Is UK Government open data just a box to tick?

Image credit: Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons

Data Privacy and Security

Is UK Government open data just a box to tick?

There is nothing like a shake-up in planning legislation to get British parish councils making tea, cracking open the chocolate biscuits and convening emergency meetings. It’s perhaps a stereotypical picture of ‘Little England’ but the reality is that the UK Government’s proposed Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech in May, contains a provision for something that has already ruffled feathers and got kettles boiling all over the country.

The privatisation of the Land Registry, a department set up in 1862 by Palmerston’s government, is to be enabled by this new Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. A petition to stop the privatisation currently stands at over 317,000 signatures and politicians and pressures groups are lining up to have a pop at the idea, fearing fraud, vested interests and ultimately a loss of control of data to the highest bidder.

In May the Open Data Institute (ODI) – co-founded by Tim Berners-Lee to address using the “web of data” – raised a number of concerns and the consultation has done nothing to dampen the flames of protest.

“The consultation says that the registers will remain the property of the government,” the ODI says. “It is not clear whether all rights to current or future data will be retained by government or how Government would be able to transfer the operations of the register to another supplier if NewCo [the resulting private organisation] failed to deliver on its commitments.”


Fear and loathing

Certainly there is fear for the data. The UK government has previous form on this issue, having sold off the Post Office in 2014, complete with the previously open Postcode Address File (PAF) and the availability of Ordnance Survey mapping data for one has been contentious. Despite this, UK policy towards open data has in the main been good. The UK ranks second in the world in terms of the number of datasets available on open data stores, so the potential loss of Land Registry data, used by solicitors and websites such as Rightmove and Zoopla, would be a blow.

So why even consider it, especially as the plan had been blocked previously by the coalition Government in 2014? Short-term cash of course, but the longer-term impact would be greater on the economy. The open data bit is just caught up in the process (as it was with the Post Office) which leads to the obvious conclusion that Government doesn’t really consider open data when it makes these decisions.

It is also unclear as to how any future Land Registry organisation would be structured, what assurances there would be that it keeps and maintains data, and whether it would be free and keep pace with new technology developments. Does this potentially put other public data sets at threat? At what point do Governments turn off the idea of paying for open data? What’s the tipping point?


The Brexit elephant on the table

Owen Boswarva, an open data campaigner, warns that “the Brexit [the UK’s decision to exit the European Union] turmoil does make this a bad time to introduce additional uncertainty into the housing market. Government may take this opportunity to sweep the Land Registry consultation, and other marginal projects, under the rug.”

However, he adds that due to raised competition concerns about the Government business unit BIS’s plan by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), privatisation could actually work for open data, as BIS could sell the registry service but release the register information itself for open re-use to avoid the CMA rap.

As the summer draws to a close and the prospect of Parliament reconvening in early September looms, attention will turn to the Government’s own analysis of the consultation comments and its schedule for introducing the Bill. Perhaps it will abandon privatisation or perhaps it will extract the data and ring-fence it for public use? Perhaps it won’t. Whichever way this goes, a lesson should be learned but you get the feeling that UK Minister of State for Trade Francis Maude’s open data whitepaper from 2012 is not only out of date, it’s out of sync with the current Government’s Brexit-dominated thinking.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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