Open Data and Land Ownership - Environment Scan

Posted by Sumandro Chattapadhyay at Feb 12, 2018 10:30 AM |
The State of Open Data is an ambitious research project reflecting on 10 years of action on open data and providing a critical review of the current state of the open data movement across a range of issues and thematic areas. This environment scan represents the first step in gathering information to support a review of the state of open data with regard to land ownership, and in refining the focus of a chapter. The lead author for this chapter is Sumandro Chattapadhyay.


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[Gap] Land Ownership data is mostly closed

Land Ownership data ranks as the least likely data to be available in an open format and under open license (across the world) among the fifteen types of data tracked by Global Open Data Index developed by Open Knowledge International. Similarly, the latest Global Report of the Open Data Barometer initiative of World Wide Web Foundation finds Land Ownership to be the least open of different categories of data that are essential for ensuring government accountability – only 1% of countries surveyed were found to open up Land Ownership data as opposed to 10% of countries opening up Budget data, and 11% of countries opening up Election Results data ( Both these findings indicate that Land Ownership data is among the most closed categories of data that are needed globally for ensuring accountability and transparency, as well as for tracking shifts in the distribution of national wealth.

[Gap] Global paucity of reliable information about cross-border investments in and shifts in ownership of land

While initiatives like Land Matrix have spearheaded greater availability of open data about global cross-border investments in land and resulting shifts in ownership patterns, researchers have pointed out the limited accuracy and methodological reflexivity in the production of such data sets, and highlighted the possibility of them representing "an instance of 'false precision'". A recent article in Financial Times notes that “[t]here is plenty of debate over the accuracy of this [open-source data of agricultural land sales]. Official data sources vary widely from country to country, while land deals themselves are notoriously opaque and fluid. Media reports about the leasing or buying of land often lack clairity."

[Progress] Collaborative and incremental development of extensive and intensive monitoring of openness of land ownership data across countries

There are several recent examples of collaborative efforts to better collect, organise, and recognise open land ownership data, which indicate at a growing momentum to address this critical weak link in the global open data agenda. Key initiatives include the GODI Fellowship established by Cadasta Foundation and Open Knowledge International, a focus on Land Use and Productivity Data as part of the Agricultural Open Data Package of the International Open Data Charter, and the work of Land Portal in the Mekong region to develop a common land information vocabulary, especially in a region marked by "its disparate languages and range of national priorities [and] the need to communicate effectively about complex land issues across borders and between individuals with different skill sets".

[Progress] Success of the Access Land campaign in California, USA:

"Access Land is a coalition of 50+ organizations committed to increasing access to our public land through open data. This summer, both the Federal Government and California State Parks released reservation contracts that require open data and plans to engage third party partners – redefining how the public accesses their land forever. Unlocking park data empowers entrepreneurs of all backgrounds to build unique applications that better connect the public to their land. By reaching a wider and more diverse demographic, visitation to our parks will rise, boosting revenue and ensuring the future relevance and sustainability of our public land. Open data is the key to inspiring the next generation of park supporters."

[Progress] HM Land Registry, Government of UK, publishing Commercial and Corporate Ownership Data and Overseas Companies Ownership Data for free

On November 7, 2017, the land records authority of UK (HM Land Registry) started free sharing of two of its land ownership data sets: the Commercial and Corporate Ownership Data and Overseas Companies Ownership Data, which "contain more than 3 million rows of data and include the address, company’s name, price paid and country of incorporation along with other useful information." The decision is expected to "support growth in the property technology (PropTech) sector and among small and medium-sized enterprises."


Who?: Stakeholders, networks, community

Cadasta Foundation

"Develops and promotes the use of simple digital tools and technology to help partners efficiently document, analyze, store, and share critical land and resource rights information. By creating an accessible digital record of land, housing and resource rights, we help empower individuals, organizations, communities, and governments with the information they need to make data-driven decisions and put vulnerable communities and their needs on the map… Cadasta is dedicated to working in such settings to help partners use simple, low-cost, high-tech tools to efficiently and effectively document their land and resource rights — incrementally strengthening their rights to land. This documentation creates an evidence base and advocacy case for vulnerable communities’ claims to the land. Such documentation can make it less likely that communities will be displaced and can serve to support demands for compensation should communities be displaced. We use and create versatile digital tools for a myriad of purposes from certifying sustainable agricultural production to creating a digital land registry that secures land rights for millions of people."

