Open Data Securing Property Rights


As is evident from our research thus far, there is clearly sensitive information held within the land registry that should be protected. Titles and deeds contain PII (
Personally identifiable information), such as names, addresses and national identification numbers, whose widespread release can pose a tangible threat to individuals and communities. However, in some jurisdictions, land agencies sell this data officially (or unofficially), sometimes including PII, to an array of private sector actors – from banks to real estate companies, marketing agencies, and private individuals with an interest in a person or property – legitimate or not. 

Some actors in the property registration process should have ready access to this sensitive information though, simply for the effective delivery of services to the public. For example, land market transaction processes may involve private sector actors as is the case in U.S., or a bank may need to verify property value and ownership as collateral to grant a loan. However, the pay-for-access system raises questions of whether granting access to only the privileged few gives some powerful, nefarious actors the sensitive information, while blocking out access to those with less money or influence. This can be particularly problematic in countries with greater income inequality, or in instances where government land offices are few and far between, and largely inaccessible to the rural poor. To complicate the issue further, land agencies, or their staff, often rely upon this revenue to sustain operations or supplement income. The existence of opportunities for administrative corruption potentially compromises their ability to be unbiased participants in determining what property rights data is safe to open.


Challenging the pay-for-access system toward more openness is vital to our aims of securing property tenure, but who can use this open data and for what purpose must also be taken into account. Different stakeholders, from governments to the private sector, as well as Open Knowledge International and Cadasta Foundation, have unique objectives and perspectives that are reflected in the collection, measurement and use of data. As Changing What Counts, new research by Civicus and Open Knowledge International (OKI), shows, data generated by civil society organizations can be vastly different from institutional data collected on the same topic. This is in part because institutions may want to protect themselves from unwanted exposure, because they do not put bureaucratic procedures in place to capture specific data, or because they look at specific aspects of real world phenomena – thereby creating data that may differ from civil society agendas.

A new map created by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based on community mapping and interviews with indigenous peoples, reveals a high rate of deforestation and potentially illegal expropriation of community lands that deviates from information from official sources. This tool is already being used in Latin America to help indigenous groups assert their rights over government and private interests that do not take into account the rights rights of indigenous people. At Cadasta Foundation and OKI, our needs for open data in land align with those of IUCN. However, we need to acknowledge the motivations that all actors might have for the data to be open or closed in order to prioritize the data uses of stakeholders working in the interest of vulnerable populations.

Additionally, our recommendations for what data to open cannot simply be based on what is best practice in advanced economies, but need to take into account the current situation and needs of at-risk and marginalized groups and individuals in developing and emerging economies. In a sector that is as complex, varied, and so profoundly tied to personal safety and well-being as property rights, context really matters. Tenure security is already on the whole more evident in places where most properties are captured within the formal system, and where the rule of law is strong enough to enforce formal claims. However, our focus is to help enhance tenure security for individuals and groups whose rights aren’t currently documented. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in many countries the amount of land undocumented exceed the amount that is documented, significantly.


Risk Assessment Process


STEP 1 - Identify different categories of property rights data.

After conducting desk research on land administration practices globally, as well as undertaking stakeholder interviews with international development NGOs, national land agencies, community groups and the private sector, we identified the cadastral map, land registry, transaction history (although this is often grouped inside the registry) and information on tenure type as the main categories of property rights data. For more information on these categories, see our explanation of land and resource rights data.

STEP 2 - Identify user personas for open land and resource rights data.

This desk research, as well as the stakeholder interviews, also informed the identification of potential user personas for each of the data categories. User persona is defined as an individual or stakeholder group that would engage with open datasets related to land and resource rights for a specific purpose. Often, the land agencies, community groups, and private sector actors interviewed were also the anticipated user personas.

The user personas that we ultimately considered throughout this risk assessment were those that contributed to the project’s ultimate aims: enabling tenure security and enhancing transparency of land governance. We also considered our project’s secondary aims: stimulating real estate markets with more equitable economic development and increasing government efficiency and effectiveness. User personas that advance these goals represent the merits or potential benefits of the release of land and resource rights data.

STEP 3 - Identify potential risks of opening property rights data.

The potential risks in this situation represent harmful user personas that take into consideration unintended consequences of the data’s release and the damage it could have on individuals or groups if it falls into nefarious hands. To determine the potential risks, we considered the following questions for each of the data categories:

  • What common types of PII are found within this data category? (Name, Ethnicity, Gender, District/County, Highest Level of Education, Medications prescribed, Geo-location of login)
  • What non-PII within the data category could be combined with public datasets to produce PII?
  • What actors might have an interest in using this data for nefarious purposes?
  • What might be the consequences for individuals or groups if this data is used for nefarious or unintended purposes?

