Tracking the Royal Navy: data visualisation meets open government

Over on the Royal Navy’s website is a striking map, showing where all the navy’s main vessels are currently deployed. It’s striking for two reasons. First, it demonstrates how the current drive towards opening up government data and presenting it in visually illuminating ways is reaching all sorts of unlikely corners of the public sector. Second, twenty-five years ago that sort of openness would have been unthinkable. The security needs the navy has to meet now are very different from those of the Cold War.

HMS ChiddingfoldThough the map is not perfect, with the data feed being a little dated at the moment, it provides a quick visual story about the country’s current military priorities.

There is a cluster of ships in the Middle East, around the Falklands and in the extremely busy waterways of the Channel. Less obviously, the Mediterranean and the east cost of America are the other concentrations of ships with areas such as the pirate plagued sea lanes off Somalia left to others to worry about. The Pacific is usually completely empty of Royal Naval ships; the days of global military presence echoing previous imperial commitments are long gone.

Not surprisingly, the map does have a little footnote – pointing out that the position of the Trident and other submarines is left off the map. However, if even the Royal Navy can be open about such data, it is a good example to cite when other parts of the public sector still instinctively prefer to avoid providing information and then, reluctantly and eventually, pump it out in obscure and hard to manipulate formats.

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  • Keith Browning 7th Sep '10 - 6:40pm

    I would have thought the sabre rattling by the Argentinians,concerning the Malvinas, is why such a high number of vessels are in that area.

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Sep '10 - 8:32pm

    Although to some extent, I think we’ve reached a state of technology where anybody who could possibly cause any harm with this information could already get it (you can’t hide a ship on the surface of the ocean any more), so there’s not much point keeping it secret.

  • Alistair is correct to point out that more context would go a long way to making this tool far more useful. A lot of the information is already there on the website, either in the news or in individual ship’s pages, but more could be done without compromising any sense of operational security.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Sep '10 - 7:55am

    you’d be surprised how easy it is to hide a ship once it’s 10-12 miles offshore

    Suppose that we’re only interested in people who can harm a Navy ship at that distance, and then observe that all of those people have real-time satellite and aerial reconnaissance capabilities.

    Ships that are close to land are more accessible to people with lesser capabilities, but they’re also easy to locate.

    I doubt there is any intersection between “people who couldn’t already get this data” and “people who have the capability to use this data for nefarious purposes”.

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