Data for Development: Land Ownership and the State of Open Data | Land Portal

Land Ownership and the State of Open Data

This article was first published on the Data for Development website as part of their advance update on the State of Open Data 2nd Edition. 


Key Points

  • The links between the open data and land communities have matured over the last four years alongside a recognition of the centrality of land governance for sustainable development.
  • Benchmarking and measuring open land data is a key area of progress since 2018, but more needs to be done to refine the global benchmarks such as the Global Data Barometer.
  • Open data initiatives need to carefully consider their social, political, and economic objectives due to the different needs and interests of land data producers and users. 


In 2018, the original State of Open Data publication provided an unvarnished review of the first 10 years of open data with a chapter dedicated to the state of open data in land ownership. Recently we asked two experts in the field, Charl-Thom Bayer & Laura Meggiolaro, to update that chapter in support of the 2nd Edition of the State of Open Data. 

Four key trends have influenced the evolution of open land data since the publication of the original edition of the State of Open Data. The first is the growing number of stakeholders and initiatives that focus on land data as a priority. This development is evidenced by how many community organisations, as well as indigenous organisations, increasingly mobilise around land data issues and stake their claims as data custodians.The second trend involves the ongoing developments to measure and benchmark land data, as well as to develop tools to uncover and open up land data at national and global levels for increased transparency. A third trend has seen the emphasis shifting away from the opening up of data for its own sake to understanding how the use, access, and sharing of data can create value and deliver services that promote equity and justice while protecting privacy, land, and human rights. There is increasing evidence on the use and impact of open land data on social and economic development. The fourth and final trend is that open data standards and infrastructures have continued to be developed and improved specifically for the land data sector.


Open Land Data Stakeholders and Initiatives

The global emphasis on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has fuelled efforts to collect and report land data. Reporting on the SDG land indicators has improved since 2018 with 5 of 13 indicators having both an established methodology and regular data collection in September 2022 (up from 3 of 12 in 2018). The remaining 8 indicators are now also established, whereas in 2018 there were 6 indicators with no established methodology[1].

The ripple effects of better reporting on SDG land indicators can be felt across the land sector.  The Property Rights Index (Prindex)[2] provides global data on perceived tenure security in more than a hundred countries, up from the 33 included at its launch in 2016. The International Land Coalition (ILC) continues to track land governance indicators though LANDEX [3], and its strategy for 2022-2030 has a new focus on community-generated land data[4].Cadasta[5] provides digital tools to assist communities in documenting their land rights, while the Land Matrix[6] continues to collect data on land deals. In July 2022, the Land Matrix harboured data on 2553 land deals encompassing more than 97 million hectares.

Despite the fact that not all the collected data can be considered fully open, both the land and open data communities recognize the importance of opening land data. This in turn has led to increased collaboration and more joint attention being paid to the ideas of openness and accessibility. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) states that more than half of their members have made commitments toward opening up land data[7]. The Open Data Institute (ODI) has re-focussed on issues of inclusivity, trust, and the politics of data, as well as making data work for people[8], while LANDEX has an access to information indicator. The International Federation of Surveyors (FIG), a premier organisation for land professionals, devoted a theme to open land data at its 2022 Congress[9].

In 2018, the links between open data and land administration were described as “relatively new"[10] in the State of Open Data publication. The links between open land data and land administration have matured a great deal since then. Leading this development is a coalition of partners: The Land Portal[11], through its Global Data Barometer (GDB),[12] and the Open Data Charter (ODC)[13]. These have been the primary drivers of the open land data movement and have developed an integrated set of resources for measuring, describing, assessing, and supporting the opening up of land data ecosystems from the national to the global scale. 

Recognizing that measuring access to information is critical to opening land data, the Land Portal and ILDA of developed the Land Module,[14] a first of its kind global index on open land data. The Land Module complements the Land Portal’s methodology in the State of Land Information (SOLI) research that assesses open land data at country level. The ODC, which developed the Open Up Field Guides Methodology[15] partnered with the Land Portal to produce the Open Up Guide for Land Governance (OUG)[16]. The OUG is a practical guidebook intended to be used by governments to make land data more open for improved service delivery, citizen engagement, and decision-making. 


Open Land Data for What?

The perspective of land data is changing from being primarily about the cadastre[17],[18] (the official register showing details of ownership, boundaries, and value of property) to increasingly being rooted in land management functions[19] and services within the context of sustainable development. This approach, in which open data is not the goal but rather a service-enabling tool,[20] is also reflected in the research on Open Data Products (ODPs)[21]. Since 2018, the Open Data Charter has moved its strategic focus from an “Open by Default” to a Publishing with a Purpose”[22] paradigm. The paradigm shift was also reflected in the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly high-level event on “Data With a Purpose”[23] held on 22 September 2022. This is a much-needed approach as research suggests that open geospatial data portals are significantly underutilised globally[24] and that public and private organisations that invest in open data do so in order to seem transparent, rather than to create or add value to it[25].  Adding value to open data and focussing on data services is a means to spur innovation and increase the uptake of data, while lowering barriers for a wider audience to access and benefit from the data revolution.