"Cadasta Foundation is developing an open platform, informed by the Social Tenure Domain Model, for documenting land and resource rights. Through the development of an ecosystem of partners, technology and data, the platform is designed to allow the direct capture and documenting of land rights through a global open platform that is secure, cost effective and transparent. The foundation’s perspective is informed by years of experience working with formal land administration processes and national-level land information systems, as well as working with volunteered geographic information to develop robust and upto-date datasets. At Cadasta, the focus is twofold – providing the repository and tools necessary to document the rights of those left out of the formal system, while also serving as a portal for open datasets in land and other resources, such as extractives, forestry and agricultural investment concessions, where they exist."

Supported by the Department for International Development of Government of UK and the Omidyar Network


Global Land Alliance

"The mission of Global Land Alliance is to enable the prosperity of people and places by advancing learning and practice to achieve land tenure security and the efficient, inclusive and sustainable use of land and natural resources. We aim to accelerate quality development by resolving land issues with new paradigms of participation and accountability… Global Land Alliance takes the traditional think tank model a step forward, not only producing new understanding and recommendations based on on-the-ground perspectives of citizens, community leaders and businesses, but also channeling those learnings toward practical implementation at scale. By scaling and speeding up resolution of land issues, we can scale up and speed up improved results in the big issues of our time: urbanization, food security, environmental sustainability and peace."

"PRIndex, the Global Property Rights Index, is a collaborative initiative between Global Land Alliance and the Overseas Development Institute to develop and roll out the first global measurement of peoples’ perceptions of their property rights. PRIndex is establishing a global and national-level baseline of perceptions of land tenure security. This baseline will provide the grounding for a global conversation and movement around securing the property rights of billions who currently lack them."

Supported by Inter-American Development Bank, Omidyar Network, Department for International Development of Government of UK, the World Bank, Overseas Development Initiative, and others


Global Land Tool Network

"The Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) is an alliance of international partners committed to increasing access to land and tenure security for all, with a particular focus on the poor and women. The Network’s partners include international civil society organizations, research and training institutions, bilateral and multilateral organizations, and international professional bodies… GLTN develops, disseminates and implements pro-poor and gender-responsive land tools. These tools and approaches contribute to land reform, good land governance, inclusive land administration, sustainable land management, and functional land sector coordination."

"Throughout the world, land provides a primary source of income, food security, cultural identity and shelter. It also serves as a fundamental asset for the economic empowerment of the poor and provides a safety net in times of hardship. To enhance access to information and awareness by land and data community and the wider stakeholders around land indicators in the SDGs and related processes for their monitoring, GLTN in collaboration with Land Portal Foundation produced the Land and SDGs dashboard."

Facilitated by UN-Habitat; currently implementing programmes supported by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Government of Norway, SIDA, Government of the Netherlands, and UN-Habitat


International Land Coalition

"A global alliance of civil society and intergovernmental organisations working together to put people at the centre of land governance. The shared goal of ILC's over 200 members is to realise land governance for and with people at the country level, responding to the needs and protecting the rights of women, men and communities who live on and from the land."

Supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Government of Germany, EU, IFAD, Irish Aid, American Jewish World Service, Belgian Fund for Food Security, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SIDA, and others.


Land Matrix

"A global and independent land monitoring initiative. Our goal is to facilitate an open development community of citizens, researchers, policy-makers and technology specialists to promote transparency and accountability in decisions over land and investment... [The website functions as a] Global Observatory - an open tool for collecting and visualising information about large-scale land acquisitions."

Supported partly by the internal resources of the partner organisations, and partly by Oxfam, SDC, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, BMZ and European Commission; designed and developed by Sinnwerkstatt in partnership with Tactical Studios at Tactical Technology Collective.


Land Portal Foundation

"Works to create a better information ecosystem for land governance through a platform based on cutting-edge linked and open data technologies. We help partners to create, curate and disseminate land governance data and information to become part of a more inclusive information landscape. Current information sources are often fragmented, represent a restricted set of perspectives, and are not structured, curated and licensed in ways that support maximum discovery, engagement and reuse."

