Crowdsourcing and land administration

Jun 2012 | No Comment

The closing of the ‘security of tenure gap’ experienced by the poor and vulnerable in the developing world is of critical importance to future global economic progress

Robin McLaren

Know Edge Ltd

Only 1.5bn of the estimated 6bn land parcels worldwide have land rights formally registered in land administration systems. Many of the 1.1bn slum dwellers and further billions living under social tenure systems wake up every morning to the threat of eviction. These people are the poor and most vulnerable and are excluded any form of security of tenure; they are trapped in poverty. Increasing global population and the rush to urbanisation is only going to turn this gap into a chasm.

This groundbreaking research project from Know Edge Ltd, an independent ICT and Land Policy consultancy, with support from RICS explores one possible solution to the tenure gap: establishing partnerships between land professionals and citizens that encourage and support citizens to capture directly and maintain information about their land rights. The research presents a vision of how this might be implemented and investigates how the risks associated with this collaborative approach could be managed.

Land administration systems

Land administration systems (LAS) provide the formal governance structures within a nation that define and protect rights in land, including non-formal or customary institutions. Their benefits range from guarantee of ownership and security of tenure, through support for environmental monitoring, to improved urban planning, infrastructure development and property tax collection. Successful land markets depend on them.

The security of tenure gap cannot be quickly filled using the current model for registering properties through land professionals. There are simply not enough land professionals worldwide, even with access to new technologies. To quickly reduce this inequality, we need new, innovative and scalable approaches to the problem. This is one of our fundamental global challenges.

This research paper explores ‘crowdsourcing’ as a means of extending registers of property rights. Crowdsourcing uses the internet and online tools to obtain information from citizen volunteers. It is currently used to support scientific evidence-gathering and to record events in disaster management, as witnessed in the recent Haiti and Libya crises, for example.

A key challenge of this innovative approach is how to ensure authenticity of the crowdsourced land rights information. The research paper explores applicability of the approaches adopted by wikis, e-commerce and other mobile information services and recommends the use, initially, of trusted intermediaries within communities, who have been trained and have worked with local land professionals.

Limitations of existing LAS

Despite the clear link between effective LAS and efficient land markets, a number of factors limit the scope for implementation:

• Costs are significant and national solutions can take from five to more than 20 years to implement.
• Overly complex procedures lead to high service-delivery costs and end-user charges, which exclude the poor and the vulnerable.
• Lack of a supporting land policy framework ensures that the LAS do not deliver against the main drivers of land tenure: land markets and socially desirable land use.
• Insufficient support for social and customary tenure systems excludes large sections of the population.
• Lack of transparency encourages corruption in the land sector and discourages participation.
• Communication channels to customers are either office or internet-based and lead to geographic discrimination or exclusion through the ‘digital divide’.
• A mortgage requires a bank account and a credit rating, both out of reach of the poor and those remote from financial services.
• Cadastral surveys using professional surveyors are normally mandatory and subject to high fees.
It is estimated that there are around 6bn land parcels or ownership units worldwide, but only 1.5bn are formally registered and have security of tenure. Within many of the 4.5bn unregistered parcels, 1.1bn people live in the squalor of slums. With urbanisation predicted to increase from the current 50% to 60% in 2030 and a further 1bn likely to be added to the world’s population over the same period, the security of tenure gap will become a chasm. This will be impossible to address in the foreseeable future within the available land administration capacity.
The lack of effective, affordable and scalable LAS solutions conspires to limit access to land administration services by large sections of society, especially the most vulnerable, leaving them trapped in poverty. There is a pressing need to radically rethink LAS: simplify procedures, reduce the cost of transactions and open new channels for participation. Crowdsourcing through mobile phones, for example, offers the opportunity for land professionals to form a partnership with citizens to create a far-reaching new collaborative model and generate a set of LAS services that will reach the world’s poor.

