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Land Governance and Open Data

Published onDec 28, 2019
Land Governance and Open Data


  • Land records and geospatial data offer different perspectives on issues regarding land rights, use, and ownership.

  • Perspectives on social and economic uses of land are further nuanced if disaggregated by key sectors or demographics. This is evident when considering the particularities of environment data and indigenous data.

  • Histories of land disputes and multitudes of archival and documentation methodologies make finalising, documenting, and digitising land ownership and tenure data particularly difficult. In combination with the opening up and advancement of geospatial data, it is necessary to ask whose data is being used to establish ownership and boundaries, and why and how.

  • Even if land ownership is clearly documented and faces no opposition, the land ownership management function of the state must reckon with building an infrastructure to manage the cost of openly formatting this data while simultaneously allowing for the discoverability of new land data. In building this infrastructure, land data initiatives must be wary of technologically deterministic solutions.


At the outset, distinguishing between geospatial data and land ownership data is essential. These datasets are rarely separated in their use (and integrated within other data subsets), however their history, collection, legal status, and availability are attached to specific challenges and nuances.

Geospatial data is location data. Approximately 80% of all government data contains some reference to location1. Geospatial data poses a unique challenge because geospatial data infrastructure predates the contemporary open data movement, thus creating weak links between geospatial and open data communities2. A major goal for the open data community is to develop and implement intellectual property (IP) privacy standards that will allow the analysis of geospatial data for policy purposes. Due to IP and privacy restrictions, geospatial data analysis has been limited over the past decade. This is regrettable considering the sheer availability of data and data collecting infrastructures has increased exponentially since the creation of Google Maps and OpenStreetMap in 2005 and 20163. The timeline of geospatial data itself is met with both advances and drawbacks - this includes the UK releasing OS Open Map in 2015 to Google increasing the price of its API location data in 20184.

Land ownership data includes cadastres, which denote the boundaries (formal or informal) of land parcels and land registries. Land registries document property rights, interests, and the details of ownership of particular parcels of land5. In addition to registries, land ownership includes transactional documentation marking the changes in the value of plots of land over time. Even if claims to land ownership have been well-documented, the lack of digitisation and ability to make this data publicly available, cost of infrastructure, and discoverability of data pose several unique challenges to the land ownership and management function of the state6.

Contextualising the Open Geospatial Data Movement

Progress has been slow and mostly focused on rationalisation of the geospatial data management. Opening up geospatial data has struggled to go beyond applying open licences to existing datasets and has lacked policies, standards, and human resources specific to presenting and analysing geospatial data. In India, for example, the granularity of open data has been a concern. This has been voiced in terms of a demand for geospatial data to visualise the reality of various social and economic issues7. On the other hand, availability of granular land ownership data, based on digitised land records, ended up facilitating “very large [real estate] players in the land markets to capture vast quantities of land at a time when Bangalore experiences boom in the land market.”8 Michael Gurstein has characterised this problem as the possibility of open data “empowering the empowered” as opposed to democratising access to and use of actionable information.9

Significant global efforts have been undertaken, however, to standardise generation, management, and publication of geospatial data, as well as to develop free and open source software to enable the same. The Open Geospatial Consortium, started in 1994, is a leading international, multistakeholder body that has key contributions in this space to ensure that “geospatial (location) information and services FAIR - Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable.”10 GADM, the Database of Global Administrative Areas, have focused on responding to another gap in this space - by offering a global, standardised, and regularly updated data of international and sub-national administrative boundaries.11.

Resources developed by OGC and GADM demand questioning the definition of openness and how it can be applied to geospatial data in its collection, usage, analysis, and implementation. Each of these aspects are fraught with challenges relating to the direct and indirect cost of opening up geospatial data. GADM data can be used as a method to formalise land tenures and ownership. Here, it is important to question the data with which these boundaries are being mapped out - whose documentation and ownership is included in these boundaries and whose isn’t? Evaluating the value of open geospatial data is contingent upon governments’ ability to address these challenges and address both direct (digitizing archives, updating datasets, etc.) and indirect (acknowledging all constituencies, managing resources and land use, environmental protections, etc.) externalities12.

