Open-Community-Collaborative Data for Land Rights and Tenure

Presenting today at 2014 Land and Poverty Conference

Open-Community-Collaborative Data for Land Rights and Tenure

The generation, management, and distribution of land tenure and land rights spatial data is generally restricted in traditional closed information architectures, in part for legitimate legal and security reasons. However, the gap thus far in adoption of more innovative open data practices means a missed opportunity to address critical issues of accountability and access to land rights data for the most marginalized. Open data communities, such as the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project, have proven to be transformational collaboration platforms in domains like disaster response, and now several projects show promise for this open approach to land rights. This paper explores two distinct kinds of contribution from the OSM approach. Firstly examined is the direct use of OSM as a core engagement activity for advocacy, planning, and accountability by communities asserting their rights for representation and security. Lessons from projects in Kibera, Indonesia, East Jerusalem, and La Boquilla, Columbia are detailed. Secondly, OSM is looked at as a starting technical software base & community model for collaborative, open geographic data creation & sharing, forked (in the open source sense) for adaptation to the particular access rules and data structures required for land tenure registration.

OpenStreetMap is a free and open map database of the entire world, build from the active collaboration of tens of thousands of volunteers globally. It is sometimes called the “Wikipedia of Maps”, since contributing to OSM is open to absolutely everyone, and the data and code ecosystem are all in the commons, licensed for re-use and re-distribution. Such “crowd-sourced” initiatives have been held up to intense scrutiny, and have been found to meet or exceed the data quality of traditional sources, and are certainly more accessible. Thus, OSM has been adopted by companies, governments, universities, international organizations, and software developers. The domain of disaster response, particularly through the work of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), has been transformed by the practice of OSM, after the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, where OSM became the base map for the response. More recently, Typhoon Haiyan saw over 1000 contributors map millions of features and damage point, for use by organizations such as the American Red Cross, UNOCHA, MSF, the World Bank, and the New York Times.

In the first part, community mapping in OSM has proven a valuable supplement to official tenure process, or to help communities advance their rights agenda. A core principal of OSM is that the most accurate map will be made, with the right basic training, by people residing in a location, not necessarily survey and cartographic experts. This especially holds true in communities at risk of dispossession by authorities, where official maps may portray a geographic mis-reality more conducive to their plans, or the community itself may not be physically accessible and suspicious of outsiders. Take the Kibera slum of Nairobi, the object of many controversial upgrading and resettlement plans, was a blank spot on official maps, until the public infrastructure (including roads and paths, sanitation infrastructure, health services, etc) was mapped by Map Kibera in OSM. This project (and now organization) taught young residents the technology to make the map themselves, and represent their community. Being a completely open system, the goal was not to map private residences, but to make visible the community as a whole, and of particular interest here, track the events and reactions to upgrading programs. Spatial data is used as the context for citizen media, in the form of bloggers and videographers, who geolocate stories on the Voice of Kibera, an instance of the Ushahidi platform. Stories have covered demolitions in Soweto East, resettlement to the “decanting site”, and most recently efforts for the Nubian community (the original settlers of the slum) to gain title and recognition. The community, evidence based perspective, linked to specific locations, shared openly, both online and offline, has provided a much needed monitoring and accountability function in these contentious processes.

Another example is found in Indonesia, where HOT undertook a wide ranging effort to collect data in OSM for disaster preparedness risk models. This project involved training and connections with a large number of actors, from disaster preparedness agencies of the Indonesian government, to university students, to city officials, planting the seed of an open data community in Indonesia. As is often the case with open data, unexpected uses and connection arose, specifically with the ACCESS civil society strengthening program. Part of ACCESS activities involved “poverty mapping”, participatory mapping of community infrastructure and socio-economic data, a step to create community development plans. These poverty maps were created on paper in a facilitated process, and while quite detailed, beautiful and useful, the opportunity for re-use, analysis, and access to these maps were limited. HOT adapted the OSM workflow to these participatory processes, which allowed for better and easier data collection, and connection into a host of open source tools to visualize and analyse that data. A major change to OSM tools was made to handle private and secure data. While communities were comfortable sharing openly geographic data on community infrastructure, they did not want to share detailed socio-economic information. To accommodate that, the OSM editing tools were adapted to work with multiple databases, both the open, public database, as well as private database. This provides a means to selectively share community data, without invoking another tool.

In the second part, OSM is examined as both a technical and community starting point to open creation and sharing of tenure data. It’s entirely fair to say that OSM has been the most successful approach to collaborative geographic data ever. That’s due to some key decisions of the architecture, such as flexible tagging rather than rigid ontology, and transparent history of individual contributors. The software ecosystem is quite robust, including what might be the most user friendly map editing client developed, iD. The community approach is decentralized, distributed responsibility, yet quite unified through clear purpose. However, not all kinds of data are appropriate for OSM, as OSM focuses on visible infrastructure, land use, and some administrative boundaries, but by community convention, does not contain cadastre (among many other things). As well, OSM is completely open for anyone to edit, and that is simply not possible for land tenure data; there must be some process for validation and protection of submissions. There are other projects that have started with OSM architecture and principals, and adapted to a different database. For instance the USGS prototyped its use for the National Map; the Moabi project is deploying OSM architecture for collaboration on natural resource extraction data; and the before mentioned poverty mapping project in Indonesia. In order to support approaches like the Social Tenure Domain Model, there are very particular adaptation requirements to OSM. Access control to both data editing and data structures is required, and experiments show that OSM architecture is amenable to such changes. Just as crucial, OSM makes individual contributors visible, and relies on their participation, communication and collaboration. Despite the necessary institutional element of land tenure, a successful program must retain such individual empowerment.


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