Written By: Lindsay Ferris, Frank Pichel & Neil Sorensen
Paper prepared for presentation at the “2017 WORLD BANK CONFERENCE ON LAND AND POVERTY” The World Bank – Washington DC, March 20-24, 2017
The Sustainable Development Goals’ recognition of the importance of collecting data and recent advances in GPS and mapping technology that make collecting data much easier have sparked an increase in land rights mapping and documentation efforts around the world. The land governance and administration sector, however, has not yet considered the potential for this data — if made public – to increase efficiency and transparency within government, the private sector, communities, and households. Currently, government data sources on land rights are largely inaccessible. This is true for a wide range of land governance information, from parcel data and ownership information, to land investments, concession details and even legal and policy information. The latest version of the Open Data Barometer produced by the World Wide Web Foundation shows only two countries, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, obtained a full 100% score on the topic of open data related to land ownership. According to a report from the Permanent Committee on Cadastre in the European Union on open cadastral information, there is significant variation regarding how cadastral agencies interpret “open data” even among EU member states. Building upon research conducted by Cadasta Foundation throughout 2016 and an online discussion jointly-hosted by the Cadasta Foundation and the Land Portal Foundation that brought together the perspectives of more than 25 leading experts within the sector, this paper will assess current practices in opening land data, identify the potential and observed benefits of open data, successful examples and best practices, as well as shed further light on the potential negative impact of and challenges related to opening land information.
Open data is increasingly recognized as a critical factor in good governance. We see this both in the emphasis on data collection in the Sustainable Development Goals and in the launch and rapid growth of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative inaugurated in 2011 with the goal of securing concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency.
However, this recognition has, thus far, not prompted the opening of land related en masse. More than 2700 open data commitments to the OGP have already been made. Unfortunately, only two commitments at the time of review, from Uruguay and Tanzania, pertain to releasing government data on land tenure from the official cadaster or land registry.
It is important to note here that governments, with their registries and cadasters (parcel maps), are no longer the sole source of land data. International organizations such as the World Bank publish open data on rural and agricultural growth, for example, as well as reports on land related activities in various country programs. And recent innovations in technology mean communities can document their own rights and use of land and resources. Cadasta Foundation has developed an open source suite of tools communities can use for the collection and management of ownership, occupancy, and spatial data. Non-Governmental Organizations also produce and hold land data on behalf of communities. Landmark Map developed by World Resources Institute and partners is an example of this. The Land Portal Foundation collects and disseminates data from various donor organizations and NGOs involved in land governance issues and makes this data available for bulk download. Even the private sector has access to or control over land data derived from satellite imagery and other sources.
Each of these different stakeholders has access to or controls datasets that are classified as “land data.” In this paper, we will explore the potential benefits and risks of opening up these varied datasets.
Open land data can reduce barriers to development, reduce corruption, promote conservation, spark the private sector’s development of land related services, and increase efficiency. We will explore these themes below.
Given the observed benefits of open data in other governance sectors, it’s also important to understand the risks associated with open data in land governance practices and systems. Risks include increased conflict, increased local tensions, violation of privacy, putting undocumented communities and households at risk. Further, the technical and financial barriers to open land data are formidable which sometimes leads critics to question whether investing the time and resources into opening data is worth it, given the potential risks.
Part of the challenge relates to the sensitive information held within the land registry that should be protected. Land records often contain personally identifiable information such as names, addresses, banking details and national identification numbers, whose widespread release can pose a tangible threat to individuals and communities. In other contexts, tenure security – both formal and informal is lacking, and the publication of land rights data might have a negative effect on citizens, putting them at greater risk of eviction or disempowerment.
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.