Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Egypt vs. England Comparison

Here is a bit from an article by Cory Doctorow in the UK's Guardian newspaper. He asks some interesting questions about the new government's "transparency"...
Last week's launch of the England and Wales crime maps websites was attended by two fairly predictable kinds of commentary. On the one hand, there were plaudits for the new transparency (cue the ghost of Lord Kelvin: "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it"). On the other hand, there were the sceptics, epitomised by the recently burgled John Humphrys of Radio 4's Today Programme, who grilled a spokesman for the project, demanding to know the purpose of crime maps. After all, his local cops know his house was burgled, he knows his house was burgled – how does publishing aggregate burglary statistics make anything any better?

It's a good question: in fact, it's the question. Simply knowing a problem exists is useless unless you have a reasonable expectation that the state will be responsive to your complaints, suggestions and demands. The demonstrators in Egypt know to a nicety about the corruption, the torture, the arbitrary detention, the censorship and the fixed elections. If the Mubarak regime had published a colourful Google Maps mashup with little pushpins denoting the site of every bribe-taking and torture incident, it would do little to assure Egypt's angry protesters that things were going to improve.

On the other hand, this week saw the launch of another online, location-sensitive data-service that tracks police statistics, and in this case, it was immediately apparent exactly how this will improve the lives of the citizens who use it.

Sukey is that app. Created by recently politicised university students, Sukey analyses reports from participants in street demonstrations and provides a steady stream of intelligence that will help the protestors avoid being "kettled". Kettling is the police practice of cordoning off an area within a protest and detaining all who are caught without food, shelter, medical care or sanitation.

Nearly all the London tuition fees/anti-cuts demonstrations up until last weekend have ended in mass, prolonged kettling. Last weekend's Sukey-enabled demonstrators were not kettled (their peers in Edinburgh and Manchester weren't so lucky), and if the app isn't solely responsible for that bit of luck, it's safe to say that it played some role.

When the citizenry need to build apps to protect themselves from unlawful detention by the police, it's not surprising that a new application that allows you to go down to your local police station and ask them to do something about some newly transparent crime statistic is greeted with indifference or jeers. If you can't trust the police not to detain your children on a freezing road for hours, why would you believe that you could have a productive dialogue about how they should be deploying their resources?
Some years ago I discovered that my foolish belief in "justice" was misplaced. I had assumed that the police and the courts were interested in finding the truth. Instead I discovered I was up against a bureaucracy that was cozy with its power and indifferent to the effects of exercising its power. What shocked me the most was to discover that the police, as an instrument of the state, can be manipulated. I discovered that whoever reports a crime gets the infinite resources of the state behind it while the other party is forced to fund its defense out of pocket. This was quite arbitrary. I had expected that the state would first investigate then bring the powers of the state behind the offended party and persecute the offender. It doesn't.

Whoever wanders in with a complaint, whether ground or ungrounded, gets the police as a tool they can use against the other party. The police are not interested in honestly gathering all facts and the judicial system's prosecutors are unconcerned above whether the complainant is in the right or wrong. By default they are in the right. So the defendant by default is in the wrong. The resources are arrayed with no regard to facts. So I learned an important lesson: if you are in a situation where the conflict might lead to police interaction, make sure you get to the police first. That way you get "justice" for free while the other party has to pay for its "justice". Oh, and forget about the idea that "justice is blind" or that the system is concerned with unearthing the truth. All the system wants to do is dispose of the case and get on to the next one.

Obviously the UK is much preferable to Egypt. But the point is that the UK is not the paragon of "justice" and responsible policing and a diligent judiciary as most citizens naively believe. There is a great deal of room for improvement! And that is true for all "advanced" democracies. The Egyptians look like they will make a huge advance toward democracy and a better civil state, but even if they catch up with the West, there is still plenty of room for yet more advancement.

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