On the other hand, land ownership data is politically contentious due to the lack of documentation marking the history of land ownership and the challenges community-based land owners face when claiming rights to their land13. Geospatial layering of land ownership data certainly portrays part of the story, but it may not be able to capture the whole picture. Opening up land ownership data can allow for land-related conflicts to be mediated or outlined by citizen groups or individuals. Additionally, citizens and the public can employ this data to reclaim, expand, and make use of public spaces.

Although, land ownership data is not simply stored in static land ownership registries. Land is constantly contested as it is a political resource that determines economic, environmental, and social well-being. Land purchases for the purpose of conservation, agriculture, or offshoring businesses are constantly taking place on a global scale14. Thus, government, private, and public actors must take the fast-paced nature of this subset of data into account, as well as the historical inequities underpinning it.

Notable Initiatives

Geospatial data

Major actors and initiatives include the ILC, Global Land Tools Network (GLTN), Open Data Common, and Open Land Database15. They have contributed to the collection and compilation of land ownership and geospatial data to create policies supporting community action16.

An example of an initiative that digitises and publicises land boundaries is Australia’s PSMA Administrative Boundaries17. After identifying state boundaries through government mapping data (land registries), the Australian Electoral Commission and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, PSMA Australia has released state boundary datasets. The data is updated quarterly and users must comply with Australian privacy legislation18. For actors and initiatives within this subset of the movement, understanding the differences between framing land as a ‘resource’ versus simply as ‘data’, is paramount to avoiding the entrenchment of existing inequities based on gender, wealth, race, caste, social status, etc.

Some initiatives geared towards generating digitised and usable geospatial data employ technological tools such as drones19. Started by the Land Alliance, the use of drones is claimed to empower locals by accurately recording the boundaries of their lands. When it comes to conservation efforts, drones are especially attractive options for monitoring and evaluating land governance. However, the use of drones requires immense oversight efforts, resources, and regulatory bodies to respect the privacy, practices, and use of land.

Using technological tools to capture images of land use is especially prominent in efforts to delineate informal settlements. These initiatives cite indicators for goal 11 of the SDGs, relating to safe, resilient, and sustainable cities, to justify the need to monitor informal settlements. In India’s case, local policies recognise some informal settlements and not others. Failure to recognise the varying degrees of informality within urban settlements results in consistency issues associated with national official statistics. One study argues that deploying very high resolution (VHR) remote sensing imagery can provide a consistent image of land use and analyse the morphology and location of informal settlements to predict the emergence of others20. In another study in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, informal settlements were identified via object-based image analysis (OBIA) methods. Identifiable characteristics of informal settlements, according to this method, include: extent of vegetation, road network, and size and density of dwellings.21

Embedded within efforts to open up geospatial data are considerations towards sustainably constructing spaces and conserving land. Consequently, open environmental data can be linked with geospatial data - especially in their potential use and policy influence. The Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change in Malaysia is included in larger open government data initiatives. Currently, this includes Air Pollution Index (API) data and has an option for citizens to request the collection and publication of other environmental datasets22. According to project updates from December 2019 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), there is an increasing understanding use of air pollution data in the health and economic sectors of Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and Thailand. The use of environmental data in managing the spatial aspect of policies is evident in Thailand’s study of the impact of pollution on economic and land policy, , connecting air pollution data to the spread of non-communicable diseases, and using it to manage protecting land from potentially threatening meteorological trends23. Moreover, UNEP has also developed an Environmental Data Explorer - an online database that hosts data on over 500 variables related to environmental statistics regionally, nationally, and globally, largely as geospatial data. This may also be useful in providing a framework or starting point for countries looking to create local or national databases of environmental data (notwithstanding consultation with all communities impacted by environmental and land policy)24. For parliamentarians in particular, it is easy to dismiss further nuance when dat is being connected from a variety of sectors to inform policy - however it is the responsibility of parliamentarians to listen to civil society, see the reality on the ground, and understand the data beyond just the numbers.

