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Democratising Land Data

Tom Kenny

“If we want people to play a bigger part in our society, we need to give them the information.” Despite these words from David Cameron in 2010, lack of accessible data about land remains a problem. In this blog we explain why we think access to land data is such an important issue for land based social enterprise and explore some ways in which it might be improved. Let us know what you think.

Why is lack of data a barrier to social enterprise land management?

Land data is currently difficult to access as it is often fragmented, expensive, or opaque. Information is held in many different silos, and is often made publicly available in formats that are not user friendly. Without this data it is difficult to identify suitable land, to find out who owns a particular piece of land, or to identify the associated risks and opportunities. Large landowners including the third sector, and central and local government, hold lots of currently underutilised land data.

The issue is a market failure that limits productivity and a big barrier to the government’s stated aim of supporting the development of community and social enterprise when it comes to managing land. It disadvantages small community enterprises because they lack the resources and experience that large organisations can use to access information and dominate land development. In addition, since a lot of this data is collected using public money there is a strong case that it should be open access. This barrier must be addressed if we want social enterprises to be in a position to take on more responsibilities for land management.

And what additional benefits would come from addressing it?

Benefits extend beyond simply helping social enterprises to access the market. Creating an accessible platform for land data could unleash a wave of innovation. For example, it would allow unproductive land to be identified and it would give aspiring social entrepreneurs insight into what kinds of activities were suited to land in their local area. It would also give Local Authorities and other large landowners an easy way to identify underused land and engage with communities on possible uses. Finally, increasing access to land data could contribute to the development of better public policy and to more informed public debate about the concentration and nature of land ownership in the UK.

What’s already been done?

There have been significant recent improvements in opening access to land data, however a great deal of data on land is still inaccessible, unaffordable or even unknown. The Ordnance Survey (OS) have recently released some mapping data for free, and also run an innovation challenge, Geovation, which funds innovative proposals for using land data. However access to much of their data still requires payment. The Land Registry for England and Wales has been praised for its efforts at releasing data, yet its records of ownership are not complete and again accessing most of its data still requires payment. Many other datasets remain inaccessible or only available at a cost. There is also a concern that only large organisations are making the most of already-opened datasets, whilst they remain inaccessible in practice to communities.

What more could be done?

Opening up more datasets is crucial, but this must be done in combination with the development of platforms to make them more accessible. In a world where dozens of websites compete to direct us to our nearest takeaway, it seems strange that we still lack a user friendly platform through which to understand ways in which our local land can be used to meet our needs. One option is integrating land data with mapping software. Land maps can be enriched, either through combining them with existing datasets or by crowdsourcing new information.  This solution was suggested in a number of responses to the recent consultation on Scottish Land Reform.

Several innovative approaches are already underway. Land Technologies are combining datasets from various sources with OS maps, with a vision of creating a resource that could reduce the barriers to the land market. A recent Policy Exchange report recommended the creation of an Urban Green Space Map, with crowdsourced data and a competition to encourage users. Open Street Map is an operational model of crowdsourced mapping. Geo Geo is combining a number of approaches to land data and mapping including engaging with communities and the use of drones for detailed mapping. Common Futures is developing a ‘Data Coops’ model where communities would take charge of their own data to address social, economic or environmental challenges.

While much good work is already being done, progress could be accelerated through committing resources to enable better information collection and presentation. Through this policy work we want to explore ways in which access to information on land can be democratised.

Please get in touch if you have any thoughts on this issue or any of the other areas we are looking at. The next blog in the series looks at how local authority commissioning and procurement could do more to support land-based social enterprise. Previous blogs in the series are available here.

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