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.

Media and Conflict in Myanmar, comments from a technologist

Last week I was invited to respond at the launch of the US Institute of Peace Media and Conflict in Myanmar Report. It was a humbling honor to share the technologist perspective among such an experienced and learned gathering, and for a really excellent report, recommended reading. Another good recent report, this on the political economy of Myanmar from the Kennedy School is also worth a read if you have interest there. And this short post from OKFN on the challenges of open knowledge in Myanmar quickly touches on many points relevant to ICT.

Transcript of my remarks are below. There were too many other interesting points to capture them all, but here are a few that I noted. Aung Din recommended creation of an independent media monitor, which would simply “name and shame” out of line uses of the media (to promote private interests, or to stoke tensions); sounds substantially more effective and openly democratic than any official government media controlling body. Joshua Haynes asked the question of how donors can coordinate, and support organic, ongoing processes; that’s a relevant question for this field anywhere, but especially so as internationals accelerate exponentially in Myanmar. Others called for journalism training to emphasize digital literacy, and other innovative practices (I’d include GeoJournalism among those). Mobile networks are set to accelerate rapidly (grow from 17% area coverage to 50% in 12-18 months from now) but still, much of the interesting technical community practices are now mechanical rather than informational. Noel Dickover floated the idea of Maker Faire Myanmar, a super idea, if backed by a great local team along the lines of Maker Fair Africa. Finally, was mentioned that this year will be the first census of Myanmar in over 30 years, and population estimates for the country vary from 60-70 million; hopefully this is an opportunity for more open data and transparency in Myanmar.

My remarks…

I’m going to begin with some of my experiences working with tech activists in Myanmar; then share what I think are instructive experiences working with technology and peacebuilding in Kenya, and conclude with a few specific responses to points from the report.

Typhoon Nargis in 2008 devestated Myanmar, and was my first introduction working with technologists there. This was in the very early days of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Our volunteer community produces geographic data to support the work of humanitarian disaster responders, which can be seen most recently in the Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan. Timely and accurate maps of affected areas are crucial to coordination of response, they are often incomplete or inaccessible, and that’s where we help. In 2008, we still had not proved this ability, but yet, I connected with technologists in Myanmar who were very eager to see if OpenStreetMap could make a contribution. The biggest hurdle was the limited access to the greater internet; using our services would simply be too slow, even for the small minority of people who had access. So I was completely bowled over to learn that these guys installed their own copy of the OpenStreetMap system on a local server. They could do that because the code is open source, but it was not a simple install by far. The motivation and skill of these guys, working with limited means, greatly impressed me. And I saw that with the right opportunities, the brilliant and eager people of Myanmar could quickly use technology for great benefit.

The next year, I connected with expat activists who were concerned with the Shwe pipeline. Very little information was available publicly at that point. That included the precise route of the pipeline, and especially information on communities directly affected by the infrastructure. We were looking at how to map that route openly, again using OpenStreetMap, and collect sociodemographic data and stories from the ground. There was simply no way to find this kind of data, so our effort stalled. No matter what your opinion on the Shwe pipeline, and natural resource extraction is such a contentious issue economically and environmentally, my feeling was that there should at least be clear and accessible information of the common facts on the ground, and platforms for presenting different views, and now that the pipeline is operating, tools to monitor all aspects of the impact of the pipeline. We can see this happening now. I’m pleased this vision of open data and broad communication on a crucial issue has found root in Myanmar.

You also may have heard about the BarCamp Rangoon events. BarCamps are “un-conferences”, where the schedule is set the morning of the event. Anyone can present anything they want, and people “vote with their feet” to choose what sessions are the most happening. And Rangoon has the largest BarCamps in the world, an astounding 6400 participants this year. I can’t even fathom that scale, especially in the political environment when they began there in 2009. But the tech community of Myanmar made it happen. This speaks to the power of tech and open source culture. The focus of much of the BarCamp is on technical details of computing, and sharing knowledge about skills, economically important skills, and those can often fly under the radar of controversy. But the opening is there for more, in an event style and a culture that expects everyone to contribute, that focuses on understanding the full scope of a problem out in the open, but brings people face to face to talk to each other as human beings, and focus on finding solutions and accomplishing things. For all sorts of conversations, I think we can all learn from the BarCamp model.

