The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced they will make most of their data freely available over the next year. This will unlock great innovation. How can we ensure it also improves social and environmental outcomes rather than just profits?

Access to data about land is crucial to making informed decisions about the best ways to use it. As one of the biggest holders of land data, Defra’s decision to release this information could make land use more innovative, productive and sustainable. Owen Boswarva recently wrote a great blog describing what we know so far about this data. This blog argues that we need to focus not just on what is released, but on making sure the data is made accessible so it can be employed for innovative social and environmentally focused land use.

In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss highlighted the range of organisations she thought would benefit from this data:

Tech City people, developers, entrepreneurs, scientists, investors, NGOs. Anyone with a great idea will have full and open access.

Despite her optimism, we think it is unlikely that just ‘anyone’ will benefit from this data in the absence of an easy way to interrogate it. We have argued that inequality of access to land data is a significant issue for social enterprises who work with land. When talking about opening up data, it is not sufficient simply to release the data. Instead, we need to democratise land data, by ensuring that everyone has access to it. As things stand, it is likely that the main benefits will be limited to those with the expertise and other resources to find and interrogate the relevant data sets.

Is facilitating private sector innovation a sufficient reason for giving away a publicly owned asset? Charging for commercial use of the data would be way of creating a return for the public, however this might limit innovation. In order to maximise both innovation and public benefit, the ideal solution is to make the data accessible to everyone. This would make social enterprises and communities better able to compete with the private sector. It would also maximise the social and environmental value that the data could help produce.

Land-based social enterprises we work with need data platforms which enable them to make good decisions about land use. With tools like Google Maps and Open Street Map providing easy access to a huge amount of information it is clear that much of the technology we need is already here. A similar tool integrating Defra data such as soil quality and biodiversity would be extremely useful to social enterprises looking for suitable land.

So how can we achieve this? Defra must ensure the data is published and updated in a clear and consistent form, but it will also need innovative platforms to make it accessible to people other than data scientists. It will be interesting to see if Google or other internet giants integrate this information in their products. However we think the innovation may come from smaller organisations, some of which, for example Open Street Map, Land Technologies, and Geo Geo, have already made great progress in making land data accessible. The ONS competition Geovation is also supporting a number of innovative projects, for example Democratising Data.

Once an accessible platform is developed the possibilities are limitless. Data from Defra and other sources could be expanded by crowdsourcing more information from individuals. A resource could be created that could give the smallest community group access to the same quality of information as the largest developer. This would remove a significant market failure and inequality, and encourage social and environmental benefits. We also think that easy access to land data would improve the public’s ‘land literacy’ – something that Andy Wightman argued is crucial to developing a land reform movement.

Unfortunately we are not blessed with the technical capacity to develop such a tool. We are however in a position to try and better understand what social entrepreneurs and communities would need from such a tool, and this is something we are working on now. Please do get in touch if you are interested in this area, or know of any tools that exist or are being developed. Shared Assets was set up to support organisations engaged in innovative, socially and environmentally focused land management. Making land data truly accessible could be one of the most important ways of helping this sector.

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