World Class Digital Land and Property Information Database for Scotland

This week saw a significant milestone towards Scotland developing its Spatial Data Infrastructure. Scotsman Conferences organised an event in Edinburgh, which was sponsored by Unifi Scotland (http://unifiscotland.com/) in association with Ambita, Registers of Scotland and the Ordnance Survey.  The event was titled “A world-class digital land and property information database for Scotland” and in the keynote address, John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, announced his commitment to the creation of a digital land and property information system for Scotland and invited The Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to lead a task force to take forward the idea and report back to him by the end of July 2015.

Mr Swinney made the point that the existing situation where data was spread across a number of silos across a range of organisations, required people wishing to complete picture of land and property having to search a wide series of databases. This simply wasn’t good enough as it was inefficient, slowed property transactions down and added extra costs.  He also pointed out that “accessible information has real economic value”.

The Keeper of the Registers of Scotland, Sheenagh Adams,  said she that she wished to take this forward in a collaborative manner, working with organisations including the Improvement Service, Ordnance Survey, Unifi Scotland, Law Society of Scotland, RICS and the Scottish Government. Register were ideally placed to take a lead given their experiencing in handling “big data” about land and property including a million plus Land Register Titles and another million plus in the Sasine Register.

Professor Stewart Brymer answered  the Obama question “Can we do it?” with the “Yes we can, Yes we will!” and highlighted the considerable progress made already in a number of areas, including the increasing adoption of the UPRN. He cautioned against expecting to deliver everything on day one, something endorsed by Alan Moore in a later presentation.  Alan promoted that the proposed service had to be built out of reusable components which could be readily replaced to build a scable solution.  He also estimated that the value of spatial information to the Scottish economy as being close to £400M. 

My presentation highlighted the issue that had been experienced in obtaining the core information from local authorities and how the One Scotland Gazetteer had provided value experience and a proven way to approach it. INSPIRE also provided a driver, although one questioner stated that the actual benefits across Europe amounted to very little, which could be used to garner support.  I also pointed out that progress so far had only been made where funding was made available and just because so much had been achieved with so little it shouldn’t follow that now everything can be achieved with nothing.

There was a broad consensus from all speakers that as there were no widely divergent views on the proposal at the strategic level progress should be possible in a relatively short timescale. The taskforce has to report back to Mr Swinney by July this year.

A number of questions were asked during the event and from my perspective there were some key issues which require addressing.  These centre on funding, technologies,  commercial v open data and the role of this proposal against the wider approach to INSPIRE and a Scottish Spatial Data Infrastructure.

Starting with funding, the very first question focussed on the use of the UPRN as the “golden thread” to join up disparate data from a number of sources.  It was argued that this was undisputed and that whilst good progress had been mad, there is an inherent risk to the whole proposal if the creation and maintenance of UPRN is not adequately resourced. The present situation relies heavily on local authority resources being made available and these are under constant pressure.

The lack of a robust technical architecture behind the ScotLIS project 15 years ago had been cited by several speakers as one of the causes of failure.  Technology has now moved on but it was emphasised that the technical architecture must be scalable, modular and where appropriate open sourced. The strategy to reuse existing technology components where possible, then considering collective procurements of existing solution before commissioning bespoke development of individual solutions, appeared to be appropriate.

Mr Swinney highlighted the need for the outputs from the proposed service requiring to be open, transparent and accessible.  There was much discussion in the Q&A sessions around this with calls being made for  the data outputs all to be made available free of charge so the individuals and communities could gain the maximum benefit and indeed cooperate in the maintenance of the datasets.  This view seems to be at odds with the views of the commercial property industry, when it was stated that if mortgage providers were expected to base decisions on lending they required accurate and up to date information from authoritative sources. This echoed Iain Langlands’ advice to be absolutely clear as to what the proposal was going to look like – citing the example of a smartphone where the actual “phone” element is only one small part of it.

The final question seemed to be around the relationship with existing proposals for a Scottish Spatial Data Infrastructure and the collective approach to INSPIRE by Scottish Local Government.  Land and Property information had previously been identified as one of the strategic themes within the overall scope of the collective approach.  Progress has been steady in moving the proposal forward across a wider front but the Minister’s announcement will have a significant effect on priorities, particularly as far as funding is concerned.

There isn’t anything insurmountable on the horizon moving forwards, and with a combination of Ministerial support and overall consensus on the major strategic elements, some rapid progress should be expected.

Iain

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