What do you mean Chilcot isn’t a technology story?

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

I won a ticket to see Tony Blair give evidence at the Chilcot ‘Iraq’ Inquiry back in January 2010.

When I’d applied for the ballot, it felt like a big moment but, to be honest, I largely felt the same yesterday as I did when I saw him speaking back then.

He’s not suddenly going to change the line. He did what he thought was right. There is no conspiracy. Chilcot’s summary was pretty damning, but not exactly shocking:

  • The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction WMD were presented with a certainty that was not justified
  • Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate
  • The Government failed to achieve its stated objectives

But, from a technical perspective at least, there’s something a bit more interesting going on.

I can’t remember exactly where I met Terence, but I’ve known him for a few years and once he helped me out when I thought I’d had my identity cloned in Ukraine.

Turns out, my old mate has been working away for years on Chilcot, not only trying to convince the Inquiry to offer better access to the files, but also trying to work out how to crowdsource efforts to open up the documents.

In 2012, after a tip-off from a journalist, Terence had a go at using the optical character recognition capability on Google Docs to read the documents.

It didn’t do a bad job, but Google Docs has an upload limit and no one in their right mind would sit and do that for all of the evidence.

And Terence’s targeted plea to Chilcot went unheard.

Fortunately, the internet has (sort of) come to the rescue, so you can at least go through the entire PDF in one go, rather than following endless links.

You can also go ahead and use the search engine on the Inquiry site – the first scanned letter that mentions George Bush is suitably sad – but you really have to know what you’re looking for if you’re doing this.

Jeni Tennison, technical director at the Open Data Institute, told NS Tech:

“It’s disappointing to see such an important and long-awaited document published as a series of PDFs.

“The historic document should have been made far more accessible to the public and clearly openly licensed, allowing them not just to read it, but to reuse its content and reference it in their own conversations.

“And the annexes, which contain useful reference maps and data, should have been published as open data to enable others to create visualisations and analyses beyond those provided by the report.

“Improving our public discourse requires us to improve how we provide access to information.”

Terence, meanwhile, has a cheeky six-point wishlist:

  1. Publish in an open and accessible format, namely HTML
  2. Have a PDF option for those who want to print it
  3. Insist that all evidence is original electronic documents – not scans of photocopies of printouts (where possible)
  4. Ensure that any scans are optical character recognised and corrected
  5. Use a data markup scheme so that it’s easy to disambiguate data, eg. does “Kelly said that” refer to Dr David Kelly or Captain Jo Kelly
  6. That’d do!

The referendum result proved we have a profound mistrust of experts, as well as a bunch of politicians who will wilfully present ‘data’ as ‘facts’.

Chilcot is a missed opportunity to use basic technology within the public sector to the benefit of ordinary people.

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