UK arms exports revealed by CAAT Website App

Published on by Pete Shield

A new web application, developed by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), will enable easy public access to a wide range of information on UK arms export licences. Until now the data, compiled by the Export Control Organisation (ECO) in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), was difficult to access, use and understand. The new CAAT app, available via CAAT’s website, transforms the accessibility of the data.


The salient features are:

- Open access - anyone can view data without registering and can make and refine searches in real time.

- Data has been disaggregated, providing itemised licences with ratings and values.

- Comprehensive searchability (including of commonly-required groupings, for example by region of the world or type of weaponry).

- Graphs of values of items licensed are provided alongside listings of licences.

- Explanations of terms are available throughout (often through mouse-overs).

- Revoked licences are identified with the initial licence approvals.

- Individual pages/searches (unique urls) can be linked to directly. 

- It conforms to basic accessibility standards, including the use of a screen reader or text-only browser. 

- The full raw data is available as csv files for download.

Ian Prichard, CAAT Research Coordinator says:

"It is hard to think of an area of government activity that demands transparency more than arms export licensing. The new web app provides official information in a format that substantially increases transparency of the licensing system and, hopefully, will lead to greater accountability.”

"The lack of access to detailed, easy-to-access information has been a barrier to the public, media and parliamentarians being able to question government policies and practices. These practices include routine arming of authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt.”

"As well as providing more information in and of itself, we hope the web app will prompt the government to apply its own open data policies to arms exports. and substantially increase the level and accessibility of information available.”


The arms export licensing process is carried out by the Export Control Organisation based in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, with input from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and, where development issues are involved, the Department for International Development (DFID). The BIS database can be found here.

The government database contains information on strategic export licences granted, refused or revoked by the government. These can be divided into military licences and dual-use licences (ie have both military and civilian uses). Official licence application statistics are updated on a quarterly basis, usually three months after the end of the quarter. 

Unfortunately, the BIS database is impenetrable to all but determined or experienced users. It is constrained by poor design, aggregated data that makes analysis tortuous and a general government reticence to provide timely, detailed information on arms exports. The data is not provided in a standard form ready for use by external users (although BIS has said that it is not adverse, as a matter of principle, to doing this). 

Nor does the BIS database conform to basic accessibility standards. Its log-in process and complex forms would be impossible to access for someone using a screen reader or a text-only browser, and considerably more difficult to access for someone who couldn’t use a mouse, or who struggled with English - thus contravening most of the government’s own accessibility guidelines. 

While addressing as many of these issues as possible, the CAAT web application is limited in what it can display by the BISdata. For example, some data is impossible to disaggregate and there is no information available on companies or brand names. 

CAAT regards the web application as a first step in making data more accessible and transparent and intends to develop the application further in response to feedback. Hopefully this would take place alongside a drastic improvement by the government in its arms data provision.

Government commitments on open data

On becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron acknowledged the importance of transparency across government and called for “new standards of transparency” with requests for data addressed with “a presumption in favour of transparency” The Government established a Public Sector Transparency Board which set out “Draft Public Data Principles” 

On 7 February 2012, Business secretary Vince Cable emphasised the importance of transparency to the export licensing systems , stating: "Transparency is also crucial because confidence in the workings of the export licensing system needs to be shared by Parliament and by the public. The system should not just be working properly; it should also be seen to do so." He made a number of proposals to increase the amount of information made available to the public:

The new web Application from CAAT can be accessed here

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