Property-rights data: how open is open enough?

/ September 12, 2016

After months of joint-research with Open Knowledge International, Cadasta Foundation is excited to share a new set of ground-breaking resources clarifying the complex issues emerging at the intersection of open data and property rights.

Property rights are a crucial but often-overlooked piece of the transparency and accountability puzzle. Strengthening property rights through the formal documentation of boundaries can have tremendously positive effects on communities, giving families the ability to focus on education and economic opportunities rather than worrying about the security of their homes. Government-backed boundaries can also give vulnerable populations, such as smallholder farmers and forest-dwelling communities, the legal grounds to combat private interests, such as large-scale land development or the mining and oil industry.

However, land-ownership information is typically difficult to obtain. Land registries and cadastres are traditionally closed datasets within pay-for-access systems. While these datasets may be narrowly focused, opening them to the public – or alternately, keeping them closed and thus available primarily to an elite with the knowledge and financial resources to obtain access – will have broader implications across interconnected areas ranging from corruption to human rights to environmental conservation.

We as open-data advocates believe that property rights can be better secured by making this information open – but also recognise that enabling such access risks exposing sensitive personal information, and may even raise human-rights concerns in some parts of the world. Who can use this data, and for what purposes, are issues that must be carefully considered.


The resources thus include a comprehensive Overview of Property-Rights Data, a Risk Assessment and a set of User Personas. These guides are intended to explain what land-ownership data is and where it can be found, describe the differing needs for associated open datasets for a variety of stakeholders, while outlining our process for determining what data should be open and how associated risks can be managed.

In the process of being formally documented, data on land ownership is collected and processed by many actors, from individual owners to governments to private-sector entities. Despite the increasing digitisation of land-administration systems, there are currently no clear standards regarding what data should be open. Nor have the potential impacts and responsible-data challenges associated with opening land-ownership information previously been closely examined.

One-size-fits-all solutions are not necessarily appropriate in this space. Property-rights administration systems are highly complex, varying greatly from context to context. For example, the implications of open data in a country where frequent clashes between government, community and private-sector interests foster mutual mistrust are very different from those in countries with established land-administration systems, and where most of the population’s property rights are formally documented.

Our acknowledgement of these nuances is reflected in our research thus far, and has indeed continually informed our efforts to advocate for open data in the land-rights space.

The joint initiative between Open Knowledge International and the Cadasta Foundation was announced earlier this year, and has the ultimate goal of defining the land-ownership dataset for the Global Open Data Index. All current and forthcoming resources associated with the project, as well as additional background, can be found on Cadasta’s Open Data page.

LandPortal LandDebate

Cadasta is hosting a LandDebate from September 6th-20th on the LandPortal to seek feedback on our research and the subject area more generally. You can participate by registering as a user or by contacting Lindsay Ferris at Your input will help bring this issue into the wider responsible-data and land-rights communities as well as ensure this work becomes a core resource in considering how to open sensitive datasets. We look forward to hearing from you.

About the contributor

Lindsay is a researcher at Ad Hoc, LLC whose interests lie at making technology more inclusive and useable for marginalized communities. She is an alumna of Oxford University, where she focused on the impact of mobile technologies for LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as the Sunlight Foundation, where she worked on the organization’s international program. She worked with the Responsible Data Forum to produce GODAN’s Responsible Data in Agriculture paper.

See Lindsay's Articles

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