Solving the land information gap through GIS

By Jack Makau, SDI secretariat

Traditionally land information held by most governments (certainly all developing world governments) is stored in cadastral formats. What this means is that governments store records of plot boundaries and who owns those plots.

Meanwhile urbanization has rendered this level of information irrelevant. Often a slum will consist of one or two or three plots, while there are 1000 families living, trading, worshiping, schooling in those plots. If the economic, judicial, and governance systems are based on cadastral information, it is no wonder we cannot solve urban poverty issues, regardless of how much money we throw at the problem.

This huge gap in the ability of Southern governments to understand and govern urban centers is in large part an information gap. The cadastral format cannot reflect the reality of how land is organized in urban areas. It cannot account for 1000 families in 3 or even 20 plots of land. The reality of urban land usage completely belies the fundamental concepts of the cadastral system: families living in ungovernable 10 foot by 10-foot spaces and having their primary toilet function 20 meters away in a 3 foot by 3 foot carton shade; and their kitchen on the sidewalk.

What does this all mean? The contract between citizen and state in Nairobi, Kampala, Cape Town and more in Mumbai cannot take place. The contract is based on the cadastre.

So what about GIS? If we were to change how land information is defined then the challenges of urban slums would not be so intractable. GIS allows you to capture, easily and cheaply, the actual use of space. So instead of government having a plot boundary and owner’s name, they could have, for far less than it costs to survey the plot conventionally, the boundary, the size and type of structures, the actual arrangement of structures, the trees and the owner’s name.

And fortunately this is not just about slums. For example, how does the Cape Town municipality manage water if they do not have a land information system that recognizes swimming pool? How is climate change reversed when plot owners are cutting down trees to put up gazebos? Because planting trees at the outskirts of the cities is not enough.

It’s not the cost of the technology that matters — all of a sudden the constraints of plot sizes are removed. The limitations associated with the management of land (by government) do not exist. They have a true picture of the city. And if someone comes along and builds something at night, government can find out and manage it the very next day. It’s cheap, it’s real time and it’s true.

And, when they are done GIS-bombing Bagdad and Afghanistan and putting navsat in every Bentley, Bimmer and Boxter, what are they going to do with all those satellites?

So, the UN Habitat’s Global Land Tools Network (GLTN) and Social Tenure Domain Model (STDM) experiment in Uganda is the first stirrings of change in altering the way urban land is managed.  STDM at the back-end is a land registry system (sort of a cross between Google Earth for governments and the Land Act). At the front end is GIS and Microsoft Excel that’s appropriate for capturing enumeration and mapping information at household level, one base lower than plot level cadastre-type information.

In January, GLTN and SDI started a discussion on testing the newly developed STDM platform in Uganda. This isn’t the first land tool interaction between the two agencies. At UN Habitat, the developers of STDM studied the federations’ enumeration experiences in Mumbai, Nairobi and Kisumu and coded them onto the open source Quantum GIS program.

However, the STDM discussion was a plugin to an activity already underway: The Government of Uganda, Cities Alliance and SDI urban transformation program that targets transformation of urban slums in five secondary cities (Jinja, Arua, Kabale, Mbale and Mbarara). Estimated to reach 200,000 slum families, the program seeks among other things to register all informal settlement in these cities.

So significant is the application of GIS technology to Uganda that the STDM plugin could attain program engine status. Uganda has one of the most complex, un-resolvable urban land tenure systems in the universe. In certain places, like Kisenyi slum right at the heart of Kampala city, the Kabaka — constitutional king of the Buganda kingdom — owns the land. Over time, landowners have recieved land grants, held at the king’s pleasure.  In turn they have parceled the land and made out their own leases to structure owners who have built a sprawl of 35,000 shacks and rent them ever month to the city’s urban poor. Any attempt at slum upgrading is confronted with the question, “who among these layered interests is the beneficiary?”

SDI’s Ugandan affiliate, the 29,000-family-strong Uganda Slum Dwellers Federation, and the federation’s support NGO, Actogether, seek solutions that recognize all interests. Solutions that are underpinned by the corresponding usage and investment on the land. That integrate with the city’s aspirations of future sustainability and prosperity. So citywide enumerations and mapping exercises planned for early 2011 are important for determining the usage and investment patterns, are critical in anchoring possible solutions.

The success of this experiment, at least on the land information side, is hinged on the ability of UN Habitat and SDI to get the Ministry of Lands to buy into STDM. Then the federation enumerates, maps and puts the information into STDM and voila! A real urban land information system and 200,000 slum families in Uganda are in the government registry. And thereafter if anyone invests in infrastructure or housing it doesn’t matter because once the land information system changes so will the definition of land ownership. The title deed will be replaced by the use-deed.  Effectively we circumvent a herculean slum land tenure mess. And then we take the show to the next land mess in Nairobi or any other rapidly growing city with byzantine understandings of land usage.