Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Could free data have helped the Rural Payments Agency?

The Rural Payments Agency has quickly become famous, at least in Westminster circles, for losing £20m of our money and seeing its head fired for the failure which left farmers out of pocket.

This week’s Technology Guardian looks at the extent to which bad mapping led to the problems, and asks whether free data – on the lines we’re advocating – could have averted it.

The answer in truth is “not on its own”, because the RPA was a many-headed failure: the principal cause of problems was that the RPA decided to go beyond the European recommendations, and provide payments for parcels of land as small as 0.1 hectare (1,000 square metres) – one-third as large as required under the European Union rules.

That followed all sorts of problems where maps were inaccurate or out of date, and where changes noted by farmers weren’t incorporated.

Maps printed from the Land Register were sent to every farmer claiming subsidy to check. According to Julie Robinson, a lawyer with the National Farmers’ Union, this is where the system went wrong. “Many of the maps sent back to farmers to check turned out to be seriously inaccurate.” The maps missed land lost to floods, hedges and shadows from lines of trees. “It is all at the mercy of accurate mapping. The farmer depends on them to get it right.” The main problem, she says, was that the system was not matched to the needs of the users.

Somehow we do feel that the Ordnance Survey and its Master Map would have coped better with the problem, as well as giving the Land Registry a huge boost in its attempts to find out who owns what parts of England. (Scotland and Wales coped better.)

Could free mapping data have prevented the disaster? Probably not – mapping was only one factor in a complex mess of policy and management failures. But the fact that Defra was allowed to commission its own geographical database to an unworkably high specification suggests flaws in the government’s current way of working.

There are two opportunities for change. One is a new geographical information strategy for the UK, now before ministers and expected to be published this summer. The second is the process of implementing the European Inspire directive, to create a “geospatial data infrastructure” across Europe. The lead department in transposing this directive into UK law is Defra. We suggest that when implementing Inspire it errs on the side of openness.

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