Open Data and the Digital Panopticon

Of all historical periods and subjects, crime and justice in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London is the most extensively digitised. Through the digitisation of countless numbers of court records, transportation registers, prison archives, trial reports, criminal biographies, last dying speeches and newspapers (amongst many other things), we can access a wealth of information about crime, policing and punishment in the metropolis, and about the fates of the offenders tried there, all at the click of a mouse.

To our great benefit, much of this data is openly available, a product of the dogged efforts of public bodies, academics, data developers, volunteers and enthusiasts; often (but certainly not always) supported by public funding. In the process it has opened up seemingly boundless possibilities for research.

Indeed, without several of these open datasets the Digital Panopticon could not be realised. In our efforts to trace the life courses and subsequent offending histories of London convicts transported to Australia or imprisoned in Britain in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we will be reliant on a number of open datasets such as the British Convict Transportation Registers and Female Prison Licences.

It seems timely, therefore, on Open Data Day, to celebrate these fantastic, freely-accessible resources, and to highlight just a couple of ways in which they will be useful to us on the Digital Panopticon. Taking place on 21 February 2015, Open Data Day will involve a series of events and gatherings which seek to develop support for, and to encourage, the adoption of open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments.

I have talked in a previous post about the ways in which visualisations of the openly-available British Convict Transportation Registers database can be used to put transportation under the ‘macroscope’ – to chart the complex patterns and interactions of penal transportation in their entirety, spanning the breadth of Australia and the length of a century, taking in the lives of tens of thousands of individuals along the way.

In this post I briefly want to highlight another open dataset which will be at the heart of the project – the prison licence records of females incarcerated in British jails in the nineteenth century, held by the National Archives (under the catalogue reference PCOM 4), the metadata for which is openly available on the Archive’s online catalogue.

The licences almost without exception record the age of the offender on conviction, a potentially useful piece of information for us on the Digital Panopticon in terms of record linkage. But, as with our other datasets, we want to know how accurately ages were recorded, and again in the case of the female licences by visualising the data it suggests some interesting things for us to think about.

Not least, it again reveals the tendency towards age heaping in the recording of ages at round numbers such as 20, 30 and 40, suggesting that recorded ages were regularly rounded up or down rather than representing the true age of the offender. If ages were recorded accurately, we would expect to see a smooth distribution of recorded ages. As seen in the graph below, however, this was far from the case in the recording of female prisoner ages in the nineteenth century, with spikes at the ages of 20, 30, 40 and 50, and dips at the ages 29, 31, 39, 41.

Age on Conviction as Recorded in the PCOM4 Female Prison Licences

Age on Conviction as Recorded in the PCOM4 Female Prison Licences

Does this mean, therefore, that we should disregard recorded ages as entirely inaccurate? Not necessarily – as the graph below demonstrates, when we compare the distribution of ages across different sets of records, it suggests that recorded ages were perhaps broadly reflective of age patterns. The distribution of offender ages is typically younger in the Old Bailey Proceedings (OBP) and in the Convict Indents (CIN – the records of those transported to Australia) compared to that of females imprisoned in Britain (PCOM4) – certainly what we would expect, given the nature of criminal justice policy at the time.

Ages of Female Offenders as Recorded across each Dataset

These are just a couple of ways in which the Digital Panopticon will be drawing upon the wealth of open data available to criminal justice historians. We are indebted to the hard work of all those who have contributed to the creation and dissemination of this embarrassment of riches which, in combination with the powerful digital technologies now at our fingertips, is opening up a whole new realm of research opportunities.


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