Crowdsourced land rights

Crowdsourcing can improve land tenure security in poor communities

Robin McLaren
Georges Thierry Handja

Crowdsourcing initiatives can encourage and support citizens to directly capture and maintain information about land rights. A database of crowdsourced land rights can improve security of tenure for the poorest.

Indigenous communities in the rainforest of Africa's Congo Basin have no legal rights to the land that they and their ancestors have been using for centuries. And with logging, mining, industrial plantation and conservation activities spreading fast in the area, there is a growing urgency to map their hunting and gathering areas and preserve their livelihoods.

Half a million people in the basin are hunter–gatherers, whose lives depend on the biodiversity of the rainforest, according to the Rainforest Foundation UK. The organization has come up with an extraordinary solution: community mapping with GPS technology on cell phones. The forest communities map the land they use for hunting and gathering to record how the land is used and what the rate of dependency on the land is in order to help preserve their access to the forest.

Over the last 10 years, the foundation’s participatory mapping programme has demonstrated that forest communities are capable of accurately defining the lands they occupy and use with the help of geo-technologies in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo. It has so far trained over 200 mapping facilitators and 40 GIS technicians from civil society and government in participatory approaches, not to mention over 1,000 local community mappers. To date these have supported over 300 forest communities to produce fully geo-referenced maps of their lands and resources, covering over two million hectares of forest.

Spatial knowledge

GPS and associated technologies help communities express and integrate this knowledge in the context of other data sets such as the presence of logging concessions or mining permits.

This is all about the empowerment of local communities and the promotion of dialogue and communication among different actors. Community ownership and involvement in the mapping process also means that communities learn about their rights and how to defend them. ‘Crowdsourced maps,’ says Georges Thierry Handja, mapping coordinator of the London-based foundation, ‘are particularly effective when used in conjunction with national laws or international agreements and treaties that protect the rights of communities in forest areas. This is why we have set up a legal capacity-building project to support the outcomes of the mapping work.’

The maps produced can be used in dialogue with state agencies and other relevant actors to facilitate better planning and decision making, and to support legal actions to secure land rights. This has proven to work already in the Central African Republic, where the maps have been used to secure the provisional suspension of a proposed national park management plan that had not been subjected to adequate consultation with local communities and did not take their rights sufficiently into account. The maps are also useful for reconciliation and negotiation in conflicts between forest communities and forest resource extractors. In some cases, they have been used to help revoke the licence of a company that breached the social and environmental clauses of an agreement.

Ownership and control

The Rainforest Foundation UK recently launched a new website,, which aims to provide easy access to accurate geographical information about the presence, land use and rights of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities in the Congo Basin. ‘Through the Mapping for Rights initiative,’ explains Handja, ‘we intend to significantly scale up our mapping work in the coming years. This can provide a basis for real-time monitoring of lands under the ownership or control of forest communities.’

And much more is possible if crowdsourcing is fully embraced, says Robin McLaren, director of Know Edge, an international ICT consultancy based in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. Only 1.5 billion of the estimated 6 billion land parcels worldwide have land rights formally registered in land administration systems. So McLaren came up with a solution that he describes in his groundbreaking research report for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). Crowdsourcing, according to McLaren, can improve land tenure security in poor communities. It can also establish a new partnership between land professionals and citizens that would encourage and support citizens to directly capture and maintain information about their land rights through ICTs.

Continuum of rights

The mobile phone, in particular, allows citizens to directly record the boundaries of their land. This can be achieved in several ways: by marking up paper maps digitally photographed with the phone; a textual description of the boundaries recorded on the phone; a verbal description recorded on the phone; geo-tagged digital photographs of the land parcel recorded on the phone; video and commentary recorded on the phone (this could include contributions from neighbours as a form of verification); the positions of the boundary points identified and recorded on imagery, using products such as Google Maps and Bing, for example; or the coordinates of the boundary points recorded directly using the phone’s GNSS capability.

‘The results of this crowdsourced or self-service information,’ says McLaren, ‘could then be submitted electronically to either the land registration and cadastral authority or open data initiative for registration.’ Although the quality and authenticity of the ownership rights information have limitations, it could establish a starting point for the continuum of rights being proposed by UN-HABITAT. This starting point may well be ‘fit-for-purpose’.

