11th February 2016
Spreading the word (and data) on country names
We’ve been working with the Government Digital Service (GDS) on a project to develop a “Country Register” which will be a dataset of UK approved geographical names for countries and territories.
This work is the first stage of a project to create a range of Registers which will be a key part of the UK’s digital infrastructure.
Country names were identified as a good candidate for one of the first registers. It is a dataset that is used in a wide range of government digital services including some provided by the FCO like Emergency Travel documents and consular services.
I got involved because the FCOs Knowledge and Technology Directorate’s work includes information policy and Geographical information policy is one strand of that work.
More specifically the FCO leads for the UK on geographical names policy for countries and territories outside the United Kingdom. We work closely with the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (PCGN) which advises the UK government on policies for writing English language versions of overseas place names.
We wanted to draw on international standards (specifically ISO 3166 for country codes) and expertise in this area to provide consistent and structured data. But the Register needs to reflect UK policy which can be different, for instance in relation to Kosovo which the UK recognises as a state but the UN doesn’t so it isn’t included in the ISO 3166 standard.
The FCO already publishes approved country and territory names data on gov.uk and this data is available to be reused. But a Country Register will take that to a new level and make it much easier to share and link to it.
GDS had already worked with some government agencies (eg. Companies House) to see how they used country names data and we also drew on requirements for the FCO’s digital services (eg. Emergency Travel documents). Based on that work we decided on a structure of 3 separate registers:
• “Country” register, to include current states and a selection of historical states.
• “Territories” register to include the overseas territories of other countries, Crown Dependencies and other territories that the UK does not recognise as states (eg. the Occupied Palestinian Territories).
• “UK” register to include the constituent countries of the UK and UK Overseas territories.
We used existing data from our Country List but also needed to identify sources for additional data. One requirement that is both interesting and problematic is the need for start dates for countries (and end dates for historical states). Clearly something that takes us into sensitive diplomatic territory in some cases and another reason that the FCO is best placed to do provide this information. So an important next step is to draw on the expertise of FCO colleagues and PCGN to validate this data.
Correct use of names for countries and territories underpins the work of the FCO and many other part of the UK government. The Country Register will provide an efficient way to communicate this policy and make it easier for us all to get that right.
The Register will be presented at the SPRINT 16 – transforming government event this week and I am sure that will provide plenty of views on how to develop the first Country Register further!