Current Issues in Research Access to Public Register Databases

Philip Leith


Research thrives – indeed can hardly do without – data. It is the raw information upon which better understanding, and better knowledge is based.  Indeed one whole assumption underpinning some visions of Electronic Government – such as Wiki-Gov – is the idea that data which has been collected for a specific government task can be re-used in ways which further public service goals through citizen oversight and input (through ‘open data sets’).  

There are very many public service collections of data which comprise ‘Public Registers’ which the researcher might wish to utilise, but which are presently difficult or impossible to access. With the development of database techniques and ever more data being collected and processed in digital formats, the potential pool of data is growing considerably. Importantly, public registers usually relate to individuals giving valuable insights which cannot be easily gleaned in other ways. 

This kind of information includes public registers which, it can be argued, consist of ‘public information’ of the sort which might be accessible under the Freedom of Information Act or through the Re-Use of Public Sector Information Directive.  Should researchers have the possibility of piggy-backing upon these Re-Use and Freedom of Information rights to access the underlying public register data set as a whole? If so, what are the limitations upon using these sources?  The primary questions are: When most such data sets have a value to the agency which is responsible for their collection are they willing to make this available freely? Where many public record data sets will have information relating to individuals, how can access be enabled without infringing data protection law?  And, is the current Freedom of Information regime suitable for enabling access to this ‘information’?

This article looks to examine how ‘public’ these public registers are in terms of research usage.  It is clear that public registers have already been commoditized (with more commoditization currently being planned) and are used in a variety of ways. Their contents have not, to date, been openly available. Will – in these days of open data – they become an important and novel resource for the researcher?

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