The Future is Open
Despite these challenges, the trend of increasing numbers of land datasets are being created and opened is likely to continue. This is happening both at the request of funders within the land sector and by citizen demand. Elizabeth Stair, CEO of the National Land Agency in Jamaica anticipates that “more data will become open over time as data on land information is important to sustainable development.”[Learn More]
In 2016, Sao Paulo government opened their property tax dataset and it has since been used to research the inequalities in property ownership throughout the city.[Learn More] Uruguay opened their national cadastral information in 2014, Canada opened up geospatial data on public lands.[Learn More] And, as mentioned above, Land Information New Zealand has made topographic and land ownership data available for free since 2011.
Thus the questions the sector still needs to consider is how to open data on land, be it government cadastral data, geospatial data collected through community mapping, or statistical FAO agricultural datasets in a sensible and sensitive way given concerns regarding privacy, security and power imbalances.
The first guiding principle must be that open data should level the playing field and reduce information asymmetry so that everyone — individuals, communities, NGOs, governments and the private sector — can benefit from land information.
The decision of what land data should be opened cannot simply be based on what is best practice in advanced economies, but needs to take into account the current situation and needs of at-risk and marginalized groups and individuals in developing and emerging economies, particular those in countries with weak rule of law.
Malcolm Childress of Land Alliance explained, “If there’s a corruption problem or a problem elite capture in the judiciary, open land data can also backfire, especially for social groups that may not have the economic means, communication tools or political connections to defend their claims. In these cases, both the transparency of data and the quality of governance institutions have to be a points of scrutiny.[Learn More]”
Extreme caution should be taken in opening data when and where rule of law and tenure security is weak.
Stakeholders must seek to balance transparency and safeguards. Jolyne Sanjak at Landesa, outlined one such compromise: data could be stripped of personal information with the same techniques used for survey data.
New Zealand has found a different compromise: certain geospatial datasets are open to anyone, but to access personally identifiable datasets, users have to register in order for the government to verify their identity and ensure that the data isn’t being used for nefarious purposes.
Further, action could be taken to encourage use of this data for social good by bridging the gap to accessibility. While open data has potential uses for a wide range of stakeholders, each audience has specific needs and open data tools should be tailored to the user group. “Accessible data” to a researcher may mean that the data is available as a shapefile. While a shapefile is useless to a smallholder farmer, being able to access data for free may be hugely important. Organizations releasing data could take steps to make their data the most accessible to the stakeholders they want to reach and whom can actively work on behalf of social good aims, such as monitoring corruption and increasing land tenure security.
There are already many promising use cases as well as a growing interest in openness in land governance. At the same time, there are sensitivities in land data and risks associated with making it open, particularly for vulnerable communities and in varying contexts. Releasing an owner’s name in a highly developed and relatively equitable country can help prevent corruption. But revealing the same data in a country with less formal land documentation or high rates of inequality can result in the dispossession or displacement of vulnerable communities. Resources, frameworks and alternate approaches are being developed that ensure responsible use of data while not inhibiting the desired outcomes of openness: accountability of all stakeholders within land governance as well as the land tenure security for vulnerable populations that can accompany the documentation of these rights. These challenges are not a reason to dismiss open data and transparency in land governance and there is reason to believe that open data will play a role in tenure security going forward.