The Foundation is hosted by University of Groningen, The Netherland; supported by the Department for International Development of Government of UK, International Land Coalition, and the Global Land Tool Network.


Open Land Contracts

"An online repository of publicly available contracts for large-scale land, agriculture, and forestry projects. The repository includes the full text of contracts; plain language summaries (also referred to as "annotations") of each contract’s key social, environmental, human rights, fiscal, and operational terms; and tools for searching and comparing contracts. Launched in October 2015, promotes greater transparency of land-based investments, facilitates a better understanding of the contracts that govern them, and provides useful tools for governments, communities, companies, and other stakeholders."

An initiative of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), a joint center of Columbia Law School and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, USA; supported by UKaid from the Department for International Development, Government of UK.



"Radiant launched operations in August 2016 to answer the call for open access to geospatial data, with analytical tools for global development practitioners designed to improve decision-making, and to foster entrepreneurship worldwide. Radiant’s geospatial technology platform will permit users to illuminate earth, literally, to allow everywhere to be "seen"; to turn the telescopes back on human activity as we enter the Anthropocene period; and to give decision-makers a scientific window into understanding global activity better. Providing the global community with these tools and data can create powerful insights and accelerate greater catalytic, evidence-based support for change."

Supported by Omidyar Network and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.



Research and evidence

Cotula, Lorenzo, and Thierry Berger. 2017. Trends in global land use investment: Implications for legal empowerment. London, UK: IIED. Accessed from

This report takes stock of trends in land use investments and legal empowerment responses, with a view to informing next steps for legal empowerment agendas. Drawing on a review of the available literature and global datasets, it discusses evolving patterns in land use investments, developments in investment frameworks, and implications for legal empowerment initiatives.

Ferris, Lindsay, Frank Pichel, and Neil Sorensen. 2016. Land Debate on Open Data and Land Governance. Cadasta Foundation and Land Portal. December. Accessed from

Across most contexts, government data sources on land are largely inaccessible, from land administration data, such as parcel data and ownership information to land investments, contract data and even policy information. In considering data on property ownership specifically, the latest version of the Open Data Barometer shows only two countries, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, obtained a full 100% score on the topic of Land Ownership. When this land administration data is made available, it is commonly made public via a web portal rather than as open data. However, governments are not the sole sources of land data. For example, international organizations such as World Bank, the United Nations and numerous bi-lateral donor organizations publish land related data, while countless NGOs may participate in community mapping and policy analysis. Beyond EU Directives for geospatial datasets, common principles and processes are lacking for determining what data should be open, with often differing interpretations among EU Directives. Finally, questions of how to tackle privacy and security risks to vulnerable populations remain disputed, leading NGOs, governments and international institutions to dismiss open data entirely. However, with an ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there is an increasing need to pool data resources toward solving global challenges -- while protecting the rights of vulnerable populations. In September 2016, Cadasta Foundation and the Land Portal Foundation teamed up to facilitate a conversation on these issues. Our aims were to better understand the current landscape, potential impacts as well as illustrate the unique challenges in opening land data in order to begin figuring out the solutions. Within the Land Portal platform, we heard the points of view of 26 participants from government land agencies, international institutions and NGOs. Throughout this report, we’ve summarized the main themes that surfaced throughout the three-week Land Debate.

Ferris, Lindsay. 2017. Outputs for the Cadasta GODI Fellowship. Links to four outputs accessed from

Throughout the fellowship, Lindsay conducted interviews with land experts, NGOs and government officials as well as on-going desk research on the land data publication practices across different contexts. She established 4 key outputs: 1. Outlining the challenges of opening land ownership data… 2. Mapping the different types of land data and their availability… 3. Assessing the privacy and security risks of opening certain types of land data… 4. Identifying user needs and creating user personas for open land data… Throughout the GODI process, our aim is to advocate for datasets that different stakeholders actually need and that make sense within the context in which they are published. For example, one of the main challenges in land ownership is that data is not always recorded or gathered by the federal level, and is collect in cities and regions. One of the primary users of land ownership data are other government agencies. Having a grasp of this type of knowledge helped us better define the land ownership dataset for the GODI. Ultimately, we developed a thoughtful definition based on these reflections and recommendations.

