Hi-tech mapping has good intentions for land rights but can backfire

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By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Sept 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New technologies used to map areas in developing nations for granting titles and aiding development could be misused to further marginalise vulnerable people, analysts and land experts warned on Friday.

From Kenya to the Philippines, authorities are using satellite imagery, drones, GPS navigation systems and artificial intelligence to map customary lands, fix boundaries, and modernise land records to verify ownership and issue titles.

But in doing so, authorities may not be consulting or prioritising the needs of communities, failing to secure data, or using it to evict or hurt vulnerable people, said Serene Ho, a researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

"There are many benefits to using technology, but we can get distracted by how cool the technology is, and not talk enough about what could go wrong," she said on the sidelines of a housing forum in Bangkok.

"Some ways of capturing land data are neither democratic nor in the public interest. We also don't ask - what is the data going to be used for? That can lead to outcomes not being delivered for communities," she said.

About 70% of land in developing nations is undocumented, exposing more than a fourth of the world's population to conflict and evictions, according to Cadasta Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit that develops digital tools to document land data.

But while documenting land data can lead to greater efficiency in land administration and increased prosperity, communities must be made aware of the risks and be involved in the process, said Katie Pickett, a data specialist at Cadasta.

"The data itself is neutral, and is only as good as the questions you ask of it. So how it is used, or even if it is released depends on who controls it," she said.

"In order for the data to have meaning, people should trust it. That means they have to agree to its collection, be adequately represented in the process, and be able to verify it," she said.

It is not just in rural areas that people are vulnerable.

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About a quarter of the world's urban population live in informal settlements, according to the United Nations.

They too are at risk of data misuse from aerial mapping, and are often not aware of their vulnerability, said Jaap Zevenbergen, professor of land administration and management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

"If the mapping shows informal settlements on a floodplain, that can be an opportunity for harassment, a shakedown or an eviction by authorities," he said.

"Is that an appropriate or ethical use of the technology?"

While cheaper technologies are enabling more people to participate, a "digital divide" still exists that may exclude older people and women who do not have access to smartphones or are not comfortable using these tools, said Ho.

Many technologies used in collecting land data also tend to be the work of "young, white and male" developers, she said.

"The onus is on the developer to be ethical, but they sometimes don't know the context the technology is used in," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Like Spider-Man's uncle said, with great power comes great responsibility. So it is incumbent on developers and intermediaries to be aware of the problems technology can create." (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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