Open Environmental Data Initiatives Must Contend with Who Owns What

  • Transaction costs — Land changes hands, corporate owners change their names, land that was owned by an individual becomes owned by a family trust, a large farm is subdivided into many smaller parcels. Possessing accurate land ownership information is an ongoing and daunting geospatial endeavour that requires significant GIS expertise and resources. While the local authority may provide individual parcels upon request, many cash strapped local governments don’t have the capacity to service usable, up-to-date or accurate ownership data at the appropriate scale needed for analysis.
  • Perpetuating the ownership model of property — as soon as land is represented as ownership parcels, it tends to squash alternative visions of use, control and access. Access to land is better understood as the ability to benefit from land’s resources rather than just holding an entitlement. Much land globally (especially agricultural and grazing land) is managed as a commons, where the concept of sole proprietors fails to recognize the many social interactions that govern who has decision making power over the resource. Representing the world as bits of owned property tends to erase historical use and often indigenous claims to land. When land titling efforts are made, even in good faith, they end up entrenching existing power structures, for example granting title to the male head of household or rejecting marginalised claims to land.
  • Pernicious uses and users-the first step in land speculation is land titling and in this domain, servicing good land ownership information receives a premium. For example , take and Boundary Solutions . These institutions monetize the aggregation of public property data to sell their datasets and analysis to potential real estate developers and farmland investment trusts. Opening these data further may facilitate certain forms of land use that may run against the goals or values of an open environmental data initiative.
  • Contesting the power of privacy -landowners currently enjoy somewhat of a veil of secrecy often in the name of private property. Many conservation mapping projects purposefully exclude land ownership information or tend to blur the geodata associated with important species (as is the case in iNaturalist). A basis of this omission is the fear of upsetting private property owners, who often have privilege and power to shape legislation and planning efforts. While some privacy concerns are valid, the logic of privacy is used to transfer land and negotiate land use outside of the gaze of the public domain and to disregard responsibility when private action leads to public impact.
  • Counter mapping to protect cultural use rights-in geographies (most usually defined as living in the southern hemisphere) with more established cultural or commons land use arrangements, the documentation of customary land rights has served to protect these interests from the privatization of land and foreign speculation. The Land Portal and are two examples that believe in these values and design tools specifically with respect to their mission.
  • Mobilising community action -Maps carry a certain legitimacy to them in spheres of power. They act as a translatory tool between different knowledge forms. By providing engaged community groups with access to land ownership information, it could provide a tool for argumentation when there are disputes about who has access to land or who is responsible for damaging land use.

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