Grime and Open Data: A Match Made in London

JME:

The rave that got shut off for us at the Barbican is gone now, it's done. Now can you please tell us what you know? I would like to know what goes down, what actually happens.

Through a Vice documentary last year, grime artist JME asked for transparency to be brought to something that affects both his livelihood and his way of life: performing music. Without realizing it, he may well have been talking about a need for open data.

Open data and grime are not three words that are regularly featured in the same breath. Grime is a style of music born in London in the early 2000s; a sparser, frenetic mix of garage, reggae, dub, hip hop and other genres. Open data is the term used for data that anyone can use access, use and share, pioneered by the inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

As grime emerged from its early raves and the airwaves of the capital's pirate radio stations it entered mainstream consciousness and its popularity boomed. From a 19-year-old Dizzee Rascal winning the prestigious Mercury music prize in 2003 for his debut album Boy In Da Corner to Skepta's ubiquitous single Shutdown this year, grime has piqued global interest. But is it threatened by the very city that birthed it?

Form 696 is the controversial risk assessment form administered by the London Metropolitan Police. It requests promoters and licensees of music events to complete and submit the form in advance of an event taking place in one of 21 London boroughs. It asks for details on the names, date of births and addresses of the performing artists and is used to assign a category of risk to the event, which may be sufficient to shut it down before it takes place.

Not all events are subject to Form 696. The form itself describes relevant events as those that feature "a DJ or MC performing to recorded background music" -- the vital ingredients of grime performance. Previous iterations of the form have also asked for expected ethnic demographics of the audience and a description of the style of music to be performed. This has led artists to question whether the form is used to discriminate against genres like grime, which sees a number of its events cancelled by police.

Lowkey, a London-based rapper and musician, asked in 2012,

would the presence of a band with the MC decrease the risk of violent crime? Is there statistically more evidence of violent crime at musical events where an MC with a recorded backing track performs in contrast to, say, heavy metal gigs? If so, can the public be given access to such statistics? If not, then why are MCs performing to a recorded backing track so stigmatized?

Beyond the clamor for the form to be scrapped entirely, the artist's call for more discourse and public access to the data that lies behind Form 696 is a measured one. The underlying grievance with the form is the opaqueness of the decisions it informs and the lack of mechanism to hold them to account.

It's this lack of transparency that, in part, gives rise to a tense relationship between the police and some proponents of grime (and other genres) that feel they are discriminated against. "There's no communication from their side on what we can do to improve the profile of the events, to mitigate that risk that they're assessing. And that's why you get this ignorant attitude [towards the police]" according to DJ Logan Sama.

The current situation inhibits artists, promoters and venues from understanding why an event has been cancelled or from learning what can be done to reduce the likelihood of it happening in the future. Besides stopping the artists from expressing themselves creatively, this can drastically affect their ability to work and monetize their talents.

It may be that open data is the solution to this problem facing grime. Over the last five years, nations around the world have published more and more open data related to their policing. UK police forces in particular make significant quantities of data available to the public -- publishing monthly crime and outcomes figures through data.police.uk and yearly returns including crime statistics and recorded offenses.

There is still more to be done with policing data, however. An attempt in 2014 to gain access to data related to Form 696 through a Freedom of Information request does not appear to have been effective. In the US President Obama hopes that the Police Data Initiative, which commits to publishing open data, will help to build transparency and increase community trust at a time of rising policing tensions.

A similar approach should extend to Form 696 data. Providing it does not affect the Metropolitan Police Service's ability to perform its job safely and effectively, data related to Form 696 could take the shape of:

  • a dataset of events subjected to Form 696 (with cancellation status)
  • crime data/statistics for music events (including those subject to Form 696)

For the datasets to be useful they would have to include details like names of events, dates and locations, and be published periodically. As previous versions of Form 696 asked for data related to the expected audience demographics and styles of music, these details could also be released for past datasets.

Access to this data would give promoters the information they so strongly crave, helping them to minimize unexplained cancellations of their events. For a culture whose popularity was fueled by live experience and expression this could be critical. It would also help to alleviate the chances of a late cancellation -- the like of which can cause organizers to lose the money invested in performances.

Open data could have a significant social impact too. Event data and crime statistics would ultimately lay the foundations of an informed debate regarding the legitimacy of Form 696, a much needed departure from a perennially anecdotal discussion. The publication of data related to the form would signify an opening of the dialogue between artists and promoters, and the police. For a relationship that is often strained by the frustrations over a lack of transparency, this would be a significant step forward in easing tensions.

For a nation that leads the way in open data publishing, it seems strange that there can be such a lack of transparency in the policing of its capital city. Especially as it's stifling the events that contribute to the cultural diversity that it prides itself on. As one fan interviewed by JME requested of the Metropolitan Police, "be honest with us, be up front, be transparent. We have to be transparent with you, be transparent with us as well."