How important is open data and transparency in the context of the huge outgo on arms imports, with India topping the list of arms-buying countries in the world? Should not matters about defence expenditure take centre-stage in public discourse? Will tools that make data accessible to the public help? Here is an instance from another part of the world about what can be done in this direction.
Arms import values are at constant (1990) prices and represent transfer of military resources rather than financial value. Military expenditure at constant (2008) prices and exchange rates. Charts: TR Data source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Campaigners in some parts of the world are pushing for open data and transparency on defence matters, which may be relevant in the Indian context too as recent data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that India retains its position as the biggest arms importer in the world.
In some global regions, campaigners and data enthusiasts have been trying to highlight important defence issues and bring them to the foreground in public discourse. The UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), in association with European Network Against Arms Trade, recently came up with a web application that made data pertaining to the defence trade in the European Union (EU), "clearly and easily available to the public, politicians, civil servants and the media."
The Arms Exports browser has data about all known weapons transfers out of the EU from 1998 onwards, categorised in terms of source, destination and type of equipment.
This tool is built on a database that makes information finding easy and fast, say its creators.
Graphic overviews are easy to navigate and explore. Views can be shared and the raw data is available for download in machine-readable formats.
Such a focus on defence sector data is particularly important for a country like India because the stakes are high. Defence spending is huge.
The infamous link between corruption and the arms trade, the influence of arms companies and contractors in the corridors of power and the rationale that is on offer for such huge spending all need closer scrutiny.
Matters related to defence spending generally come centre-stage when corruption allegations crop up, and often overshadow issues like the scale of the spending or its necessity or the priorities involved.
"Transparency of data is an important step towards raising public and media awareness of the issues around arms exports and holding government to account," said Kaye Stearman, media co-ordinator, CAAT, in response to a question from this blog. The problem however was that many governments had the policy of promoting the sale of arms, even to authoritarian regimes, which may use these to repress their own people.
In the UK context, the way the government presented defence information "was deeply opaque, difficult to access, use and understand. Our aim is to both present the big picture and to develop tools to zoom in on detailed information." The web application was developed to make the information more accessible and easier to analyse.
"The Arms Exports browsers (UK and EU) were welcomed by arms trade campaigners, the media and the open data community," said Ms Stearman. The media reported about the browser and it secured 73,000 unique views over two days. "Having a tool like the browser enables us to communicate directly with MPs and the public and gives journalists and NGOs the means to get the key information they need quickly and clearly," she said.
It had also generated interest in the open data community. A "hack day" was organised by CAAT, and new ideas have emerged about the use of the data. "We would very much welcome seeing a parallel movement in India, given the need to draw public attention to their huge arms imports."
India remains the biggest importer of defence equipment in the world, with the value of imports totalling $ 4,764 million in 2012, going by SIPRI data. China comes next. Pakistan is in the sixth position.
But USA and China are significant arms exporters too - USA is the topmost exporter in the world and China comes sixth in the table of top global exporters for 2012.