Interview: Digitising land and property searches

Written by Max Goldbart on 1 June 2016 in Features

Keith Hurst tells Max Goldbart how his team’s award-winning strategy transformed a key element of the Land Registry’s operations.

Until recently, the main way for people to find out whether land or property is registered was to go through a lengthy process called Search of the Index Map, or SIM. This entails filling in an application form, paying a small fee and then waiting a number of days to receive information about the desired property or piece of land.

In an attempt to drag this process into the 21st Century, a team of officials at the Land Registry put their heads together and came up with the “MapSearch” tool. This new digital service, which went live in March 2014, allows businesses to quickly establish whether land or property in England and Wales is registered, view its location and see title numbers and details of tenure. As a result of MapSearch, the number of SIM requests has been significantly reduced and the Land Registry has digitised a huge number of its paper transactions. 

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In recognition of their work, the Land Registry team scooped the Digital Award at the 2015 Civil Service Awards. But getting from a blank slate to the completed MapSearch project was no mean feat. 

The product is open source and was developed by the in-house Land Registry IT department. Keith Hurst, senior responsible owner for the project, wanted to make sure that it was tested at every stage of development – including a private beta version that was released after seven months to a group of customers. 

“We got such fantastic feedback when we were speaking to customers. I remember one saying they’d happily take the product away that we had there, even though it was just an alpha phase demo,” Hurst told Public Technology's sister publication, Civil Service World. A public beta version was released after 11 months, before the final live service became available after 12, although the team continued to make iterative changes once it went live.

Hurst, who is operations, delivery and change leader at Land Registry, puts the success and speed of the project down to the hard work and flexibility of his team – but also the support of other departments in the civil service. 

The Government Digital Service (GDS) advised his team in the early stages. “We had a lot of close support from GDS. We did an exercise with the GDS called ‘Alpha in a Day’. We brought in customers and used a usability suite, getting them to use a piece of tracking software to track both their use of MapSearch and their eye movements,” says Hurst, who is 55 and has worked at the Land Registry since he was just 17. The team also enlisted the help of a company called Europa Technologies, who provide a streaming service for the Ordnance Survey map layer of MapSearch.

Hurst is clearly proud of the passion and patience of all those involved with delivering MapSearch. “One of the key findings from the initial feedback was that it had to be simple to use. If we had to give the user instructions how to use it, then we’ve got the design wrong,” he says. And the team’s efforts to ensure ease-of-use paid off: in a December 2014 survey of over 600 MapSearch users, 95% said the service saved them time and 96% said it was intuitive.

And there are further plans for digitisation in Land Registry, Hurst says, with a new property information service currently in beta form and a digital mortgage service in prototype. 

As for MapSearch, Hurst and his team will be running a session at Civil Service Live this year, giving participants a guided tour of the service and the processes involved with developing a tool that is now handling more than four million self-service enquiries a year.

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