Hogge, Becky. 2015. “HM Land Registry: The UK’s trading funds, and two futures for open data”. In Open Data: Six Stories About Impact in the UK. November. Omidyar Network. Pp. 17-24. Accessed from

HM Land Registry began a phased release of its data on property transactions – the Price Paid Dataset – in March 2012, and by November 2013 the entire historic record dating back to 1995 was released. The data provides much-needed transparency in a historically “murky” business, and is already being used extensively by some traditional players in the property market. Additionally, new players are consolidating around the field of proptech, developing digital tools to bring buying and selling property “out of the Stone Age”. Proptech startups attracted an estimated $1.4 billion in investment globally in 2014. PI Labs, an incubator for proptech startups, opened in London in late 2014.

Raman, Bhuvaneswari, and Zainab Bawa. 2011. Citizens Participation and Technology Interventions in Government Programmes: The Case of Nemmadi Kendras in Bangalore. SIRCA Report. Janastu. Accessed from

Our findings on Nemmadi corroborates Benjamin et al (2005) suggestion that transparency of land information in contexts such as Bangalore can accentuate existing social and economic inequalities and can weaken the claims on land of relatively weaker groups in society. The reflection of the activist from Dalit Sangarsh Samithi quoted above draw attention to the fact that despite the apparent myth of uniform access to information, there are differences in terms of their ability to capture this information. Specifically, when it comes to land, it is not only about having information but also the power to displace / disposses current occupiers. Thus, power between different users affect their ability to capture this information to their advantage but more importantly, such visibility can pose new risks to the claims of relatively weaker groups. Proponents of data transparency fail to make the distinction between access to and the capture of information and the risk posed by opening up certain types of data. Based on our preliminary observations we suggest that there is need to differentiate between the types of data that is made public and the political economic context in which such information is made public. Our findings suggest the usefulness of further research on this aspect.



International workshop on Open Land Data: Mobile Apps and Geo-services for Open Soil Data

Hosted by Tom Hengl and Rik van den Bosch (ISRIC – World Soil Information), and Jeff Herrick (U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service, New Mexico State University), July 2-4, 2017, Wageningen University, the Netherlands,

Responsible Land Governance: Towards an Evidence Based Approach

Annual Word Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, Washington DC, USA, March 20-24, 2017,

Workshop on Open Data and Land Governance: Moving Towards an Information Ecosystem

Land Portal Foundation and Cadasta Foundation, March 20, 2017, OpenGov Hub, Washington DC, USA,


Resources and funding

Department for International Development, Government of UK: Land Governance for Economic Development

"DFID will pursue actions globally to improve land rights protection to: help ensure women and men enjoy legally recognised, secure property and tenure rights. To Improve information and knowledge to facilitate the provision of clear, transparent land related information and knowledge, enabling rights to be identified, understood and protected. To improve private sector investment through the development and rollout of a standardized investment risk assessment methodology and implementation of best practice in land governance."


Omidyar Network – Property Rights

"We know why this matters: Strengthening rights to land, natural resources, and other assets empowers people to decide, based on their tacit and local knowledge, how best to use their assets. Add in increased decision-making authority with legal rights to benefit from valued uses of property, and you get improved incentives to invest in families, children, farms and businesses. It is worth underscoring that the poor – whether informal urban entrepreneurs or smallholder farmers – are by far the largest group of businesspeople in the world. And, as highlighted in the recent report Accelerating Entrepreneurship in Africa, improving property transfer procedures will strengthen business opportunities..."

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World Bank – Land

"The World Bank is increasingly working to open land and geospatial datasets for acceleration of growth through businesses, and improving own source local revenue creation, location-based analysis and decision-making, urban management, climate change responses, and resilience… The World Bank recognizes that national land administration systems and spatial data infrastructure are fundamental to disaster risk reduction and response by the provision of historical repository of pre-disaster land use and occupancy, location-based information as well as a unified geospatial platform for planning, monitoring, and implementing responses… The World Bank is working on land tenure as well as land and geospatial infrastructure and systems in 48 countries, with a current investment of approximately $1 billion in commitments, impacting millions of land holders in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa."