Forget privatisation: the Land Registry needs blockchain

Not gonna lie: we struggled to illustrate this one. Image: Getty.

In March, the Conservative government announced its intention to sell off the Land Registry, triggering a massive wave of protests. A petition against the move gathered more than 300,000 signatures, while 65 MPs signed a letter calling on the government to abandon the controversial plans.

The Land Registry holds more than 24m titles, and covers 86 per cent of the land of England and Wales. It employs 4,578 staff in 14 offices; its work generates a financial surplus for the government.

Selling the registry would put £1bn in the pockets of the Treasury. But the long-term benefits for the public are disputed. The Competition & Markets Authority has said that the sell “would harm consumers,” while the Open Data Institute warned that a private Land Registry would be vulnerable to fraud and manipulation.

Think-tanks, like Centre for London, and technology companies, such as DealX,  suggest that instead of privatising the registry, we should follow the example of Sweden, where the government has been testing a system of blockchain smart contracts for the country’s land registry. Such a system should ensure cheap and efficient service for end-users, while safeguarding the public interest, transparency, impartiality and accountability.

Incorporating blockchain technology in land registries is not new. The Republic of Georgia and Honduras have been conducting such experiments in recent years, while Sweden is the first advanced western country to take steps in this direction.

So far, the UK government has not fully explored the potential of such cutting-edge innovation. If Sweden’s efforts prove successful, they “will act as a roadmap for others to follow,” explains Joseph Kelly, CEO of DealX, a real estate data platform.

Here’s how it works. The blockchain removes the need for a trusted third party to verify a transaction (e.g a notary). By being a database that contains the history of any transaction made, it provides proof of who owns what at any given moment.

This distributed ledger is replicated on thousands of computers around the world and is publicly available. In the Swedish case, the blockchain verifies the correctness of Land Registry documents and the rules and order of authorisation with a technology for storing digital fingerprints. The fingerprints are unique for every document, register and process step; and so are as effective a means of verification as a human fingerprint.

The benefits for the Land Registry would be manifold:

Reduced costs: A blockchain would provide a way of combining many processes and systems into one. This would “increase efficiency through distributed processing, and thus reduce costs,” Tim Scott, technology director at the not-for-profit business advocacy group London First, told me.

And, DealX’s Kelly adds, the costs involved in developing a trial blockchain based system are “tiny”, compared to the underlying savings that could be made.

Efficiency: By having a blockchain-powered registry, it would be possible to conduct real-time audits and speed up settlements. It will reduce the friction in registration, too, because people could do this using their smart phones in the future, just like a notary service such as Saville & Co. or H&S.

Transparency: The Times recently revealed that – rather embarrassingly – all the prospective buyers of the Land Registry are linked with offshore firms. Registering information on blockchain’s peer-to-peer distributed ledger system would mean that such information is publicly available.

Long term investment: Privatising the Land Registry has lasting implications. Open Data Institute Deputy Director Jeni Tennison has warned of the long-term value of data as infrastructure for the economy, comparing it to a country’s road and bridges. “It means thinking carefully about ownership, access and control,” she told the Financial Times.

Even if the government proceeds with the privatisation, incorporating a distributed ledger solution in the registry would provide some safeguards. Henrik Hjelte is chief executive of ChromaWay, the startup taking part in the Swedish initiative. He explains that, with blockchain, responsibilities can be split by allowing different parties to specialise in different parts of a complex set-up. “If I could give some advice,” says Hjelte, “I'd get help to look more closely on what a solution built on blockchain could do before making a decision to privatise.”

Yet, investing in blockchain would be made harder by privatising the registry. “Passing on lower costs to service users may not be that attractive to the new owner,” explains Joseph Kelly. Under public ownership, the Registry can take a strategic view on integrating the new technologies, which are necessary to compete in a digital world.

Sweden’s endeavours will help place the country at the forefront of this new technology, argues Tim Scott at London First. “This is exactly the sort of forward-thinking policy London and the UK should also be pioneering.”

In a report released earlier this year, Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, suggested that the British authorities should begin trials of distributed ledger technology, and made a series of recommendations which could help the UK become a global leader in this field.

 “We now wait with bated breath to see if the long-overdue Digital Strategy will take up these recommendations,” says Scott. He hopes that Sadiq Khan’s initiative to appoint a Chief Digital Officer for London – as proposed in a report he helped author – will play a significant role in ensuring London is an international leader in this technology.

The introduction of blockchain could help the public sector decentralise services in a way that protects people’s identity and delivers more efficient service. When an exchange is made, it would be possible to know that a certain land asset had certifiably transferred. “Because this would be a public ledger, there is no need for a third party, such as expensive legal counsel, to validate the transaction was above board – thus saving legal fees,” Scott explains.

As with any disruptive technology, there will be significant questions to address around governance, security, privacy and trust. Dr Andres Guadamuz, senior lecturer in intellectual property law at the University of Sussex, tells me that “there is considerable risk in using open development environments such as Ethereum, a public blockchain platform,” as a recent hack indicates.

With these risks addressed, however, an open source structure for the Land Registry could have long-term benefits for both community and economy. It certainly beats privatisation and short-term profit.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.