Opening the data on Aberdeen Convicts – part 1

A guest blog-post by Sara Mazzoli, a post-graduate student at Edinburgh University, who has been interning at Code The City for the last three months. During this project she has worked closely with us and with the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives.

Introduction: what is the Register of Returned Convicts?

Historical context, use and description

The Register of Returned Convicts of Aberdeen (1869-1939) is a fascinating, “small-but-chunky” (Astley, 2021) volume contained in the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Archives, comprising a total of 279 entries. It is located in the Grampian police collection of the Archives. Out of these entries, about sixty feature mug shots – which can be seen here.

As suggested by the register’s title, the register was used to take note of convicts’ addresses upon release. In fact, Phil Astley – Aberdeen’s Archivist – explained to us that this register contains information on convicts that were sentenced to Penal Servitude (often noted in the register as P.S.). 

The Penal Servitude Act, enforced in 1857, was meant to substitute transportation with a prison sentence. This specific sentence consisted of three parts: solitary confinement; labour and release on licence. This latter element meant that individuals sentenced to P.S. had to report monthly to the police during their licence time. Also, they had to report any change in address within 48 hours. 

A typical page of the Register looks like this:

As it can be seen, at the top of each page of the register, information was noted on convicts’ physical traits and age upon release, as well as conviction and sentence. In the “Marks” section, anything noteworthy – such as tattoos, scars, deformities and moles – was written down. In fact, according to Phil Astley the industrialisation process determined a high incidence of accidents in factories. Therefore, disfigurements were common amongst workers. 

At the bottom half of the page, the register featured information on the convicts’ addresses after their sentence ended. Most of the addresses of the people noted in the register were in Aberdeen. However, some also moved to nearby towns and villages – such as Dundee – or to bigger cities, such as Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

Moreover, Phil suggested that there are other two particular acts that shaped the register. 

  • The Habitual Offenders Act 1869. 
  • The Prevention of Crimes Act of 1871. This act 

Simply put, these two acts tightened former criminals’ liberties, and enhanced police monitoring of these individuals. These laws were in fact especially crafted to fight habitual criminals (Radzinowicz and Hood, 1980): with increasing urbanization, authorities were concerned with what they labelled as “criminal classes”, an expression by which they referred to individuals who mainly lived through criminal activities. The Register can ultimately be understood as an example of the attempt to monitor the movements of these repeat offenders.

The mugshots and the “habitual criminal”

The camera was developed in the first half of the Nineteenth century, and was initially seen as a tool to represent bodies in a realistic manner. Indeed, photography was depicted as an objective and neutral representation of reality, and therefore authorities started using this tool for law enforcement since the 1840s: “Given its material features and its cultural value as an objective form of representation, the camera provided the perfect tool for the documentation, classification, and regulation of the body within the carceral network” (Finn, 2009, p. 29). 

Indeed, at first, as the concept of “mug shot” was developing, photos of individuals in the Register lacked a unique formatting, which started to appear in the 1890s. Indeed, as claimed by Finn (2009), mug shots developed from the Nineteenth-century portrait. These portraits featured an individual sitting, with no facial expression, and were usually taken from the front. As it can be seen, the first few mug shots look more like portraits compared to the later ones. For example:

 Fig 1: two mug shots from the Register of the Returned Convicts (1869-1939). The first one, depicts Ann Mc Govern, released in 1872. The second one is the mug shot of John Proctor, discharged in 1893.

According to Holligan and Maitra (2018, p. 173), mug shots were established and developed in a milieu of “pessimism about classes of society”. Moreover, the development of criminal anthropology led to a more wide-spread use of photography in carceral settings. Scholars of this field of studies, such as Cesare Lombroso, believed that certain physical characteristics could yield the identification of criminals. The believed objectivity of photography meant that mug shots could further inform these studies; as characteristics found in mugshots could be analysed by criminal anthropologists. At the same time, the popularity of criminal anthropology led this field of studies also to shape law enforcement practices; first and foremost, by shaping the practices of mug shots taking and of noting distinguishing marks. 

Specifically, mug shots were introduced in the UK thanks to the above-mentioned Prevention of Crimes Act of 1871: “Under the section 7 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1871 it was recommended that convicted prisoners be photographed before release, full and side face,measurements in millimetres and feet and inches to be made of length and width of head, and lengths of arms,feet and left middle finger including the papillary ridges of the ten fingers as well as distinctive marks by position on body” (Holligan & Maitra, 2018, p. 177). Indeed, Holligan and Maitra (2018) contend that the development of criminal anthropology led to the belief that “habitual criminals” could be identified by some specific marks; such as the length of imbs. Some of these marks were collected and published by the British Registry of Distinctive Marks, which regulated and influenced the ways in which authorities saw and noted distinguishing marks on prisoners. 