The increasingly pervasive mobile phone

Although citizens can provide their crowdsourced data through a number of traditional channels, including paper, mobile phones are proving to be the device of choice. Mobile phones have made a bigger difference to the lives of more people, more quickly, than any previous communications technology. They have spread faster and proved easier and cheaper to adopt. In the 10 years before 2009, mobile phone penetration rose from 12% of the global population to nearly 76%. It is estimated that around 5bn people have mobile phones already and 6bn will have them in 2013.

Recently, the fastest growth has been in developing countries, which had 73% of the world’s mobile phones in 2010, according to estimates from the International Telecommunications Union ( ITU-D/ict/statistics/). In 1998, there were fewer than 4m mobiles on the African continent. Today, there are more than 500m. In Uganda alone, 10m people, or about 30 percent of the population, own a mobile phone, and that number is growing rapidly every year. For Ugandans, these ubiquitous devices are more than just a handy way of communicating; they are a way of life (Fox, 2011). Not all phones in the developing world are in individual use; some are a communal asset of the household or village. Due to their high ownership levels and widespread geographic coverage, especially in developing countries, mobile phones are an excellent channel for obtaining crowdsourced land administration information. But are they affordable and do they have the necessary functionality?

The rise of smart phones and tablets

Telecommunications has developed exponentially. Phones have changed and there is a big shift from holding a phone to your ear to holding it in your hand. Smartphones are able to browse the web, send and receive emails, and run applications, as well as storing contacts and calendars, sending text messages and (occasionally) making phone calls. Although smart phones may cost around US$600 (£379) today, the volume of sales and frugal innovation will drive the cost down to an estimated US$75 in 2015. A US$100 smartphone has already arrived on the streets of Nairobi. Before the end of the decade, every phone sold will be what we’d now call a smartphone and cost US$25.

Vision of a crowdsourced LAS

This increase in mobile phone functionality, its migration to lowercost devices through frugal innovation and the phenomenal market penetration of mobile technology in developing countries have opened up the prospect of it being used to deliver more effective and accessible land administration services. The possibilities are explored below.
1. Accessing customer information services. Already, a whole new generation of innovative information services, in fields such as agriculture and health, are being provided to users of mobile phones in developing countries.
2. Recording land rights. The mobile phone will allow citizens to record the boundaries of their land rights. This can be achieved in several ways:
• marked-up paper maps photographed digitally by phone • a textual description of the boundaries recorded on the phone
• a verbal description recorded on the phone
• geotagged digital photographs of the land parcel recorded on the phone
• a video and commentary recorded on the phone
• the positions of the boundary points identified and recorded on imagery-using products – for example Google Maps and Bing
• the co-ordinates of the boundary points recorded directly using the GNSS capability of the phone.
In all cases, the authenticity of the captured information would be enhanced by passive recording of the network timestamp at the time of capture. This information is not something that most (99.999%) of users can tamper with. The results of this crowdsourced or self-service information could then be submitted electronically to either the land registration and cadastral authority or an open data initiative for registration. Although there will be limitations in terms of the quality and authenticity of the ownership rights information provided, it could form the starting point in the continuum of rights being proposed by UN-HABITAT. This recognises that rights to land and resources can have many different forms and levels.
When the captured land rights are submitted to the property register (or shadow register), a variety of quality checks can be applied to the submitted information, including random checks in the field, comparisons with other applications submitted from the same area, checks on ownership of the mobile phone, checks on the location of its owner through the log showing that the phone is frequently used within that location, network timestamping of captured information, and contacts with clients and their neighbours by mobile phone to ask for clarification.
3. Obtaining title. Fees for submission of applications for registration of title could be paid through mobile banking and encrypted forms of land title could be incorporated into clients’ mobile phones with biometrics to provide proof of ownership.
4. Accessing land information. The next development stage is to make LAS outward-facing and accessible by customers, either by extranet or internet on mobile phones.
5. Paying mortgage instalments. Secure payment of land administration fees could be done through mobile banking, and a simplified process would create the potential for wider property ownership.

