A graphic visualisation of the land register completion in Scotland with explanatory text to the left

Completing Scotland’s land register: Using data visualisation to tell more of the story

Blog post by Laura Brown, social media manager, alongside Alan Howie, Jason Marshall and Fiona McKie.

If you’ve read our latest corporate plan, you’ll know that completing Scotland’s land register by 2024 is one of our key priorities, after being asked by Scottish ministers to do so in 2014. But what does ‘completing the land register’ actually mean in practice, and what progress have we already made towards this goal?

In order to explain this simply and effectively, we’ve taken a different approach from just publishing the raw figures. Inspired by the beautiful data visualisations produced by Ordnance Survey and National Geographic, we’ve taken our data – which shows, in basic terms, the ownership of land in Scotland – and created a visual animation to tell the story of how our teams have worked towards completion of this register through the decades since Scotland’s digital, map-based land register began back in the 1980s.

In this blog, you’ll meet three people who’ve been involved in this storytelling, from Alan – data aficionado and ideas man – and Head of Land Register Completion Fiona to Jason, our artistic GIS analyst, who’s worked closely with our communications team to create these colourful graphics.

From idea to implementation – Alan Howie, Head of Data

Behind arrears, land register completion is the top priority for Jennifer Henderson, our keeper and chief executive. As of March 2019, the key performance indicators sat at a title coverage of 68.7% and land mass coverage of 33.7%.

As we unlock more and more of our core data, we have the opportunity to do more with it. We thought by presenting registration progress as snapshots over time, the data could tell a more complete story, in a simpler way, to a wider audience. This will also display our ongoing commitment to complete the land register that Registers of Scotland has maintained for almost 40 years. Even though it’s complex, we haven’t let up and we’re still working hard to complete it.

LRC visualisation prototype
Reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO © Crown copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey License number 100041182.

Once we had the idea, I developed an early prototype (above). The visualisation for the prototype was created using a desktop mapping or GIS tool called QGIS, which can read spatial data such as land register extents and theme them on a map. We used QGIS to draw each of the 1,840,314 areas (that is a lot of polygons!) on one of eight maps based on the range of application dates.

Up until now, we’ve presented this information as a static view of land register completion on a map as it looks today. But we felt a static view didn’t tell the full story. So, once the raw prototype was created and approved, the brief was passed to the Geographic Information System (GIS) team to refine the concept and deliver the final maps.

Creating visualisations from our data – Jason Marshall, GIS Analyst

The main challenge involved trying to represent all the land registered titles (over 1.8 million) on one small-scale map suitable for social media use which clearly tells the story of how land mass coverage has increased over time.

Jason, GIS analyst, with the animated visualisation on screen behind him.
Jason, GIS analyst, with the animated visualisation on screen behind him.

Behind the scenes, I used some structured query language (SQL) queries in PostGIS, firstly to extract the spatial extents for each of the land registered titles along with their first registration dates, and secondly to grid the land mass of Scotland up into a series of smaller segments (in this case 1597 separate hexagons).

Using some more SQL, this time embedded within a python script, I calculated snapshot land mass coverage percentage values for each hexagonal area at yearly intervals from 1981 up to 2018.

Once the percentage values (over 60,000 in total) were extracted, I put my cartographic hat on and, along with our social media manager Laura and our graphic designer Alex, spent some time designing and perfecting the final animated map (above). This involved everything from colour choice and text placement up to millisecond compromises on the speed of the animated map! The result is a simple and eye-catching map which tells the story of how land mass coverage has evolved through time.

Staring at a screen full of hexagons for a good month or so got me thinking about some other famous hexagons from snowflakes and honeycomb, to the iconic basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway and this island a bit closer to home…

Hexagonal basalt columns on the Isle of Staffa, north of Mull
Hexagonal basalt columns on the Isle of Staffa, north of Mull.

How we share our progress with you going forward – Fiona McKie, Head of Land Register Completion

Having recently been appointed as Head of Land Register Completion, my teams and I are focussed on completing the land register by 2024. This is a complex yet exciting objective as the benefits of land register completion are clear – greater access to more complete public data; increased transparency for individuals, communities and organisations (public, private and third sector) alike; as well as increased speed and clarity and reduced risk driven through digital transactions.

To meet our goals we have set ourselves a target of 50% land mass completion by 2021. Trying to figure out how we illustrate this more widely for stakeholders, whether they’re government colleagues or the general public, is a current challenge for me as we move into our next stage of our journey.

Head of Land Register Completion Fiona on a laptop in the innovation centre.
Head of Land Register Completion Fiona on a laptop in the innovation centre.

Our strategic objectives in the corporate plan are to ‘complete Scotland’s land register by 2024 and provide transparent, accurate and impartial information for all.’ For me, this visualisation encompasses that whole statement. What we’re trying to do here is provide an easy-to-understand, bitesize digital story of our progress over the decades.

We hope that we’ve managed to meet the challenge, and we look forward to sharing updates with you in the same engaging way as the months progress towards our target of 2024 completion.

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