While there is an effort towards building sustainable cities, the approach taken by these initiatives (via drones) to surveil and map out the most economically vulnerable and marginalised populations, positions informal settlement dwellers as impediments to development. Beyond mapping these localities, movements towards reform are slim. Even if governments do know how to better geographically distribute resources or predict environmental disasters, this is far from a structural and sustainable solution - especially when considering the autonomy of certain minority communities’ land management practices.

Land governance data

In 2019, the International Land Coalition (ILC) launched the Global Land Governance Index (LANDex), a monitoring tool built to support people-centered land governance25. The tool tracks 33 separate land related indicators of 10 commitments made by member countries in the network. This project was piloted in Senegal, Colombia, and Nepal. In Senegal, LANDex collected data on perceptions of property rights; progress was noted across all indicators and groups except for small-scale farming systems, and the protection of land rights defenders26.

Land Matrix is a similar tool that promotes accountability for large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) in low and middle-income countries. Operating as an independent body, the platform is designed to allow the user to manipulate data formats and filter data searches at global, regional, and national levels in over 85 countries27. The data is transparently sourced, presented, and analysed. In addition to centering people’s voices, especially those that are often left unheard, Land Matrix has assessed the fairness of land grabbing. Land grabbing is LSLAs by private (and a few public) investors and agribusinesses that lease the land for agricultural commodities28. For example, Land Matrix found that the largest land acquisitions are concentrated in countries with weak governance infrastructures29. Similarly, and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) cover the issue of unfair distribution of land30. The former releases daily news reports highlighting the rush to buy and lease farmland, and the latter publishes on land acquisitions and land rights. Additionally, see these guidelines and principles on fair land distribution in the context of food systems and food industries31. The guidelines focus on land tenure governance structures and outline steps build their capacity by drafting and implementing transparent regulations and policies32. The principles highlight the complexity of agricultural investments and their role in securing food security33.

A prominent effort to monitor land data in Asia, as well as other open data, is OpenDevelopmentMekong. The Mekong region consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam - although these countries differ in terms of their political and economic conditions, they share similarities in their physical geography, inter-ethnic relations, and the impact of development approaches on small-scale farmers and food producers34. Unsurprisingly, establishing formal systems of land administration is closely tethered to processes of state formation; moreover, state power is exercised through the distribution of land. In each country, individuals are confined by constitutional and legal limits to land rights. To ensure a just process in the administration and implementation of these laws, OpenDevelopmentMekong indexes the quality of land administration on a country by country basis to foreground citizens’ rights35.

This data hub also examines land classifications, land transfer, public land leases, and land dispute resolution. Within this regional context, it is important to note the widespread phenomenon of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). OpenDataMekong successfully demonstrates the significance of noting and analysing the implications of land use. In the case of SEZs, they spur employment, but do not necessarily empower locals to benefit from the businesses located within these zones36. Monitoring and understanding the nuanced politics of SEZs becomes increasingly complex as stakeholders (and their share of profits or their use of the land) shift dramatically.

We would be remiss to dismiss the role of Indigenous communities in advocating for their sovereignty or data (protection) within existing land governance structures. If Indigenous communities are not recognised within the system, then opening up, documenting, or digitising data is not necessarily the solution to affording Indigenous communities greater visibility in land disputes. Since 1988, Indigenous movements have shaped the work by the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP) who work across Asia to promote solidarity and cooperation for Indigenous people to promote and safeguard their identities, practices, and sustainable resource management systems37. Across 14 countries in Asia, the AIPP aims to establish a place for Indigenous voices and lifestyles in conversations on land governance and ownership to begin with, let alone opening up land data38. One of the global resources created that attempts to present and monitor statistics on the legal security Indigenous and community lands around the world is the LandMark portal. Based on results generated by this portal, Indigenous land data in Asia is limited or non-existent39. The existence of the AIPP and the absence of Indigenous data points to the necessity of interrogating assumptions about whose data is excluded within power asymmetries inherent in certain open data structures and who has the right to autonomy over their own data40. These conversations are only beginning to grain traction in the open data space. In 2016 at the International Open Data Conference (IODC) dedicated a day to the first Indigenous Open Data Summit (held in conjunction with IODC) where the topics of sovereignty, “open-washing,” land rights were raised41.