Ultimately, we aim to argue that this Victorian construction of crime and of the criminal influenced the way in which the register is composed as well, and that the meaning of “crime” and “criminal” are dictated by moral and social standards. Indeed, many were arrested due to charges of Theft “Habit & Repute” which, according to Dr. Darby, means considering someone’s as having a “bad character, a bad name for theft specifically, and that other witnesses considered him a bad person”. Analysing the register means considering those social rules that shaped the way in which the register is written. 

It is in our opinion fundamental to acknowledge such dimensions of the register as we open its data. It is in fact important to recognize that “Registers are political” (Ziegler, 2020), and that therefore the categories of the register are constructed. However, it must also be acknowledged that their construction does not make these categories any less impactful on individuals’ lives.  Indeed, this is why we embrace attempts such as that of Phil, who tried to retrieve the humanity of the individuals in the register by associating their mug shots to stories; as we shall argue in the next paragraph. 

Why this project is important: how did everything start?

Phil Astley explained that the interest in the register was built up during the 2019 and 2020 Granite Noir festival exhibitions, to which the Archives provided 19th century wanted posters, photos of 1930s crime scenes, as well as mug shots contained in the Register. 

Indeed, the mug shots had attracted a positive response, and Phil started the Criminal Portraits blog, in which he started exploring the stories of returned convicts whose mug shots are contained in the register. Therefore, Phil has published more than 50 blog posts, drawing on heterogeneous sources, such as newspapers of the time and censuses. The blog has attracted more than 20 thousand views.

In discussing the plans for this project with Phil and Ian Watt of Code The City we agreed that opening up the data contained in the register – making it available as Open Data – would have social and other benefits. 

According to the Open Data Handbook, open data is data that can be easily available and re-usable by anyone. There are many values pertaining to open data. Indeed, it can allow for more transparency, and therefore institutions’ or organizations’ accountability. Moreover, it can also prompt economic participation and investment by private companies. Finally, open data can enable citizen participation and engagement, as it is with this project. 

In this specific case, we decided to open data from the register precisely because of the public interest it attracted. Not only is the life of the individuals contained in the register fascinating in itself, but we would argue that opening up this data has also a greater social value. For example, it would allow for individuals with a genealogical interest to find out more about their possible ancestors; or it could be useful for researchers who are carrying out their work on criminality in Scotland. 

In any case, opening up data from the Archives could lead to more interest towards their rich collections, as well as to a more thorough understanding of these collections’ communal utility.

It was agreed that we would use Wikidata as the place to host the data, given Code The City’s and Ian’s knowledge of, and enthusiasm, for this platform. 

How we made the data available

In the second part of this blog we will detail how we transcribed the data, prepared it for Wikidata, uploaded it in bulk, published mugshot photos and linked those. 

References

Astley, P. [Aberdeen Performing Arts]. (2021, February 23). Phil Astley – Criminal Portaits Webinar – Granite Noir 2021 [Video]. YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFcOG_7Cv0I&t=2346s 

Darby, N. (2014, 11 28). The ‘habit and repute’ thief in Scottish law. Retrieved from Dr Nelly Darby. Criminal Historian:
www.criminalhistorian.com/the-habit-and-reute-thief-in-scottish-law/

Finn, J. M. (2009). Capturing the criminal image: From mug shot to surveillance society. U of Minnesota Press.

McLean, R., Maitra, D. E. V., & Holligan, C. (2017). Voices of quiet desistance in UK prisons: Exploring emergence of new identities under desistance constraint. The Howard journal of crime and justice, 56(4), 437-453

Open Knowledge Foundation. (n.d.). Open Definition: Defining Open in Open Data, Open Content and Open Knowledge. Retrieved from Open Knowledge Foundation:
https://opendefinition.org/od/2.1/en/ 

Radzinowicz, L., & Hood, R. (1980). Incapacitating the habitual criminal: The English
experience. Michigan Law Review, 78(8), 1305-1389.

Ziegler, S. L. (2020). Open Data in Cultural Heritage Institutions: Can We Be Better Than Data Brokers?. Digital Humanities Quarterl, 14(2).

Do we know if we know what Open Data is?

A guest post by Karen Jewell, a Data Scientist who attended SODU2020

I went into the weekend of SODU, headset and coffee at the ready, thinking that as SODU was both my first experience of an unconference and of Open Data, I wouldn’t be able to participate much but that I could take the opportunity to learn from the brighter and more informed voices around me. Well, it turns out I was quite wrong about my involvement with Open Data.

In the networking sessions of the first day, I introduced myself as someone who didn’t work at all with Open Data, had no experience of it and was here to learn about it. Yet as the event carried on through the day, many discussions and concepts seemed familiar to me and in the afternoon of the first day I had that “ah-hah!” moment. I realised it wasn’t true that I did not work with Open Data, I did, and actually had done so quite a bit in the last 12 months. I just had not realised that is what it was called.

