Open Data, Land, Gender

[Summary: very rough and speculative notes in response to a land coalition online dialogue]

The land coalition are hosting a online dialogue until 20th Feb looking at “using online platforms to increase access to open data and share best practices of monitoring women’s land rights”. It’s an interesting topic for a dialogue particularly given one of the most widely cited cases used to highlight potential downsides of open data relates to the digitisation of land records and their exploitation to the detriment of poor landholders. However, as platforms like the LandMatrix (aggregating together land investment reports from research and advocacy groups across the world), and Open Development Cambodia demonstrate, open data is also being used by citizens to monitor land rights issues.
In this post I share a few quick thoughts on the broad theme of open data, land and gender.

Open data and land

The dialogue asks about how online platforms are contributing to the opening of land data. There are three broad sources of data I can see:

Official data – where governments have well managed land ownership databases then as part of national open government data programmes citizens may be able to secure the ongoing publication of this data in open forms. In the United Kingdom we’ve recently seen the Land Registry place data online, detailing land sale transactions in CSV and linked data; and a publicly owned land is a commonly featured dataset on local open data portals in the UK. However, this data itself may be tricky to use directly, and intermediaries are needed to make it accessible. In Kirklees, the Who Owns My Neighbourhood presents an interesting approach to using official data, and combining it with social features for citizens to input local knowledge and news about publicly owned plots of land: making official land data more ‘social’.

Crowdsourced data – in many cases there may not be an official source for the data activists want, or there may be limited prospect of getting access to the official data. Here a range of ‘crowdsourcing’ approaches exist. The LandMatrix approach uses researchers, and works to verify reports before sharing them. There may be other approaches available that use tools like pybossa to crowdsource extraction of structured information from semi-structured documents, or to split analysis of records into micro-tasks. The Open Street Map platform may also be able to act as source of data, allowing tags to be applied to land. Tools like CrowdMap (based on the Ushahidi platform) make it possible to collate reports submitted on a range of platforms including phone, and to verify reports, although the challenge with any crowdmap project is recruiting people to submit data.

Inferred data – at one of the RHOK Hack Days I took part in at Southampton I was interested to hear about a groups project using satellite data to work out crop types on plots of land. I suspect there are ways this data could be used to detect changes in land use that might indicate also changes in ownership – and the conversion of land from multiple crops to large agribusiness.

Using land data

Having open data on land ownership and land rights is only one part of the story. As the Bhoomi case illustrates, the regulatory framework around the data matters: is a dataset taken as authoritative, or are documents or other customary practices able to override the descriptions held in data? Does the data model through which land ownership and rights are described capture the subtlety and nuance of land use practices (see Srinivasan’s field note for a discussion of the need to mash-up multiple schemas of data to get a view of complex land practices)? And what intermediaries are active to help citizens mobilise land records to secure their rights, rather than those records being only truly accessible to private actors with technical and financial capital?

In the ongoing Land Coalition dialogue I’m interested to learn more about the cases of how data on land rights is being mobilised to create change: whether at the level of global advocacy, where big numbers may matter most; or at the level of individual struggles over ownership, access and rights, where detailed, accurate and timely data on particular plots is likely to be most important.

Open data and women’s land rights

I will admit to knowing very little about the specific issues around women’s land rights. However, in making the connection between open data and women’s land rights I did want to briefly explore whether a focus on digital platforms and open data introduces any particular gender issues. For example, whilst statistics on mobile phone penetration in developing countries suggest widespread access to mobile devices, there is a significant gender gap in mobile ownership and access, with women much less likely to have control of a handset than men. Gender issues may also arise in relation to the culture and practices around open data.

In a recent First Monday article, Joseph Reagle suggests that the ‘free culture’ movement associated with open source software and open knowledge products like Wikipedia possess a gender gap that is potentially event greater than the very gender unequal general computing culture from which it arose. Reagle argues that the ideas of ‘openness’ current in these communities can be used to dismiss concerns about gender gaps, and paint them as an issue of choice, rather than highlighting the wider structural factors that lead to the massive underrepresentation of women in online free software and open knowledge construction. For example, Reagle points to the “double shift” of women’s time, and the ways in which the ‘free time’ used to contribute to creation of open culture, whether through evenings away from work, or hack-days and other events, is unequally distributed between women and men.

Does this critique carry across the open data? It is apparent that the open data field is far from gender equal – at least in terms of advocates for open data, and the creators of tools, platforms and analysis built upon data – although whether it is male dominated to the extent that other fields such as open source contribution are is yet to be measured. In part any gender imbalance may be attributed to the connections between the open data community and the open source and free culture communities, which are already have a significant gender imbalance. However, we should also be open to deeper issues of epistemology: whether the very notion of resolving questions of ownership or fact through datasets, rather than through processes of dialogue, is itself gendered. How far advocacy to open up datasets moves into advocacy for the primacy of data over other ways of knowing, and how data is used and interpreted, has a bearing on whether gendered systems of power are being reinforced or challenged.

An ongoing discussion…

The above remarks are just some first thoughts on the topic. The Land Portal dialogue is running for another week, and I’m looking forward to diving spending time looking at what others are saying to better understand how open data and land can connect in constructive and positive ways.

I hope we might also develop some lines of the gender discussion more in upcoming work of the Open Data in Developing Countries project.

One Comment

  1. Annemarie Naylor

    You might find our detailed submission to the Goverment’s transparency code consultation interesting: http://locality.org.uk/news/improve-local-government-transparency/

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Open Data in Developing Countries


The focus of my work is currently on the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project with the Web Foundation.

MSc – Open Data & Democracy

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