There are some technological concerns about using ICTs in remote rural areas in developing countries, however. 2G mobile phones are the default service in rural areas in the developing world, with limited data transmission and access to internet. However, 3G services are expanding. ‘Although 2G coverage does impose limitations on functionality and the ability to transmit data efficiently,’ says McLaren, ‘there are novel solutions being developed to counter these deficiencies.’ He gives an example. LUTRA Consulting is developing a solution for forest communities in cooperation with the Rainforest Foundation UK, which uses a smart phone that can collect data without mobile internet coverage. Once the phone has 2G coverage, bursts of SMS messages are used to transmit low-volume data. When the phone has Wi-Fi or 3G coverage, then high-volume data is transmitted.

Open resource communities

Open resource toolkits should support crowdsourcing initiatives for land administration systems. Examples include the Open Data Kit from the University of Washington and from Imperial College London. Both support complex forms that allow the capture of attribute data and provide work-flow management to guide users through the capture process. ‘These toolkits,’ says McLaren, ‘are more suited to the capture of land rights information when compared to tools provided by OpenStreetMap and Google Map Maker, for example, which just focus on volunteered geographic information.’

McLaren is currently discussing the possibility of piloting crowdsourcing in land administration with the World Bank, UN-FAO, RICS and the Department for International Development (DFID) in the United Kingdom. Agreement on a pilot programme, including up to three sites in Africa, will most likely be achieved by the end of 2012. Pilots would then be initiated in 2013 and last for around 18 months. Key objectives of the piloting will be: to test the participatory or crowdsourced approach's ability to capture land rights information and to understand citizens’ and communities’ reaction; and to identify the most appropriate technology platforms and to specify areas for downstream improvements. ‘The big challenge will involve ergonomics and designing a suitable solution for the “pro-amateur” or citizen,’ McLaren says. ‘However, the use of mobile phones as the technology platform should help support this requirement.’

Crowdsourced land registration systems can be a cheap solution, according to McLaren, if the crowdsourcing initiatives follow the open source and open standards approach and are successful in building open source communities, like the UN-FAO’s Solutions for Open Land Administration (SOLA) Software Project. Only then will the cost of technology implementation for countries be low, compared to today’s equivalent proprietary solutions. The major technology costs will be in adapting to the local culture, the type of tenure and the adopted technology. However, the major savings will be in the capture and maintenance of land rights information. ‘It is estimated that the land rights capture costs per parcel in rural areas could come down to below US$3  per parcel,’ McLaren says.

Trusted intermediaries

Crowdsourcing initiatives open up opportunities for land professionals to develop Land Administration Systems apps and train members of communities to become trusted intermediaries in capturing and maintaining land rights information. ‘These newly skilled trusted intermediaries, or leaders, can become entrepreneurs within their communities and network with other communities,’ McLaren explains.

But what are the key threats that could potentially stop the crowdsourcing initiative from being successful? The land administration agencies, the surveying profession and land investors benefiting from the current chaos are the principal defenders of the status quo,’ says McLaren. ‘The crowdsourcing initiative will have to ensure that they are not the gatekeepers.’ The crowdsourcing process should therefore rely on robust partnerships with groups and organisations that are permanently active in the community.

The initiative will only work if land administration authorities ensure that verified crowdsourced land rights information can be transitioned through an agreed process and be formalised as registered rights. If land registration authorities refuse to cooperate, then there is always the possibility of local organisations starting a shadow property register. ‘Worldwide open access to a register of crowdsourced land rights will provide some level of security of tenure to communities that have been ignored by their corrupt governments in securing their land rights,’ says McLaren. And the Rainforest Foundation UK’s participatory mapping initiative in the Congo Basin already shows that it can work.


Robin McLaren is an independent management consultant and founding-member of Know Edge. He is an expert in land information management systems through his work with aid agencies implementing national land registration and cadastral systems and national land policies worldwide.

Georges Thierry Handja is mapping coordinator at the Rainforest Foundation UK. He is responsible for the Mapping and Forest Governance Programme’s community mapping and mapping for rights projects.