Academically, an applied data justice framework was recently created to examine the data initiatives vis-a-vis marginalised communities in the urban informal settlements in the Global South in a more nuanced fashion42. The study examines four mapping initiatives: Map Kibera (MK) in Kenya, Our Pune Our Budget (OPOB) in India, Solo Kota Kita (SKK) in Indonesia, and Transparent Chennai (TC) in India. Data (in)justices are outlined as consequences of the projects undertaken by these initiatives. The findings indicate that these datafication initiatives have incremental impact, not transformational. While they may improve living conditions in informal settlements, relative societal inequalities may nevertheless broaden43.

Findings ascertained through a data justice framework give rise to data empowerment advocacy, particularly in the context of land governance and reform. Beyond having the right to be recognised and represented in datasets, data empowerment works to enable individuals to control the use and protection of their data, especially when demanding greater transparency and accountability44. In Indonesia, for example, given government restrictions on accessing land data, communities in West Kalimantan built drones to capture mapping data and prove unlawful impostitions by mining companies on Indigenous land45. Technology alone cannot guarantee that rights will be upheld; however, if data subjects are empowered to become data creators, analysers, and innovators, land governance data initiatives can target themselves towards solving a community-identified problem. In fact, several citizen-generated data initiatives are ongoing in Nepal, including Open Mic which tracks and debunks rumours regarding earthquake affected communities46. These examples demonstrate citizens’ ability to gain access to necessary data and discontinue the spread of disinformation. Several projects have been conducted across the Global South in terms of best practices for conducting open data initiatives with local communities, one such example being the Open Science Manifesto by the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network (OCSDNet)47. This collective works to empower data subjects to analyse and create data-driven solutions by redefining processes of knowledge creation and data use.


A key challenge posed to opening land governance and geospatial data question the rationale of opening land data, as this could lead to further land disputes or infringe on the privacy and history of minority communities48. Additionally, the following challenges are important to keep in mind:

Drawbacks of Geospatial Open Data:

  • Indirect and direct costs of establishing open geospatial practices

    • Challenges in actualising citizen participation and engagement

    • Uneven distribution of initiatives and project implication across geographies (e.g. urban rural divide)

    • Regulating the role of private actors - this requires political will and an adoption of guidelines in line with open data principles49

Drawbacks of Land Governance Open Data:

  • Political, social, economic, and environmental tensions and power asymmetries that manifest in land contestation

    • In this case, it is necessary to consider how projects are being financed and who the individuals responsible for leading the initiative are. The political economy around who controls open data initiatives plays a key role in shaping the objectives and metrics of a project. When it comes to land based data, particularly in the agricultural sector, global data metrics (and government data) can be insufficient - recognising nuances in the accessibility and quality of data enables better data collection and publication50.

  • The difficulty and cost associated with digitising and standardising years of a variety of land ownership documents - whose history is heard and whose is silenced?

  • Moving beyond opening and monitoring land acquisition data - how does land use entrench or disrupt existing structural inequities and how can reform be managed?

The necessity of multi-Stakeholder participation: Given the rise of SDGs, many reports have been published outlining ways in which responsible evidence-based approaches can be used to rectify inequities, particularly in land governance. A report published in 2017 during the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty argues for combining administrative and open source data to monitor land governance; particularly working towards mapping women’s land rights51. The report successfully highlights the various dimensions involved in securing land rights such as complex land tenure histories, land law and institutional reform, womens’ rights, and aligning national statistics with international guidelines. More specifically, this report suggests using monitoring as a tool to proactively act on any land disputes52. While this report offers a practical approach to potential land disputes, gender is disaggregated in a binary fashion, and it assumes that all women have access to this data and can counteract administrative and national data. The requirement for good datasets and multi stakeholder participation deserves attention and questioning before their infrastructures can be mobilised, in the context of this report and beyond.

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