose time has come in terms of the ability of machines to collect data and process data, to allow interrogation of that data and to visualise the results.

But this is not just about teaching and learning. Access to data could be central to democracy. Last weeks call from the Jubilee Debt Campaign for an audit of the Greek debts is a case in point. The Jubilee Debt Campaign web site says:

Today, more than 200 prominent Greek and international figures launch a call to audit Greece’s debts. Economists, activists, academics and parliamentarians from across the world are demanding the establishment of a Public Commission to examine the debts that lie at the root of Greece’s crisis. The Commission would look at the legality and legitimacy of those debts, with a view to negotiating better terms and holding to account those responsible for unjust debts.

There is little doubt that any initial examination of those debts will find a tangle of wheeling and dealing, of strange financial instruments and money movements. How better to discover what has been going on than to make this data publicly available. So not just a public audit by reputed financial specialists but an audit by the crowd. If the Greek people are supposed to pay for this crisis why should they not have the full details of what is owed, to who and for what.

And come to think of it, it is not just Greece which needs such an audit. The Ireland economy is in tatters, and in the UK we are constantly told that austerity measures and cutbacks are necessary because of the size of the UK’s sovereign debt. If my taxes are going to pay these debts I want to know who they are to and how those debts occurred. The UK government seems keen on publishing data it wants us to see (like the pay of civil servants), other data it is less keen to see in the public domain.

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