Some 20 or 30 years ago (the details are now a little hazy), the then Department of the Environment commissioned a huge study of the common land in England. The contract was let to the Rural Surveys Research Unit (RSRU) at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and was done by a team led by Prof. John Aitchison. Although the start date is uncertain, the final report was not presented until summer 2000 — by which time digitisation of large datasets had begun to catch up with the project, although it didn’t start out like that. The report is generally referred to today as the ‘biological survey of common land’, although that appellation does not do justice to the breadth of the data gathered.
The outputs were colossal, and comprised:
- a database of every registered common in England, with details of size, location, registered ownership, rights of common, natural context and other aspects;
- a series of county reports focused on the nature conservation character of common land in that administrative area (those which were prepared by the RSRU in electronic format, about half, are available via the National Archives web archive of the Defra website);
- a series of county volumes containing datasheets for each of the commons in the administrative area;
- a national overview report of the project.
The database was exported into an Excel spreadsheet, and this is still available, now on gov.uk; however, the export truncated all long text fields in the database, so that the spreadsheet is valuable for the numeric data, but frustratingly incomplete for verbal analysis. This last defect has now been rectified, as the data, including the original Microsoft Access database, are now available for download on data.gov.uk. The publication of the data is part of the Government’s drive to make more public data available online, and one expectation is that people will be able to make innovative use of the data. One early example of that is the common-land.com, which converted the Excel spreadsheet into html form for presentation on a dedicated website. Now that the dataset is available in its original unabridged form, perhaps others will find new uses for the data?
Incidentally, the RSRU performed a similar, independent survey of town and village greens, with the support of the Women’s Institute whose members conducted local surveys of individual greens. One of the outputs of this survey is the database of town or village greens (in pdf on gov.uk and in Excel on the National Archives web archive), although this too suffers from truncation.