18/03/2012 18:12 GMT | Updated 18/05/2012 06:12 BST

A Farewell to Arms Export Secrecy

Mention the arms trade - making, marketing, buying and selling deadly weapons - and most people feel uneasy, especially when they see weapons being sold to undemocratic, repressive or unstable regimes. But how do we find out what weapons are going where?

This is one of the problems facing Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which focuses on the UK's role in the international arms trade. Now, thanks to some brilliant technical expertise, we have been able to uncover the facts and stats buried in official government data.

The current system

First some background. Like many governments, the UK government is required to licence (approve) so called "strategic exports", whether the equipment is intended specifically for military use or is for dual-use (i.e. can be used for military or civilian purposes). Licensing is carried out by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) with input from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence.

Arms export licence data is collected by the Export Control Organisation (ECO) in BIS and quietly released on a quarterly basis. While the level of data has improved since 2008, when the current system was introduced, it is presented in a highly aggregated format and accessed via an online database that is almost impenetrable. Users must trawl through a 400-plus page PDF or register with the database to do online searches. Both are time-consuming and take knowledge and skill to analyse the results. The system baffles researchers and is a barrier to media reporting on arms trade issues.

CAAT's web app

CAAT's new web app went live on CAAT website on 8 March. The web app provides details of licence approvals according to destination country, type of licence, type of equipment and value from January 2008 to the last data set available (currently this is the third quarter of 2011).

Unlike the BIS data, there is no need to register and users can make and refine searches in real time. A graph plots the value of arms exports by the month, explanations of terms are available throughout, and individual pages/searches can be linked to directly. The app also includes an RSS feed which people can use to be notified whenever new data is made available. What's more, the application conforms to accessibility standards and provides the data for use by other programmers.

Unfortunately, there are still limitations. Some information cannot be completely disaggregated. Also, critically, the government data provides no information on companies making the licence applications.

So far the CAAT web app has been welcomed with enthusiasm. Journalists have told us that it will greatly aid their work. The web app was praised by the Guardian Data Blog who stated that it "finally gives us a way to navigate the official data - which we struggled to extract here for arms sales to Arab Spring countries".

We are delighted that activists are already using the web app to garner information. Often this is information that is easily overlooked. For example, who knew that in the last year the UK licensed over £1m worth of arms to Madagascar, a country ruled by a rogue President bought to to power by a military coup? Meanwhile, as Channel 4 screens its new documentary on war crimes in Sri Lanka, the app reveals that the UK licensed over £2m worth of arms sales to that country between May 2009 and September 2011.

Arms exports need transparency

The Coalition government has stated that government should be more open and transparent. David Cameron called for "new standards of transparency" early in his premiership. More recently, Business Secretary Vince Cable emphasised the importance of transparency to the export licensing system and made proposals to increase the information publicly available.

For too long the data on arms exports have been hidden from public scrutiny yet this is an area of government policy and practice desperately in need of greater transparency. We need to know the details - and CAAT's new web app target="_hplink"> will help us to find out.