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.

Though 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 coast 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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