Open Data is data which is not owned or controlled, and is free for use and distribution. Having only just completed my studies in a MSc Data Science at the Robert Gordon University 3 weeks prior, free data was pretty critical to my work as a student. Not only was I able to practice concepts using freely available datasets, 3 of my 8 taught modules required me to source my own dataset for that module’s assessment. To rephrase that, I needed Open Data to complete my degree. Data Scientists are aware of Kaggle, the UCI ML repository, and a quick online search for Scotland’s data will return the Scottish Government’s statistics portal. We see these sources as free data we can practice on, but we may not have recognised it as Open Data, I certainly didn’t until SODU took my blinkers off.

Coming out of SODU, I started to wonder how many other people were in the same metaphorical boat. Were they not answering the call for involvement because they did not realise the availability of Open Data affected them too? To test the idea, I set up a non-scientific survey on Instagram and asked my peers the question “Do you know what Open Data is?” with a simple “Yes/No” response. Of the 22 persons who responded, 3 said Yes (14%) and 19 said No (86%). In a perfect world, I would have also had a follow-up question asking if they had used information from a list of known Open Data sources to confirm the theory, but we will have to do without for now.

Quick Poll
Quick Poll

Yet in the age of Covid-19 where everyone is quite capable of quoting a statistic or method in every online argument for and against, how many of us haven’t realised we are benefiting from the availability of Open Data when we quote new case counts, % positive tests, and infection rates in our conversations on a daily basis?

I attended SODU to learn about Open Data, and I learnt I’d actually been using it all along. Several prominent themes discussed at SODU included the need for a community of practitioners, having a central point of access, and having evidence of the benefits of supporting Open Data. The question that bugs me now is, how do we know who our practitioners and where our success stories are, if they can’t even recognise themselves? Maybe, there is an opportunity to do some work here?

 

SODU2020 – a guest post by Sarah Roberts of Swirrl

Scottish Open Data Unconference

It’s all going on in Scotland in March. As we spring into Spring (nearly there!), we’re very excited to be sponsoring, and going, to the Scottish Open Data Unconference in Aberdeen on 14th and 15th March. Topics are pitched in the morning of each day, an agenda is created and participants talk as much as the chair. 

Our colleague Jamie Whyte is lucky enough to have a ticket, so if you spot him do say hi! Here are some recent open data happenings we’ve picked up on our radar…

Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation

The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation was released late January and we loved the accompanying briefing document, which put the numbers into context (find it here). The data’s also available on the Scottish Government’s Open Data site, where you can use the Atlas section to find key data zones and see key facts about them. The below screenshot is of the data zone which is ranked as the most deprived in the 2020 SIMD.

SIMD - Greenock Town centre
SIMD – Greenock Town centre

People are already making stuff with the data — below is a screenshot of Jamie’s lava lamp visualisation of the data

Commentary, explanation and analysis from others include: Alasdair Rae’s summary matrix of the SIMD data by council area, a story graphic of the data, an interactive mapping tool, an analysis blog post from Scottish parliament information centre and news articles, like this one from the BBC.

Jamie Whyte - King of the Lava Lamp
Jamie Whyte – King of the Lava Lamp image

W3C Community Group

Another thing we’ve noticed is that there’s preliminary work happening on GraphQL and RDF, which aims to serve as a case for future standardisation. More on this here, where you can send a request to join the group if this is your bag. It’s definitely ours! 

Collaborative work with data

Last, but not least, collaboration. This is a wide concept but it’s also a trend that’s cropping up in different aspects of working with open data. Here are some we’ve noticed:

“promote trust and co-operation between government and civil society.”

  • The Office for National Statistics is publishing data in a collaborative project across a spread of organisations including ONS, HMRC, MHCLG, DWP and DIT. The Connected Open Government Statistics (COGS) project involves a lot of technical collaborative work in harmonising codelists, as well as harmonising a data model and all the processes that go into it. More on this project here on the GSS blog site. 
  • 2019 saw a growing, collaborative API community, with API events involving government and people working with government. We went to one in Newcastle and another one’s arranged for March 16th (if you’re still hungry for more after the unconference!) 
  • The Open Data Institute have been busy, busy, busy. Jeni Tennison spoke about the idea of how collaboration is key for new institutions of the data age, at our Power of Data conference in October (catch that video here). The ODI have also been working on a data and public services toolkit & there’s an introductory event to this in Edinburgh just a few days before the Scottish Open Data Unconference. 

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to find out a bit more about who we are and what we do, take a look at our website, our blog, our latest newsletter and / or our twitter stream. We’ve just been named as one of the FT1000 fastest growing companies in Europe and we’re still hiring, so if you think you can help us we’d love to hear from you. 

We love data and we’re delighted to be sponsoring the Scottish Open Data Unconference. See you there.