Implications of the new citizen collaboration model

The introduction of this new LAS model might be perceived as radical by most land professionals working in the land administration sector and as a serious threat by some. The attitude of land professionals to this new model will determine how land administration is shaped in the future. Here are two possible scenarios:

A ‘shadow’ property register

In countries where land professionals reject citizen collaboration, but there is little citizen trust in poorly performing or corrupt land administration services provided by the government, an alternative property register could be created through crowdsourcing; similar to the OpenStreetMap crowdsourced model. Ultimately, it might either replace the government land administration service, reinforcing the informal land market, or be adopted by government once it has reached a critical mass and quality that land professionals accept.

A supplement to the formal property register

In other countries, the new model might be embraced as a new opportunity to accelerate the number of properties being registered across the country and to support a much more inclusive solution to land administration. This would involve a change in the role of land professionals, working with citizens rather than for citizens.

Managing the risks

As with all radical changes to longstanding systems, there are some risks.

Can crowdsourced information be authenticated?

One of the most contentious issues surrounding crowdsourced information is the authenticity or validity of the information provided. So what techniques can be used to quality-assure the authenticity of the information to a level that would be acceptable for inclusion in a property register?

Community knowledge workers as intermediaries

This approach would avoid open, direct crowdsourcing, initially, and accept information only from trusted intermediaries within communities who had worked with local land professionals. Over time, quality assurance sampling would significantly decrease and the intermediaries could help establish a network of ‘experts’ across communities.

Community-based quality assurance

Quality assurance could be provided by community members who would take direct responsibility for authenticity. The crowdsourced land right claims could be posted for communities to review and comment on. Some form of local or regional land tribunal could be established to arbitrate on conflicting claims. The local public display of the results combined with the witness function of the local land committee and the citizens will provide societal evidence of land rights.

Wiki and e-commerce solutions

A centralised user reputation system similar to buyers rating sellers on eBay could be used to assess the credibility of contributors and the reliability of their contributions.

Crowdsourcing quality assurance

Some elements of the quality assurance process do not require local knowledge of the land rights claim and could be crowdsourced to a network of informed consumers and worldwide professionals, or could even be automated.

Passive crowdsourcing quality assurance

Mobile phones can passively collect evidence that supports validation of userentered information – e.g. the continual logging of mobile data by the network, which confirms where phones are frequently used, inferring the location of the owner, and the automatic network timestamp. The extent to which control is held by the contributor, by the institution, or by ‘the crowd’ of contributors assessing each other’s contributions may be different across different implementations of crowdsourcing.

Will land professionals form a new partnership with citizens?

This new partnership model implies that land professionals will have a different relationship with citizens – or ‘proamateurs’. The increased collaboration with citizens opens up the opportunity for new services to train citizens and community intermediaries and qualityassure their crowdsourced information, so it should not be perceived as a threat to individual livelihoods and the profession. But will land professionals accept this new role and will sufficient citizen entrepreneurs provide land rights capture services and become trusted intermediaries? Technology will continue to challenge the relationship between ‘pro-amateurs’ and land professionals, but these drivers of change also present significant opportunities for all concerned.

Will crowdsourcing just reinforce the informal land market?

There is a danger that the emergence and acceptance of crowdsourced land rights information by citizens will just reinforce the informal land markets in countries where there is ineffective land governance, poorly performing land administration systems and weak formal land markets. The final outcome of the informal or formal market will depend on the land administration agencies’ reaction to crowdsourcing and whether they reject or embrace it.


Crowdsourcing within the emerging spatially enabled society is opening up opportunities to fundamentally rethink how professionals and citizens collaborate to solve today’s global challenges. This paper has identified land administration as an area where this crowdsourcesupported partnership could make a significant difference to levels of security of tenure around the world.

Mobile phone and personal positioning technologies, satellite imagery, the open data movement, web mapping and wikis are all converging to provide the ‘perfect storm’ of change for land professionals. The challenge for land professionals is not just to replicate elements of their current services using crowdsourcing, but to radically rethink how land administration services are managed and delivered in partnership with citizens. Land administration by the people for the people can become a distinctly 21st century phenomenon.

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July 2012 TO June 2013

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