Secret government contracts stop citizens knowing if outsourcing works

The following piece is cross-posted from The Guardian.

The past few months have seen a significant backlash against government outsourcing and the privatisation of public services.

A series of high profile controversies around outsourcing giants such as Atos, G4S and Serco have shaken the public’s faith in politicians’ claims that privatisation gives citizens a better deal.

While its advocates continue to argue that outsourcing leads to increased competition, greater efficiency, reduced costs and better public services, citizens are currently deprived of the evidence that they’d need to be able to evaluate whether or not this is true for particular contracts.

Unfortunately it is very difficult to know what actually happens with a public contract unless you are the contractor or the budget holder as the paper trail of documents surrounding most outsourced projects are shrouded in secrecy.

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The Data Journalism Handbook now freely available in 12 languages

I was recently surprised with a preview copy of a new Greek translation of the Data Journalism Handbook, which I co-edited along with Liliana Bounegru and Lucy Chambers.

This will be the twelfth language the book has been translated into so far. At the time of writing translations are also available and forthcoming in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, French, Georgian, Italian, Macedonian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian.

The book is also currently used for teaching at more than twenty universities and higher educational institutions. If you hear of any other new translations or interesting uses of the book, please do get in touch.

Greek translation of Data Journalism Handbook

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Secret government contracts undermine our democracies. Let’s stop them.

I’ve just written a piece for Open Democracy about a new global campaign to stop secret government contracts, coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation. You can read it here and sign up to the campaign here.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 12.13.29

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A Small Sebald

A Small Sebald

A small effigy of W. G. Sebald holding a copy of his book The Rings of Saturn.

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The Snowden leaks are about much more than state surveillance

My review of The Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s new book The Snowden Files in OpenDemocracy argues that the Snowden leaks are about much more than state surveillance.

Piece on Snowden leaks in OpenDemocracy

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The UK’s new Lobbying Bill is a farce

The UK’s new Lobbying Bill will do nothing to fight the malign influence of big money in politics, I argue in a piece for Open Democracy.

My piece on the UK's new lobbying bill on Open Democracy

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Mapping the Cultural Commons

Following is the text of a keynote talk I gave at an event organised by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication in Paris last week, also cross-posted on the Ministry’s Culture Blog. After the event, Aurélie Filippetti, the French Minister for Culture and Communication, announced a new partnership to begin to map the public domain in France.

I’m going to start by asking you to contemplate the unimaginable – the age-old fantasy of the total archive, the comprehensive record of humanity’s time on earth. Picture everything that the human mind has ever created laid out before you – every song and every story, every image, inscription, and invention – in chronological order from the dawn of humankind to the present day.

This fantastical archive is the record of the passage of history: the evolution of cultures and countries, politics and economics, science and scholarship, laws and literature. Not only the major figures, stories and works with which we are more familiar, but a kaleidoscopically rich reflection of the world and its inhabitants in all of their contingency and particularity, captured in images, documents, descriptions, and artefacts as though frozen in amber.

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The Business of Transparency

Following is the full version of an article that was recently published in the Guardian, arguing that the nascent ‘open government’ movement should focus on social justice and enabling citizens to hold power to account, rather than wealth creation and the technology industry.

“In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress.” Thus spoke President Obama at the UN General Assembly in September 2010.

This initial call to action gave rise to a new initiative called the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Last week senior government officials and campaigners from around 60 countries gathered in London for the OGP’s second annual summit to announce new voluntary commitments to open government, and for talks about freedom of information, civic participation, whistleblower protection, corporate accountability, and many other things.

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Recomposing Scholarship

Following is the text of my talk at the Open Access Futures in the Humanities and Social Sciences event in London earlier this week, cross-posted from the London School of Economics ‘Impact of Social Sciences’ blog.

I’d like to start off by raising the question: what is research?

Perhaps we might be tempted to talk about “increasing the stock of human knowledge” as an influential OECD manual on research statistics puts it. Perhaps we might turn back to the etymology of the word, to the sixteenth century French word recerchier, “to search”: to search for truth, to search for better ways of understanding of the world around us. Perhaps we might invoke the metaphor of “the Republic of Letters”: research as a kind of a global conversation, whereby scholars from around the world build on and respond to a shared body of arguments and evidence about different matters of concern.

But perhaps all of these metaphors of quests for knowledge and scholarly republics sound a bit too grand when it comes to characterising what researchers actually do, what we are actually engaged in on a day to day basis. (If someone should ask us at the end of the day about how our contribution to the stock of human knowledge is going, we would surely assume that they were making a joke.)

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Goethe and Hegel discuss Hamann at a tea party

On October 18, 1827, Goethe gave a tea party in honor of the philosopher Hegel, who had come to Weimar to visit him. Although each of the men genuinely respected the achievements of the other, we know from a first-hand report of the discussion that the radical difference in their basic philosophical positions emerged in sharp outline in the course of the dialogue. The poet’s deep distrust of abstract reasoning and the philosopher’s uncompromising commitment to such reasoning scarcely provided the basis for any real congeniality. Indeed, the only subject on which they discoursed with obvious mutual pleasure was that of the life and work of Johann Georg Hamann. “A great deal was said about Hamann,” reports Eckerman, “with respect to whom Hegel was chief spokesman, displaying a deep insight into this extraordinary mind, such as could only have arisen from a most earnest and scrupulous study of the subject.” In this part of the discussion Goethe played the role of willing listener, for in general he respected Hegel’s ability as a critic; in the latter part, however, Goethe launched upon a polite but nevertheless barbed attack on “dialectics,” an attack which Hegel accepted in good spirit, no doubt out of respect for his venerable host. The truth is that both Goethe and Hegel had important connections with Hamann; the former had been considerably influenced by the Magus in his youth through the mediation of Johann Gottfried Herder, and the latter was just then preparing to publish an exhaustive and brilliant review of Hamann’s collected works, a review which appeared the following year.

James C. O’Flaherty, Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1967), pp. 17-18.

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