22 December 2011

Greek data in the year 2011 - When the opendata movement should laugh

On December 19th, 2011 the Greek Parliament and the "special committee for accountability" led by Mr. Evaggelos Argiris, uploaded the ownership reports of all the MPs and MEPs for the year 2009 (economic year 2010). Despite the time lag and the delay in the name of accountability and transparency the official site of the Greek Parliament accommodated for the first time in Greek history data that according to the voted plan could raise awareness on the financial status of the elected public figures, thus allowing civic control and accountability. The plan for publishing the data and making it publicly accessible was massively advertised as a way to enter the digital era of data with useful benefits for the society derived from the ability to hold the politicians accountable. However, the original plan is completely different from the mere reality.

Initially it is quiet interesting to note that the cost for developing and maintaining the Parliament's site according to the President's statement is a total of 1,059,516.27 Euro (proof 1, proof 2). A rational mind should expect that a site that has cost to the Greek tax payer a  respectable amount of money will be suitable to store a good sort of information while serving hundreds of users at the same time. This working hypothesis based upon the rationality that such an expensive site will be able to provide quality services to the users, seems to have been falsified.

When the ownership reports of the MPs and MEPs were uploaded the site went offline for most of the morning hours and was unable to serve the demand of many users who desired to hold access to the fresh information. (I managed to finally access the website at around 14.00 having refreshed it a hundred of times)

On top of the inability to respond to high demand adequately, the second surprise and disappointment that led to anger was caused by the format that the site engineers (?) chose for the information to be stored. Paradoxically all the reports were in Flash format. According to people who are aware of the internet customs, this is quiet unusual as today most of the textual information takes the form of html or at worst embedded pdf, types that are accessible by a wider audience and allow users to process the data more easily. (source) In contrast, the engineers of the site chose to provide the information in Flash that is actually a digital depiction of the printed document. This type is nonmanagable by spreadsheet or other data processing softwares.

Data analysts, citizens, journalists, academics will be unable to download the information, store it and potentially analyse it in order to produce useful results such as comparisons, trends etc.

Was the selection of the specific format just a random choice?

An answer to the intention (or randomness) can be given directly by the terms of use that anyone can view from the same page as the reports of the ownership statuses. I quote the translation of Paragraph No. 5:

"It is forbidden to copy, publish, or partially publish the electronic ownership reports. Access to the data is only allowed through the portal of the Hellenic Parliament and only by technical tools that have been used for that purpose"

I guess that most of the questions regarding whether the selection of the format was intentional or not can be answered by the legal framework that was set to cover the information. It is clear that the status quo desires the data of their ownership statuses to be fully protected and hence citizens to only get a limited and thus non-threatening taste of civic control and accountability. They have forbidden through the terms of use any partial reproduction, copying of the data so as in two, three years from now when the fresher data for the present year become available, citizens to be fully unable to compare and run statistical analyses on the changes and trends of the elected officials' ownership statuses.

Other Observations:

A) The stable link for the reports of ownership of the MPs and MEPs for the year 2010: http://www.hellenicparliament.gr/Organosi-kai-Leitourgia/epiropi-elegxou-ton-oikonomikon-ton-komaton-kai-ton-vouleftwn/Diloseis-Periousiakis-Katastasis-Oikonomikou-Etous-2010-Chrisi-2009/

B) The reports and the terms of use are not accessible in English or any other language. Hence only Greek speakers can read and check the data. (I remind you here the cost of the site).

C) Downloading and analysing the data is illegitimate according to the terms of use. However if you seek a practical resolution to the problem imposed by the Flash format you may read here.

D) An interesting comment (by Takis Bouyouris) I read about the format of the information and the limited web accessibility that constitutes a violation of European Legislation. (e.g people with limited visibility are unable to use the special softwares that read machine language and convert it into audible sound).

Further Reading:

Exceptional opinions on  the ownership reports that I have read (unfortunately only in Greek)

- Zaphod Galaxyarchis

- Georgakopoulos

- E-cannibals