Community Cadastres: Open Tech for Land Tenure

When I first heard about the EthicalGEO initiative, I thought of the vast range of challenges that exist within the spheres of ethics and geography. As someone who has studied international politics the last 15 years, I thought about this from a global perspective. What stood out to me as being one of the most pressing issues was the fact that across the developing world nearly a billion people live without legal title to their land.

Land rights are essential to the well-being of people, and those who lack secure rights are at a severe disadvantage. Put simply, property rights lead directly to poverty reduction. British development economist, Paul Collier, has emphasized that land rights are necessary for two reasons. First, land rights must be clear in order for people to be willing to invest money in that land. And second, without clear land rights, it is very difficult to effectively buy and sell land, meaning its use cannot change. Cities are the vital engines of economic development for countries, so screwing this up can lead to national disaster. 

OpenMap Development Team Training using Dual-Frequency GNSS, Dar es Salaam

So how to address this enormous and complex issue? Community cadastres. Though this project is not the first to coin the term, I do think our approach to it is unique. Let me begin with a simple definition: community cadastres are registers of the ownership and extent of property, generated by communities themselves. It is a combination of community mapping, with the official system of defining the dimensions and location of land parcels. The second word comes to English through French from Greek, which means  ‘organized line by line’. 

This is not to suggest that there is one way to go about this process, or even that provision of title deeds is the only solution for insecurity of land tenure. What we do claim, is that we have found a viable, low-cost, highly-accurate, solution for mapping properties. 

Our approach is to use open source geospatial technology and work together with communities to map out their plots. The innovation is twofold—on the one hand we are using the latest dual band RTK GNSS tech (which is orders of magnitude cheaper than traditional equipment), and on the other hand, we are encouraging whole communities to come together at once, reducing the time and cost of surveying. The fact that it is an open source project also means that there is improved collaboration, which in turn leads to both innovation and sustainability because other communities around the world can easily access the same tools and processes.

To understand why this technology can have such an impact, I would point to New America, a think tank that has developed a Future of Property Rights Program, where they explain in clear terms how dual-frequency satellite receivers will democratize land surveying. For the community mapping side, I would point towards two organizations—Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and OpenMap Development Tanzania. But for the story of our pilot project in Dar es Salaam, read on.

Community Meeting in Makangira Sub-Ward, Dar es Salaam

The first step was to engage the community, as you can see in the photograph above. We joined a community meeting, to explain the plan to residents, and ensure they were interested in the project. As I’ve written previously, collecting data is almost never a neutral exercise, and it is important to incorporate an ethical framework in any such project. Second, we educated ourselves on how the technology worked, doing a deep dive with two of our local experts (Iddy Chazua and Digna Mushi) on how Global Navigation Satellite Systems operate. The third step involved extensive testing of the equipment. This brought our Tanzanian team to several different locations across Dar es Salaam, and each experience resolved a different technical barrier. 

The final stage of the journey was to map a community using our equipment and methods, in an area with cadastral data from a professional surveyor using their expensive devices. After much community engagement, training, testing, and in the midst of a pandemic, we have finally completed this pilot survey of approximately 20 plots. The output looks thoroughly convincing, and we believe we may have solved one critical piece of the much larger puzzle of providing land rights for all. 

As our pilot project concludes, we will be sharing a final report and map with all of the details, and in the spirit of open source projects we want to make all of this information accessible, and reproducible by anyone who is interested. For now though, I would like to leave you with a video demonstrating not only the power of these tools, but just how fun they can be to use.

YouTube Video of GNSS Satellite Drawing by OMDTZ.

Mr. Evans, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a Project Manager for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team. Mr. Evans plans to use the resources from the fellowship to carry out a pilot project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania using a dual frequency GPS sensor to create highly accurate surveys in an informal settlement. This will empower a local community in Tanzania, but also could be a pathway for people around the world without legal titles to their land. At the same time, he hopes to spark the conversation about the ethical issues involved in using geospatial technology, with a specific focus on land administration. Three issues he hopes to explore are how land rights can protect citizens against expulsion, how they can give residents the ability to access credit, and how this connects with governance as it can be a primary means of taxation.