Related Links:

RICS report Crowdsourcing Support of Land Administration (November 2011)

Article in Geospatial World magazine (July 2012)

CNN news article about participatory mapping in the Congo Basin


Crowdsourced information on international land acquisition

The Land Matrix was established as a crowdsourcing system to monitor land acquisitions larger than 200 hectares by foreign investors. It includes land used for agriculture, livestock, forestry for wood or fibre production, mineral extraction, including petroleum – essentially all rural land. The database has registered nearly 1,000 land deals. There are approximately 1,300 additional land deals that are in the process of being verified so they can become part of the database. Since the launch of the Land Matrix at the end of April 2012, users of the platform can report a deal by sending an email, but the International Land Coalition is now in the process of allowing users to submit all of the relevant details in the database. This Land Matrix Editor tool will facilitate the collection of crowdsourced data and empower researchers in partner organisations around the world to help them manage, verify and organise the crowdsourced information. The bigger the data set becomes, the more powerful the Land Matrix will be in monitoring land acquisition trends. Once it becomes a truly crowdsourcing initiative, it may well have a serious impact on certain deals and may encourage companies to be more responsible and allow more open investment. It will serve as a tool for advocating better land governance by countries, especially in the context of the FAO's Voluntary Guidelines on the tenure of land, forests and fisheries. Neil Sorensen of the International Land Coalition explains more about the project.

What ICTs are being used to collect and make the maps and statistics?

We believe in the principles of open knowledge – the Land Matrix platform is built using standard, open source technology. The platform leverages the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) for the back-end server and database management. All the visualisations, maps and infographics are created dynamically, based on the most recent data; we used JavaScript libraries such as jQuery and Raphaël for vector-based real-time drawing of graphs and charts.

What is the initiative’s impact so far?

The maps and information provide real-time and dynamic visualisations of information that can be used by journalists or other stakeholders for any purpose they see fit. The Land Matrix presents the facts without taking a political position. It is up to those who view and use the information for advocacy, journalism or other purposes. So far, the Land Matrix has been widely covered in the mainstream media. It is hard to gauge whether or not there are political changes as a result, but certainly companies may think twice about the process they engage in when negotiating land deals with governments or other landholders as a result of this interface. A pilot project aims to help make the Land Matrix a site where companies willingly provide information on their investments. We are currently exploring the feasibility of the Land Matrix playing this role, and are encouraging companies listed in the Land Matrix to write comments or provide information.

How powerful is the tool against the big money of logging firms, mining companies, the palm oil industry and the tourism sector?

The bigger the data set becomes, the more powerful the Land Matrix will be in monitoring land acquisition trends. Once it becomes a truly crowdsourcing initiative, it may well have a serious impact on certain deals and may encourage companies to be more responsible and allow more open investment. It will most certainly serve as a tool for advocating better land governance by countries, especially in the context of the FAO's Voluntary Guidelines on the tenure of land, forests and fisheries, in so far as the Land Matrix will make evident where and under what circumstances large-scale land acquisition is transpiring. In the future, it could help ensure that local communities are involved in the process and accrue benefits when land transactions do take place.

What are the plans for the coming years?

We are working on a Land Observatory, what is essentially the Land Matrix 2.0. The Land Observatory will make information on large-scale land acquisition transparent and accessible through an interactive, map-based platform. We are piloting the project in five countries, with partners and governments who will work to open up government data, crowdsource and help customise local observatories. Updated information on land will benefit citizens, but also governments and companies interested in sustainability. The pilot countries are Cambodia, Laos, Madagascar, Peru and Tanzania. So far the projects show enormous potential to deepen our understanding of land use and concessions in the context of land acquisitions. Working together with Open Development Cambodia, the efforts are providing far more detailed information on land deals on the ground than previously, including mapping information, which can be used by local communities and to inform decision-making processes.

Do you think differently now about crowdsourcing than when the project started?

As the Land Matrix project progressed, and new data became increasingly difficult to collect and verify, it became clear to us that crowdsourcing is the only sustainable way forward. We develop tools that facilitate the process of data collection, verify the information and collect feedback from the community. Our main difficulty is related to on-the-ground information – our tools are web-based, but often the information we need comes from areas where internet is a luxury.

26 November 2012

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