The open data revolution has just begun

Posted by Mark Riddick, chairman of Legal Futures Associate Search Acumen

Riddick: on the cusp of unlocking a range of new data sets

The legal and property industries have, arguably, been slower than most to take up technology and embrace big data in the digital age. But the reality is that, for many years, they didn’t have to.

Compare the traditional conveyancer or estate agent with some of their high street neighbours, such as retailers, banks or building societies; the internet forced many of them to start shifting their business online over a decade ago, with traditional players thrown into a ‘do or die’ battle for survival. Some well-known names were outmanoeuvred by plucky start-ups and international distribution giants.

Meanwhile, professional property and legal services were largely insulated from the online revolution, and from the technology and the data that drives it, because their expertise and specialist knowledge carried them through. This was especially true for top commercial real estate firms.

Now we are seeing digital and data-driven competition heat up, with technology an essential tool of productivity.

The world of estate agency has already been turned upside down by the arrival of online and hybrid competitors, leaving the traditional high street estate agent racing to keep up and get online, or specialising in areas where expertise and customer service still trumps technology.

In conveyancing, according to Search Acumen’s latest conveyancing market tracker, the number of active firms fell every year from 2010 to 2015, and by 2016 there were 28% fewer conveyancing firms than there were in 2006. Over that same 10-year period, the number of transactions completed by the average firm rose by 35 per year. Under competitive pressure, some firms were squeezed out, while the leanest and most innovative firms became more productive.

We now live in an age of acumen, where professional services firms must trade on their knowledge and expertise more than ever before.

In a digital world, competition is fierce and productivity is a fundamental concern. The old adage ‘time is money’ is more relevant now than ever, yet the true value of time is greater even than its monetary value.

Time is the lifeblood of a business; as well as billings, it is the freedom to take a step back, take a strategic view and think ahead. It is the capacity to address the quality of what you are delivering as well as the speed – have you done everything your client could possibly require? Have you looked at where your business could create more time?

The tide of technology and the potential of data is now moving through every part of the property industry, as it is in the wider economy, and commercial real estate lawyers at top international firms are not immune from this shift. In fact, the bigger and more complicated the transactions and the higher the fees, the greater the opportunity for efficiencies within a firm. The magic circle firms are increasingly looking for new and more innovative ways to save time and become more productive.

Much of this innovation has been made possible by Land Registry and its commitment to open data. Through Search Acumen, I have been working with Land Registry and others on opening up access to data for several years, but I am more excited about the possibilities now than ever before. We are on the cusp of unlocking a range of new data sets that will do even more to improve not just the productivity of property professionals, but potentially the capacity of the industry to solve our housing crisis and renew our high streets.

The government’s housing white paper confirmed that Land Registry will continue to open up its vast cache of property data as a public organisation. By 2020, all publicly held land in the areas of greatest housing need will be registered with Land Registry, with all public land registered by 2025. The government hopes to have delivered comprehensive land registration by 2030.

The availability of this big data via Land Registry could transform the way we look at the property market and how we shape communities through development. Access will help SME housebuilders and affordable housing providers to understand where the opportunities to develop land are, which will in turn boost the supply of housing. This is an important victory for a Land Registry targeted for privatisation and an even bigger victory for the principle of open data.  

Land Registry’s moves to open up its data sets for companies to access was something of a ‘big bang’ moment for property lawyers. And yet this is only the beginning of the open data revolution.

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