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News & Events Building Back Better: Responding to COVID-19 with Land Information Digitization and Sharing
Building Back Better: Responding to COVID-19 with Land Information Digitization and Sharing
Building Back Better: Responding to COVID-19 with Land Information Digitization and Sharing
Laura Meggiolaro

"Information is power but information sharing is even more powerful." With this statement, during his opening of the side event on blockchain at the LANDac encounter 2020, John Dean Markunas, Power of Chain Consultancy (PoC) cited me. I am now citing him back to explain what I meant.


As provider of information and knowledge services we pay particular attention to the barriers that can influence the way people consume and access information, which can affect transparency and accountability. Over the past 6-10 months we have seen an amazing appetite for information that is accurate, timely and reliable, which has brought information-related issues to the surface.


First,  as reported by colleagues from the Open Government Partnership in a recent webinar, with the closure of not only land, but with the suspension of public administration services, fundamental rights like access to information are also undermined. A particularly heavy burden has been paid by less developed countries with weaker land administration - where all services are predominantly paper based and have to be handled in person,  where a digital environment is not the norm yet, and ICT capacity of public officers is low. In these environments,  there is not an enabling environment for open data.


Second, as reported in the same webinar, the lockdown has forced administration and public offices in general in all countries to operate in a situation of semi informality. Record keeping has become more difficult, and decision making is being done in new ways, through more informal and often quicker meetings.  People are struggling to apply transparency rules, with no minute keeping or participatory mechanisms in place. In a situation where open data is not a standard at all in public administration, this has increased the spacefor all sorts of informal arrangements and practices. This situation is worsened by the fact that oversight bodies are closing up and community level structures involved in land disputes settlement are not operating.


This situation of lack of governance, shrink of civic space and reducing presence of oversight bodies naturally generates a situation of lack of transparency and accountability as well as lack of collaboration, which may open the door to corruption. 


Another interesting aspect is that the crisis has allowed governments all over the world to restrict freedom on the basis of extraordinary circumstances, but also, the level of control has increased. More viciously, as reported in this fantastic webinar from Devex, surveillance technologies and measures have increased a public a sense of security in controlling the spread of the virus. We must remain mindful and vigilant of their continued use after the pandemic.  A substantial amount of data detailing not only each known case of infection but also where the person lives, works and the network of contacts they are connected to ensure public compliance with self-quarantine and isolation have been collected. What has been questionned is whether this amount of data can be used later on for either profit or control.


This information architecture is not a pre- or post- COVID019 thing, say our colleagues in the webinar, but is more an extension of already existing surveillance architecture and infrastructure of information that have been contested before, but now that regulations have become looser, civil rights have become looser because the surveillance of care has taken precedence, there is a new risk of a so called "new data colonialism" that has a lot to do with traditional imbalance of power dynamics where again data is collected for either profit making, or power control and the marginalized majority is the one who will be bitten harder.


A recent survey of 347 risk analysts carried out by The  World Economic Forum on how they rank the likelihood of major risks we may face after the pandemic, on the same vein reports "governmental retention of emergency powers and/or erosion of civil liberties" as one of the societal risks linked to the post pandemic scenario. As well as the increase in inequality and social divisions.


Young democracies are particularly under threat, where the culture of transparency is not yet strongly implanted.  They can face a temptation to go back says our colleagues from the OGP.  Perhaps this is not strictly related to land but is an issue that affects all sectors where access to information, open data transparency and accountability are critical values.


There has been a declining level of trust among stakeholders over the recent months, and we need to get trust back through openness and participation. People need to understand how decisions are being made, but also how people can take informed decisions themselves. What our partner Namati is doing through their paralegals in the rural areas to help people be able to resolve disputes helps in that direction.


There is a strong link between transparency and participation and engagement as part of the response to the crisis, so we need to bring diverse actors into the response process - cooperation is absolutely important and the challenges now is bringing clear messages to the government from different sectors of society. We need to explore opportunities for the nonprofit sector to partner with the government on data-sharing initiatives.


RECONCILE for instance is doing a fantastic job in organizing promoting online and radio talk shows involving the governments and the civil society in discussions with great success and overwhelming participation. In Kenya the establishment of the Land Information Management System (LIMS) has been on the table for some times reports RECONCILE.




Building Back Better




The question we ask ourselves as a data provider and promoter of openness and open data is how can we best empower people with data? What we have seen over the past weeks from other sectors are examples of alternative forms of open information and communication through the Internet and new dynamics of social activism.  


In a recent article - Natalie Chyi from New America's Future of Property Rights program - reported that over the last ten weeks, the creation and use of knowledge commons has exploded.  Accessible repositories of knowledge, usually focused on specific topics, that are collectively owned and governed by a community for mutual gain similar to Wikipedia or GitHub. Grassroots efforts are emerging to collaboratively create tools and information in support of Covid-related disruptions.


New online platforms have been created for specialists like doctors, engineers, and scientists to find and contribute their expertise to ongoing relief projects. A good example that I came across is the Commons Project in Africa which uses data and technology for public good.


During our recent online discussion on the Land Rights Implications of COVID-19, contributors pointed to numerous ways openly shared information can brings positive dynamics. "Digital land documentation put in the public domain would help  ‘Due Diligence’ and an escape frouds during these hard times", said Daniel Manyasi from Kenya. "Community operated digital land information systems can go a long way in protecting land rights thanks to its accessibility, social acceptance and trust and community participation", said another contributor.


What we need to be vigilant about is that data is treated as a public good. What is important is to keep nurturing  is to the right kind of dynamics in the information ecosystem where leadership - freedom of choice, need of agency etc. are guaranteed.  


I would like to see more conversations on how data-sharing and the co-creation of knowledge and information can help us build back better coming out of the pandemic. We are seeing a substantial reduction of funds available to the land sector due to COVID-19, which will probably result in less funding for land administration. This means reduced opportunities for knowledge sharing and capacity building to build a more efficient and open collaborative digital environment.  Digital platforms can promote information in a democratic inclusive way, and create a space where trust and agency are ensured, democratising access to land information and creating an information environment people can trust. At the Land Portal we are certainly worning in that direction!




This blog is a contribution to the LANDac Online Encounter 2020.