Opportunities and Limitations: New Data Sources and Tech in the Fight Against Corruption | Land Portal

Increasingly, governments and citizens in developing countries as well as development agencies are using information technology to improve governance, shape government-citizen relations, and reduce corruption. Despite this, we continue to be at the first phases of understanding how to best use these new data sources in anti-corruption work, as well as appreciating the challenges and limitations inherent in them.  

A lack of transparency in the land and property sector in particular can have devastating effects on national economies, worsens inequality and is a major impediment to achieving sustainable development.  In fact, land governance is ranked among the sectors in which people are most likely to pay bribes for access to services, according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, with 20 percent of land service users worldwide admitting that they have paid a bribe in order to register their property or verify land ownership information. 

New and emerging technologies have the potential to greatly increase transparency by simplifying the process of mapping, recording, and defending property rights at scale, by preventing fraud and records tampering, and by resting control over property rights in the hands of the rights holders themselves - provided the technologies are employed based on open systems that subscribe to open data principles. While technology alone is insufficient to solve pernicious property rights challenges, it can be harnessed by policymakers, lawyers, surveyors, families, and communities to help deliver structural reforms, and thus contribute to stemming corruption. 

On July 25th, the Land Portal, along with New America and ESRI hosted a webinar entitled “Tech and Transparency: Democratizing data and empowering communities with cutting edge technologies”.  Through a series of recent interviews with the webinars’ panelists, we delved into some important and thought-provoking questions.  Some of these focused on how tech can serve us in combatting the prevalent corruption which the land sector experiences.  Other questions were slightly more nuanced, looking at the potential limitations of these technologies and how to ensure their responsible use.  

Here are three reasons why tech matters in the fight against land corruption, and the associated risks: 

#1) Technology can be an equalizer and potential leveler, but only if communities are involved.  

Newer technologies are being embraced by communities across the world and the rapid adoption of smart phones and drones across the developing world in particular are just a few examples. In the case of Odisha, India, the state government had passed a law through which they intended to give land titles to close to 200,000 informal settlement dwellers across the state.  One of the important precursors to this was mapping these households.  Drones were therefore used to map communities across the state.  According to Shreya Deb, of the Omidyar Network India, the advantage of using drones was that the entire community was able to be involved. The accuracy of the imagery allowed community members to recognize their own homes and better delineate community boundaries.  This allowed consensus to be reached more quickly and efficiently! 

What this means is that land administration and the act of improving tenure security is no longer only the domain of the government and of professional classes like surveyors.  This allows communities to represent themselves and specifically, with more affordable and accessible technologies such as mobile devices, allows them to take matters into their own hands.  These widely available tools can help them map their own land and property, document it and defend it.  This process can only be a true leveler, however, if communities are informed of the objectives, processes and use of the data collected. It is essential that they participate in the data collection efforts themselves.  

To learn more about this and more, watch our recent interview with Shreya Deb of the Omidyar Network India. 


#2) Technology can help to restore trust in institutions, but only if decision-makers are well prepared to understand the technology in question.  

Blockchain is a distributed database existing on multiple computers at the same time, where anyone with an internet connection can transfer currency data and other valuable information.  What makes blockchain particular is that isn’t managed by any single entity, but everyone connected to the network gets a copy of the entire database.  The fact that each block added is preserved and that new blocks are added without means of being reversed, means that falsifying or forging information is almost impossible. According to Nir Kshetri, Professor of Management at the University of North Carolina technologies like blockchain have incredible potential: “these technologies have the potential to fight root causes of poverty – including by securely recording property ownership.”[1]

For a blockchain-based project to succeed, however, all stakeholders must be educated about blockchain technology and the challenges it can address. Education and public engagement are as crucial as the technical side of the work.  People and the government need to know why they are using this technology and what problems it can solve. Decision-makers around the world are eager to explore the potential of blockchain, but often fail to completely understand the technology. 

Another major drawback of using blockchain technology to manage land transactions are infrastructural. Implementing blockchain for land registries requires digitized records and widespread internet connectivity. Maintenance of and access to physical maps is often challenging; digitizing, geo-referencing, and harmonizing maps in remote corners of the world, where maps even exist, would be a colossal task. 

To learn more about this, watch our recent interview with Yuliya Panfil of New America’s Future of Property Rights Programme.

3)Technology can provide the enabling conditions for increased tenure security, but only if these technologies are cost effective.  

Due to the limited number of land surveyors in most countries and the use of outdated regulated surveying and registration procedures, registering land can be a long and cumbersome process.  Despite this, how can land be registered at scale?  The answer, it seems, lies in technology and can be exemplified by the following.  In several villages in Tanzania, the government and USAID have been piloting the use of the Mobile Application to Secure Tenure (MAST), one of several (open-source) applications available on the market.  MAST is a suite of innovative technology tools and inclusive methods that uses mobile devices and a participatory approach to efficiently, transparently, and affordably map and document land and resource rights.

Using mobile solutions is not only participatory, but it is also cheap and fast.  Analysis shows that MAST has brought down the costs for issuing a Customary Certificate of Right of Occupancy (CCROs), the legal certificate of securing tenure for customary land in rural Tanzania, to less than $10.  While these costs exclude satellite imagery and technical assistance, they are still an indicator of how cheap mass registration can get. It has been proven that simple, cost effective technologies have increased transparency in land governance systems, reduced the costs of producing CCROs and have streamlined the process of issuance of CCROs at scale.

Of course, technology is not the silver bullet for securing land tenure. It is very important to raise awareness of landholders on the processes and benefits of participation in the process and registration. 

To learn more about this, watch our recent interview with Mustapha Issa, of Feed the Future/ USAID Tanzania Land Tenure Assistance (LTA).

In the lead up to the Conference on Land Policy in Africa 2019, which will focus specifically on

“Winning the fight against Corruption in the Land Sector: Sustainable Pathway for Africa’s

Transformation” the Land Portal will be focusing a portion of its activities on this land and

corruption. A sound understanding of the suite of technologies mentioned above, their cost

effectiveness, as well as community involvement in their application will be essential in the fight against corruption in this sector.

1 https://theconversation.com/blockchain-based-property-registries-may-hel...

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