Whose Data?

With the continued focus on, and evolution of, open data in the land sector, old tensions have been renewed and new ones are emerging. Increasingly, the power dynamic of data and the historic power dynamics of land are renewing the emphasis on data privacy, data equity, data ethics, and data sovereignty. The open data movement must reconcile the tensions inherent in these issues with the objective of increasing openness and transparency, but at the same time, making data useful for specific purposes that serve the needs of the most vulnerable. Especially in the Global South, significant open data contributions come from the community and non-governmental initiatives, partly fuelled by issues of gender, equity, justice, and the need to protect rights and resources from predatory and exploitative actors. Indigenous Data Sovereignty speaks not only to these issues but to power relations, both historical and contemporary[26], and challenges the conventional discourse about open land data that wants data open by default[27][28]. Initiatives tracking data on peoples rights include the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, GATC[29] Rights and Resources Initiative[30] and LandMark[31].

The Open Government Partnership and Transparency International have also partnered with ILDA on the Global Data Barometer to create a Political Integrity module[32] to advocate for and promote transparency and accountability, which also includes a focus on land. The desire to achieve the SDGs partly drives the growing pressure [33]to collect and report on land data. However, there are concerns[34]that the use of big data and unprecedented data collection technologies could result in unintended consequences,[35] including inadequate protective measures to ensure privacy, equity, and justice[36].


Use and Impact

Researchers continue to document the importance, use, and impact of open land data and big data in a wide variety of applications and settings[37]. These range from improved land cover and land use mapping outcomes using open data [38], [39], [40], [41] to the development of urban design and transport indicators[42]. Diverse groups of researchers are also using open data from property and rental websites and mobile mapping apps to analyse the land markets,[43]  while researchers,[44] in conjunction with communities, are using OpenStreetMap in order to map informal settlements and feed data into national systems.

In 2019, a systematic review on the takeup of emerging technologies (blockchain, big data analytics, and AI) in the land administration domain revealed that uptake was largely at the level of “proof of concept, demonstrator or pilot"[45] This situation has not changed significantly as demonstrated by the ongoing work on emerging technologies in 2022[46],[47],[48] while only a few cases of the successful adoption of blockchain technology have been identified[49],[50]. Advances in artificial intelligence and remote sensing have seen increasing application of AI methods in land cover change[51] and agricultural production[52]. Despite the potential of open data systems and AI to contribute to socio-economic development, AI systems function best with large amounts of (open) data, which is still a limiting factor in the land sector.These emerging technologies are increasingly having to deal with the longstanding issues of ethics, power, politics, finance, and people in managing land and data.


Data Infrastructure, Standards, and Models

Work continues on the development of data infrastructures, standards, and models to improve semantic interoperability and make land data more discoverable[53],[54],[55].It remains critical to enhance efficiencies in sharing land data and information if we are to improve land governance[56]. Semantic vocabularies to link different sources of land information online are making the land information ecosystem more accessible and democratic. In 2020, LANDVoc[57]became an independent subscheme within AGROVOC[58], the linked open data multilingual thesaurus of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. The Cadastral and Land Administration Thesaurus (CaLAThe)[59] was revised in 2019 and 2021 to serve as a mediating platform to align standards and support data interoperability[60] between several standards, such as the Open Geospatial Consortium’s Land and Infrastructure Conceptual Model Standard (LandInfra)[61] and the Land Administration Domain Model (LADM)[62]. The LADM[63]provides a data model and a standardised global vocabulary for land administration to facilitate the sharing of land administration data. The UN-GGIM published its Global Statistical Geospatial Framework[64] in 2019 to enable “data sharing through interoperability of geospatial and statistical information” and to manage disclosure and privacy risks. 



Reviewing the development over the last five years, changes in open land data collection and use have been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Going forward, there are several key challenges that need to be addressed. First we need to enhance the capacity of local data custodians to manage their data. Continued capacity building on data management, standards, metadata, and semantic vocabularies is needed to provide the enabling environment for open data ecosystems and local data governance to improve. This also means recognizing the diversity of land data needs among the different levels of land governance authority (village, municipal, regional, national, customary, private, and community). A range of policy frameworks will be needed to ensure collaboration in data collection, maintenance, standardisation and updating. They will need to address concerns about privacy, equity, trust, and authoritativeness. Ultimately, improving local capacities, catering for the diverse land data needs, and designing supporting policies will allow marginalised groups to benefit from open data initiatives.

