Published on Let's Talk Development

Harnessing the data revolution and improving land management through geospatial technology

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Advances in earth observation, computing power, and connectivity have tremendous potential to help governments, and us at the World Bank, support better land management, and ultimately reduce poverty and promote shared prosperity.

There are three ways in which these technologies profoundly change the scope of our work.

First, they help us observe and track land use at a level of detail not possible before.

  • Even relatively coarse images allow us to realistically observe city expansion in close to real time without being hostage to delays and definitional idiosyncracies frequently associated with statistical data. Higher resolution images allow us to rationally plan for eventualities like natural disasters.  
  • Combining images with administrative data on land concessions (for Special Economic Zones or large agricultural operations, for example), revolutionizes the way in which we can gauge whether concession use is in line with approved investment plans. Experiments currently underway are exploring how better tracking of large farms can contribute to improving national food security forecasts, a pressing issue for many developing countries.
  • Using technology can also be lucrative for local governments. In Tanzania, for example, coarse images combined with ground-truthing helped reveal that up to 60% of properties in secondary cities were not on the tax roll, and that changes to rate structures could increase revenues.
Second, they provide avenues for greater participation.
  • When the legal regulatory framework is right, community mapping can be a powerful tool to establish local rights to land and natural resources. Historical images have been used through the Indian Forest Rights Act, for example, to document continued possession and establish rights.
  • Improved connectivity provides enormous opportunities to obtain feedback, improve transparency and reduce transaction costs when accessing public services. In Rwanda, for example, training local level Sector Land Managers and linking them to a central database helped increase accountability, minimized discretion, and improved job performance.
  • In Brazil, a deforestation monitoring system that combines different types of images is now being used by the government to reduce deforestation in the Amazon and promote sustainable resource use.
Third, they can helps increase transparency and independent monitoring.
  • Land ownership information is of little use if not spatially referenced or when transactions (e.g. mortgages, tax liabilities, or court cases) are not recorded. Technology has helped many countries with gaps in recordkeeping to catch up. Many have used technology to make information on key aspects of land governance publicly available, and allowing it to be scrutinized and used for (i) private sector decisions, (ii) facilitating suggestions for improvement, and (iii) comparing performance of sub-national units, which often have significant autonomy.
  • Information on land prices is a key input for private sector decision making. A four-fold increase in information use following the decision to make property transactions data openly available by HM Registry for England and Wales illustrates that this is not limited to developing countries. In fact, as described in more detail elsewhere, this has led to the development of entirely new businesses that use such information in new ways and make them available to different market segments.
  • While many developing countries implemented laws that mandate gender equality in land inheritance, practice often differs widely. Land registry information allows objective monitoring of such policies.
Unfortunately, the above examples are still more the exception rather than the rule. In fact, many governments fail to harness opportunities because they either don’t have policies to facilitate information-sharing, have information locked up in incompatible systems (sadly, many of them acquired through foreign assistance) or drown in data without being able to see patterns.

In such a situation, the private sector, academia, and civil society (such as the open street map community) can play a critical role by:
  1. institutionalizing interoperability and making it the norm
  2. establishing incentive-compatible and self-sustaining business models to manage information and ensure transparency
  3. ensuring monitoring standards and public availability of information to allow all players to reap the benefits from the information revolution.
Closer collaboration between the Bank and the geospatial community will be key to achieving these objectives.

Next week’s Land and Poverty Conference will be a crucial venue for exploring the potential and constraints to scaling up the promise of the data revolution and geospatial technology.


Klaus Deininger

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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