STEP 4 - Assessing the level of risk and the potential benefit of opening land and resource rights data.

We dove deeper into the risks posed by these harmful user personas and by the data that could enable this harm. Though an inquiry exercise, we detailed descriptive features of all the risks posed to better understand their potential for harm. For each potential risk, we considered the following questions:

  • Who does the risk affect? How large of a population does the risk affect? What is the power dynamic of affected populations?
  • How likely is this harmful use to occur? How does the statistical significance of this risk vary from context to context?

STEP 5 - Identify alternate datasets or modes of publication.

While we do not want to advocate for the release of data that jeopardizes the well-being of the very communities and individuals we want to protect, the identification of potential risks should not automatically barr all land and resource rights data from being open. Therefore, we looked for solutions that may mitigate some of these risks while still retaining the benefits of our primary objectives of openness.

To do this, we revisited our positive user personas to identify what pieces of data are needed for these end-users to ultimately support our aims of securing tenure and increasing transparency and accountability. We then cross-referenced these pieces of data with those that may pose a risk. This process helped us separate which pieces of data are both uncontroversial to release and support our aims in contrast to the datasets of which openness may support our aims but also pose a risk to some individuals or groups. Finally, we brainstormed innovative solutions in terms of the mode of publication or nature of data released that stimulates our aims while protecting sensitive data.

We’ve detailed some of our potential solutions below:

Opening up data on tenure type. Opening up names of property owners could help identify inequity in land ownership or combat corruption by exposing illicit financial flows and hidden immovable assets, but also could expose individuals to personal harm. Rather than opening up names, land agencies could open up information on tenure type from the land registry, including information on whether the property is trust-controlled, corporate-owned or government-owned. If the property is corporate-owned, more data on the name of the company and features of the land could be released as this data is far less sensitive than the property of individuals and could aid in the long-form investigation of shell companies and hidden assets of public officials by NGOs.

Her Majesty’s Land Registry in the UK offers access to title records on all ownership categories (another term for tenure type) while leaving out the titles of private individuals, charities and trustees. However, this data is still licensed and only available via a fee service. Conversely, detailed data on overseas companies that own property in the UK is open and available without charge. Last year, Private Eye used this data to produce interactive maps that show foreign-owned properties and explain why real estate prices in the UK are skyrocketing. Openly allowing access to data of this kind could enable more investigations on powerful public figures, while preserving individuals’ privacy and security.

Encouraging interoperability with anti-corruption datasets. High-ranking public officials and others with influence in policy-making are not granted the same level of privacy as private citizens. Legislation that requires these actors to disclose their assets and conflicts of interest reflect this. Data on government sectors that are particularly prone to corruption, such as natural resource governance, should also be subject to a higher level of openness. Ensuring that these anti-corruption datasets, such as asset disclosures, concessions maps and corporate registries, are open and interoperable with non-sensitive property rights data can support those tracking corruption to connect the dots.

Restricting open licenses. Ensuring that lending institutions have access to the sensitive financial and personal data needed to verify property ownership and land value is crucial to functioning real estate markets. These systems allow individuals to buy and transfer property or to leverage their property toward other economic opportunities – some of the most basic rights of land ownership.

While the land registry data that is deemed uncontroversial could be opened up via the open definition, access to sensitive datasets could be more controlled with licensing and use agreements. in the Netherlands allows any citizen to query for a particular property (after registering and receiving an identity key), but grants bulk access to users that have signed an agreement that ensures that they will not share the data with others or use it for targeted marketing. Through this system, the Land Agency can monitor who uses the data and for what purpose to monitor potential abuses. A hybrid system similar to the Netherlands that opens non-sensitive data in bulk, while monitoring access and use of sensitive data to verified users could provide a balanced approach to openness. It should be noted, however, that the Land Agency in the Netherlands also charges for access to all of this data, even individual queries.

STEP 6 - Solicit community feedback.

The assessment thus far has been descriptive in nature and there may be potential solutions — as well as potential risks that we may have overlooked. Therefore, our motivation for openly publishing our risk assessment process and solutions is to gather feedback from the land and resource rights community. Particularly we would like feedback on the following:

  • Are there other potential solutions or datasets that can be released openly toward the aim of securing tenure while mitigating the outlined risks?
  • Are there potential risks from the release of these datasets that we haven’t identified?
  • Are there positive user personas that we haven’t identified?
  • Are there ways to quantify and weigh the level of risk against the potential benefit in these instances?


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