The second major challenge is to build value in open land data initiatives for all stakeholders. This means that the process of opening up data should be built in to land management functions and should create value for governments that are the main land data custodian, but also communities and private sector stakeholders. In addition, value-added government services can be built on top of open land data systems to create long-term data services and revenue that other agencies and actors can benefit from. This can help to improve the sustainability of open data interventions and investments.

Thirdly, while significant progress has been made in terms of creating a better baseline on, and monitoring of, current levels of openness, more remains to be done. Measuring and comprehensively documenting the openness of land data at the country level, as well as contributing to the global baseline on land data openness, is critically needed. 

Finally, it remains the case that open data does not always improve and inform decision making65. The fourth challenge is, therefore, to support the capabilities for complex information analysis and decision-making, especially in developing countries. This will also require the integration of data from multiple sources (public and private sectors) for advanced analysis. While the development of open data initiatives may drive innovation, they will require social and political will, as well as trust between government and society. Citizens are not always confident that their interests are being protected, and the concerns about a lack of transparency in the land sector further fuels these feelings.

The Authors

Charl-Thom Bayer is a specialist in land governance, land administration and spatial information systems. He is responsible for land information management and advocacy at the Land Portal and is passionate about open data, knowledge diffusion and land administration. Prior to joining Land Portal, he worked as a surveyor, consultant and was Head of Department for Land and Property Science at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. 

Laura Meggiolaro has led the Land Portal Foundation team for the last 12 years and has contributed to the evolution of the Land Portal from a UN project into a dynamic and agile independent organisation with a growing international team of experts that operates 100% digitally. Before joining the Land Portal Foundation, Laura was responsible for launching, coordinating, and implementing a number of data, information, and knowledge management initiatives focused on land rights.

End Notes

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[17] Davies, T., and Chattapadhya, S. 2019. “Land Ownership.” In The State of Open Data: Histories and Horizons, by T Davies, S Walker, M Rubenstein and F Perini. Cape Town/Ottawa: African Minds/IDRC.

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[22] Open Data Charter 2018. Publishing with A Purpose.

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[42] Boeing, G., Higgs, C., Liu, S., Biles-Corti, B., Sallis, J., Cerin, E., Lowe, M., et al. 2022. “Using open data and open-source software to develop spatial indicators of urban design and transport features for achieving healthy and sustainable cities.” The Lancet Global Health (Elsevier) 10 (6): 907-918. Accessed July 2022

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[44] Mabakeng, M., J. Kohima, P Ricard, and L. Alexander. 2022. “The Emergence of Namibia OpenStreetMap Community, Supporting GIS Data Generation for Informal Settlements.” FIG Congress 2022. Warsaw: FIG.

[45]Bennet, R., Pickering, M. and Sargeant J. 2019. “Transformations, transitions, or tall tales? A global review of the uptake and impact of NoSQL, blockchain, and big data analytics on the land administration sector.” Land Use Policy. (Elsevier) 83: 435-448. Accessed July 2022.

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[49] Proskurovska, A. (2022). Linking local housing and global finance: the state, land administration infrastructure and blockchain. Abstract from 2022 American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, New York.

[50] Bennett, Rohan, Todd Miller, Mark Pickering, and Al-Karim Kara. 2021. "Hybrid Approaches for Smart Contracts in Land Administration: Lessons from Three Blockchain Proofs-of-Concept" Land 10, no. 2: 220.

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[52] Jung, J., Maeda, M., Chang, A., Bandari, M., Ashapure, A., & Landivar-Bowles, J. (2021). The potential of remote sensing and artificial intelligence as tools to improve the resilience of agriculture production systems. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 70, 15-22. 

[53] Cagdas, V., Meggiolaro, L., & Stubkaer, E. (2021). Semantic Resources for the Geospatial Domain. FIG e-Working Week 2021: Smart Surveyors for Land and Water Management - Challenges in a New Reality. Netherlands: FIG.


[54] Mey, L., & Meggiolaro, L. (2020). Land Governance Lost in Translation - Exploring Semantic Technologies to Increase Discoverability of New Technologies and Data. FIG Working Week 2020: Smart Surveyors for Land and Water. Amsterdam: FIG.

[55] Kara, A., A. Rowland, P. van Oosterom, E. Stubkjaer, V. Cagdas, E. Folmer, C. Lemmen, W. Quak, and L. Meggiolaro. 2022. “Formalisation of code lists and their values – The case of ISO 19152 Land Administration Domain Model.” 10th Land Administration Domain Model Workshop. Dubrovnik: FIG.

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[62] ISO 2022. ISO 19152:2012 Geographic information — Land Administration Domain Model (LADM). Accessed September 2022.

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[64] UN-GGIM. 2019. The Global Statistical Geospatial Framework. Statistics Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York: United Nations.

[65]Bayer, C-T. 2022. “Land Data for the Public Good.” The Global Data Barometer. June. Accessed July 2022.

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