In one of my past lives I ran an information and mapping business – Land Management Information Service (LaMIS) – which took a new approach to public information. I think my experience may have some application to the idea of the Big Society.
The idea was this. Government (and its agencies and local authorities) hold massive quantities of spatial data – data which has
- a significant value to them in discharging their functions;
- a certain amount of value to the wider public (in the interests of openness and accountability);
- a commercial value to some business sectors;
- and a specific, quite different, non-monetary value to the people who own, manage and make their living from the land to which the data relates.
I set up LaMIS for the last of these groups in particular. We offered a simple mapping software product, including aerial photography, OS mapping, environmental data and measurement and recording tools. (These were the days just before Google Earth, and many of my farming customers still only had dialup broadband access.)
LaMIS had two purposes – one, to offer affordable mapping software to the small and medium farmer; and two, to recognise and support the changing relationship between farmers and the wider public. The political climate in the wake of the Curry Report was about farmers delivering not just food and fibre but public goods. We had Rights of Way Improvement Plans; AONB Management Plans; a new right to roam; two new National Parks. We had a new Environmental Stewardship scheme; we had a complete overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Everything was about the farmer providing public benefit. How on earth were they supposed to do that without having access to the basic information held about their land?
The idea was good. LaMIS enjoyed modest success for a few years, and I found myself doing a lot of business with parish and town councils as well as farmers and landowners. (Same sort of scenario as farmers. Small, under-resourced organisations, meant to provide a lot of small-scale local public benefits, but no access to the data, and not a hope of affording commercial mapping software.)
But the business went under in 2007 for two main reasons. The first was that we just didn’t have the capital to sustain and develop the business. The second was the attitude I encountered in many – not all, but many – local authorities towards sharing their data.
I wrote a discussion paper on it at the time, which I hoped – in the days before bloggery – might help to get a sensible debate under way. (Please do read it – it has a lot of detail that I don’t need to replicate here.) After a debate at the RSA in 2006 I was interviewed in the Guardian. But the attitude remained.
Why bring it up now? I was talking to a colleague last week who asked me about LaMIS, and I was trying to explain where it sat in the spectrum of commercial activity and public interest. Sounds like a job for the Big Society, he said. First catch your data, said I.
He’s right, mind you. I’ve been out of the business for three and a half years ago, but I’m assuming there is still a demand for the kind of data LaMIS used to offer (any comments from colleagues in rural businesses?); and if so, I can see huge potential for a new kind of service based on today’s technology. The trick is going to be unlocking the data resource.
The thing is that, if – if – this attitude is still present in the public sector, it’ll blow a hole below the waterline of the Big Society. If it means anything, Big Society surely has to mean specialist groups delivering specialist solutions to local need (whether the need is ‘local’ to an area or to a particular sub-group of society). As I know to my cost, when you’re trying to do this with limited resources, you can either spend your time ticking the accountability boxes of public sector monitoring mechanisms, or you can get on and do the job you need to do. There aren’t enough hours in the night to do both.
Clearly, environmental information for farmers is pretty small-scale, peripheral and specialist, compared to the other social goods that the Big Society is supposed to deliver; but if we cannot break the compulsion for control that I encountered during my time with LaMIS, none of that wider agenda will come about.