There’s a data revolution at grassroots

A process of collecting data on land that is based on mobile technology has higher chances of success. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A process of collecting data on land that is based on mobile technology has higher chances of success. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last week, I attended the annual World Bank Land and Poverty Conference in Washington, D.C. The focus this year was on data availability, collection and processing.

The conference, in its 18th year, is normally held under the theme of land and poverty. This year though at a discussion to launch an African initiative on land at the conference, former Nigeria president Olusegun Obasanjo was critical of the theme, arguing that within the continent land is a source of wealth and not poverty.

Consequently, he thought the discussions should not be given a negative theme but one which is more progressive and inspiring.

A key point of discussion was how to improve data availability for land administration and management. Interestingly, in an era of data revolution, many countries still lack basic data on land issues.

A participant from Myanmar, for example, decried how land records do not contain information about single mothers since they are not categorized as women.


These discussions brought home the challenges we also continue to face as a country in efforts to realize the constitutional promise of the not- more than two-thirds gender principle in elective and appointive positions. It is about the marginalization of the women in society.

Countries shared experiences of how they are revolutionizing data collection. Many presentations dwelt on using various technological innovations to document and records land rights, especially for communities.

I chaired a panel where civil society organisations have developed a mobile software to help communities record and claim their rights under a new forest law in India and another where a group has trained youth to use open software to record rights to community land in Ghana through what they are calling rubber-boot technology.

The conversations were similar to an experience of social cartography that I observed several years ago, in Brazil. They all are exciting and innovative. In the process, I started reflecting on several issues. First, to harness the potential of technology there is need to focus on low-cost, easily applied and replicable technology.

The experience of mobile money in Kenya demonstrates that it is only when the ordinary folk are able to easily use and appreciate the developed technology that its uptake will be enhanced.

Of all the options discussed at the conference, the most interesting for me were consequently those based on mobile phones. This is as a result of its availability and acceptability in the country.

A process of collecting data on land that is based on mobile technology has higher chances of success.

Despite its revolutionary nature, it is important that excitement be tempered with reality. Technology alone will not provide solutions to intractable land problems. Just like other sectors of society, technology is only an enabler.

While communities are mapping their land rights and producing maps from those processes, challenges still exist relating to the nexus between the produced maps and official maps.

When you have two conflicting maps, disputes necessary arise. Resolving these disputes fairly then comes into play demonstrating that the process of securing community land rights requires the existence of effective and efficient dispute resolution mechanisms.

It is important that those pioneering data collection and development of solutions for data harnessing ask themselves about costs and duplication. From a cost perspective, one of the most challenging aspect of any technology is licensing.

In many instances, technology is introduced to a country, sector or community only for people to realize that the licensing costs per year are extremely prohibitive.

Surprisingly despite the move towards open source software during the conference licensing fees still seem to be a recurring obstacle. The reason for this is the focus of software developers to also make profit.

Secondly several of the case studies presented were each demonstrating the technology they are piloting. For communities, there is danger of overload if every new initiative comes with a different approach to data collection and processing.

Maybe more effort should be put to harmonizing the different innovations so as to ensure easy uptake.

In doing so, we need to take time to appreciate the context in which communities exist and operate so that we are responsive to their realities.