Registers: Accountable government lists of things

What is a Register?

Registers are lists of things published on the web and available via an API.

You maintain accountability, via Blockchain-like technologies called Merkle Trees, which allows you to track back through previous changes, and a single source of truth, meaning that people link back to the central source. A Register has a named owner, responsible for the maintenance and updating of that data. They are sometimes called “Custodians” and should be a subject expert in that field. It is possible to have multiple Custodians. There is a Register of Registers – produced by the GDS.

The only constraints on new Registers are:

  • Does that Register already exist?
  • Are you a subject expert in that field?

If a request came in for a second Registers of countries, for example, it would depend why they are different. There would need to be a clear, valid use case for that second Register for it to be created.

The major block to some of the obvious bigger Registers – like Companies House data – is time. The Register team is small, and can only manage so much at once.

The core reason for doing this is a single source of truth accessed via an API, which means you can build higher order systems based on it. If a country changes name, if the Register is updated, that propagates through the system via the API.

Registers have to be reference-like data. They are also inherently tamper-proof, in that any tampering can be found and reverted — and proved. Whichever part of the UK Government makes the decisions should be the owner of the Register in question – for example, the Scottish Government would own the Register of Scottish Local Authorities.

There are already many government bodies and departments who have a responsibility legally for maintaining lists of things. This is a way of formalising the process of doing that digitally. The underlying technology is Open Source, and is in GitHub under OGL. So, yes, you could spin it up and build yourself a Register. The team are trying to create a standard for building these lists.

There’s always going to be a political element to what goes on a list or not, but that’s up to the owning organisation. And yes, other governments or even private sector companies could use and build their own Registers using the technology. The Register team will check the initial data, and will help you make it better — but the responsibility for data quality ultimately comes down to the Custodian.

[Session Notes]