Now I haven’t yet made it to Myanmar for a BarCamp, but I’m certain with this opening environment, that’s in my future. A great deal of my work the past few years has been in Kenya, where I founded an organization with slum dwellers in Nairobi called Map Kibera Trust. Slumdwellers have taken the skills of making maps in OpenStreetMap, and citizen reporting with SMS and Ushahidi and video, and used those tools to represent their communities, essentially put themselves on the map. They’ve recently completed a technology and peacebuilding project for the Kenyan election this year, supported by USIP, and I wanted to highlight a few aspects that I think are relevant. This was the first election since the 2007-2008 post election violence. The team mapped ward and constituency boundaries and distributed printed “election maps”, and did citizen, community based reporting on all phases of the election, from voter registration, to primaries, campaigning, and aftermath. While this was all excellent technical work, it was only able to directly impact due to the great amount of work in peacebuilding and networking which Kenya has seen since 2008. Mosts of that happened offline, people directly talking to each other, organizing, deciding to work together for peace. And at the same time, technical communities in Kenya gained stature, particularly projects like Ushahidi, and gathering places like the iHub. Map Kibera was able to link to these peacebuilding networks, and these technical networks, and complement this work. This collective build up of a culture of peace in Kenya, in large part played out in the media.

So some of my responses to the recommended activites of the report should come as no suprise. Mobile technology for early warning and crisis response. Yes absolutely, can only emphasize the potential of this from my experience, and other projects from Kenya like Sisi ni Amani, when part of a broader context. Help people to understand the best social and technical practices. This is poised to be very important as mobile technology spreads rapidly through Myanmar.

On the issue of hate speech in social media, I do not want to minimize these realistic concerns, but from my perspective, I must sound a warning. My inclination when observing efforts to neutralize extremist voices on social media anywhere is, to wonder how any system of control itself would be held accountable. Who is to judge what is acceptable public dialogue and criticism and legitimate dissent, and what is dangerous? Especially in a place emerging from authoritarian rule, the temptation to control must be very high. There have been issues in the past. During the Saffron Revolution, photos of protests were posted to Flickr, and to great worry of people I knew working there, those photos were apparently used by security services to identify individuals. Facebook and Google are private companies, and do have relationships with many governments, and do act on requests, so finding a working relationship with them and others is important. Though as you can see with the NSA revelations, we still haven’t found the proper limits that preserve legitimate privacy and freedom.

However, I do have some ideas of the risks with social media, and what could become explosive, and that’s why I think it’s imperitative to invest in processes of dialogue, both offline and online, and in training in responsible reporting and technology. The initiative for training in journalism is right on. Let me suggest broadening that to non-traditional journalists, to citizen and community journalists, and connect all of that training to open digital culture and technologists.

That is what I imagine the Peace Technology Innovation Workshops can accomplish. Getting people together from different backgrounds, and different skill sets, to talk and work face to face, is excellent. I suggest making these workshops not only talk, not only skills training, but places where things can practically happen. One simple means to do that is through OpenStreetMap mapping parties, where people would produce open data right there. Also, think about such initiatives participating in other ongoing events, and connect to those, like the BarCamps.

And let me conclude with some suggestions I didn’t spot in the report. First, physical innovation spaces have been key to anchoring these kinds of initiatives. In Nairobi, the iHub has been instrumental in providing a neutral meeting ground, where things can happen. Encourage hubs in Myanmar. Second, information security and privacy tools need to be on the agenda, so that journalists and technologists and citizens can be sure they truly have liberty to share their ideas without fear. Finally, embrace the Open movement. Open source software is not only accessible, it’s modifiable for new purposes. Promote open data initiatives, both from data held by the government, and data created by citizens. And apply these both to open exploration. There are so many areas where media and technology can have impact in Myanmar, for urban issues, the environment, a responsible tourist industry, health, education, cultural preservation, and many other things that no one has even thought of yet. Let’s help Myanmar to embarce open culture.

Thanks very much.

Data.Gov and Wikimania

Busy conference week last week with Wikimania and

At, gave this presentation, (and video, “Policy Track – Engagement Around Open Data”, around minute 35:00), another variation on the theme of how open community mapping represents a fundamental change to dynamics of development. Keeping with the theme of government open data, this time looked a bit more in depth at how OpenStreetMap and governments interact. Video coming soon.

Impressed with the level of discussion around OpenData. We are steadily moving past the hype (even if we’re still amazed that the Secretary of State gives speeches about Data), and grappling with the real issues of using data … both technically and especially organizationally. Enjoyed sharing the stage with Nathaniel Heller and Steven Davenport for our panel, actually had a really engaging discussion with the audience, maybe due to a combination of Tim Davies skillful facilitation and our unabashed optimistic cynicism. Linda Raftree has a good summation of the emergent themes of the conference. This built on well from the Open Data for Development Camp event back in Nairobi, anniversary of OpenDataKE; iHub research is doing a nice series on the search for real impact in Open Data.

Enjoyed giving this talk at Wikimania (video, slides). Wikipedia is OpenStreetMap’s “big sister”, and we have so much to learn from them. My other experience of Wikimania was in Alexandria back in 2008, which created the opportunity to throw the first mapping party in Egypt (before GPS was legalized!). I took the opportunity to not only go over the familiar ground of OSM, OSM+Gov, OSM in development, but also look at how OSM and Wikipedia communities converge and diverge; Frederik does a more thorough write up of these two communities. Also had the opportunity to learn about the amazing mapping work happening within Wikipedia, including localized maps based on OSM, and the mind-blowing features of WikiMiniAtlas.

Open Community Mapping, what we think it is, and what it might be

Last week, I was given the great opportunity to talk at the World Bank about the state of open community mapping, and where it’s heading, at New Tools for Mapping in Disasters and Development. Thanks to GFDRR and InterAction.

…the excitement of community mapping is beyond the data that’s being created, but the possibility of a fundamental shift in the power dynamics of how development is practiced. If people know the facts about their own lives, they have more power to call to account those institutions which are supposed to serve them, and ultimately, to improve their lives themselves.


browse the slides

read the notes

We are really at such an interesting moment for this approach, with interest and momentum from all sides, both the grassroots and open source communities, and development institutions like the World Bank. What happens next is going to take a lot of quick learning and sharing, exciting.

Cartonama, Open Mapping in Bangalore

The keystone to GroundTruth’s trip to India was the Cartonama workshop in Bangalore.

My comrade in maps was the amazing Schuyler Erle, in a reprise of our epic 2008 Free Map India tour. India, Banalore, and its OpenStreetMap have transformed (as you can see in this heart-filled animation of OSM Bangalore). This time, rather than visit 7 cities in 4 weeks, we crammed even more information into two days. As ever, I learned a ton from Schuyler. Perhaps the choicest bit being, “Canada is often projected as if the Earth was wearing a dunce cap”.

This was an intense two day workshop, covering everything needed to make an open web mapping application: from data collection in OpenStreetMap, to data juggling with OGR/PostGIS etc, making tiles with TileMill, and finally building an Ajax Web app with Leaflet and the OSM API. Oh, and also a survey of basic geographic concepts (geodesy, projections, etc), and the intricacies of the operation of GPS satellites. Really it was four workshops in one. Or maybe 10. Possibly a semesters worth. I think it’s a format worth replicating.

The end result was a modification to the amazing POSM POSM by Yuvi Panda. He built this HTML5 web app for first collecting bus stops in Mumbai. There were wonderful audible gasps when we integrated our home baked MapBox tiles into the locally running POSM app (even if we discovered lingering problems with handling of Indic fonts in Mapnik).

You can see all the presentation materials on GitHub. We collaborated on the slides in Markdown with Landslide, best way to make a presentation.

Cartonama was an Editor’s Pick in TimeOut!

Another great moment, during the ice breaker we stole from Gunner: “What’s your first memory of a computer?” “We had to take our shoes off before going in the lab because computers are holy, right?”

It seemed to go well. Was great to enthusiastic, creative participants from Servelots, TacticalTech, IT For Change, Transparent Chennai, and many others.

HasGeek did a wonderful job bringing bringing the workshop together, and are lighting up the geek event space in India. They’re really fostering community in the best way, and I’m excited to see what happens with all the mappers from our workshop, and the upcoming full Cartonama conference. So big thanks to HasGeek, and the Centre for Internet and Society for hosting and sponsoring the workshop.