Open Environmental Data Initiatives Must Contend with Who Owns What
Adam Calo outlines the role of ownership in open data initiatives for environmental governance.

by Adam Calo

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The parcel boundaries of a mixed crop and livestock farm in Scotland, displayed in the office of the estate manager.

Public participation in science may deliver democratised understanding about what is happening on the land, but often struggles to account for who ultimately has the power to make decisions about land use. This is especially important in the study of agricultural systems, where actions taken by private farmland owners are the drivers that press environmental and social outcomes in the public interest. The power to make changes to agricultural practices often lies in the hands of land owners, rendering findings or recommendations from agriculture themed citizen science projects as disconnected from the levers of authority to make change. This is why a strategy for open land ownership data [1] is a crucial, overlooked piece of the puzzle when it comes to transformative open agri-environmental research.

When it’s clear who owns the land, one knows who to engage with to make changes, who is responsible for any action or misdeed, and who has controlling interests in landscape dynamics. Asking questions like  “who benefits?” and “who decides?” introduces an awareness of social power  into community science initiatives. Of all of the types of non-expert participation in science, a defining feature is how explicitly the varying approaches recognise and address power relations. For example, at one end of the spectrum is citizen science, defined by its enrollment of non-experts in the data collection phase of a predetermined research agenda most often limited to the biophysical sciences. For citizen science, engagement with power relations is mostly emergent, where the act of engaging a broader public in a research question leads to empowered citizens and new forms of data made newly accessible. At the other end of the power awareness spectrum is the Fals-Bordian participatory action research (PAR), where concerns of the dispossessed, marginalised and grassroots drive the research questions, the methods used and the forms of outputs to be delivered. For citizen science, the goal might be summarised to explore and explain the world more broadly and with enhanced ingenuity. For PAR the goal is to use inquiry as a tool to contest unjust power relations.  

If public participation in scientific research initiatives are to be applied towards an action research agenda, it must ground its findings in the systems of power, control, jurisdiction and decision making systems that govern how any evidence produced may be received and then acted upon. The key to do this for open agri-environmental research is the expansion and development of land ownership data.

In its simplest form, land ownership data are best understood as a parcel boundary. The data show where property lines exist in space and who is listed as the owner. Even in this basic form, the potential for environmental analysis is drastically expanded. A researcher can understand how many owners there are in a landscape, how consolidated the land is or how fragmented. But parcel data often contains other important information, such as any zoning rules that apply, land valuation, the tax address of the landowners. In many locales around the world, land ownership data is public information—county assessor’s offices in the US, for example, are all mandated to provide these data when queried [2].

Combining who owns farmland with other environmental data, one can begin to ask higher order questions like “Which farmland owners are contributing to certain patterns in nitrogen runoff, biodiversity conservation and pesticide application? Who are the top twenty farmland owners who control the most habitat for important species diversity? Is the agricultural matrix in my town made up of a network of small family farmers selling domestic products or corporate owners specialising in export production?

Imagine if iNaturalist, an open data and citizen science initiative, also provided land ownership data? Suddenly, the tool becomes not just about where the relative abundances of species are, but who has the power to influence the stability of these distributions. Of course this would implicate the platform in new, messy political contests, but I argue these contests are where transformative science occurs.

Before this potential is realised, progress must be made towards open land ownership data that is both functional and governed democratically. While open land ownership information would revolutionise the ability to practice open inquiry in the agricultural sector, it brings with it some wicked problems and known drawbacks that must be contended with.

  • Transaction costs – Land changes hands, corporate owners change their names, land that was owned by an individual becomes owned by a family trust, a large farm is subdivided into many smaller parcels. Possessing accurate land ownership information is an ongoing and daunting geospatial endeavour that requires significant GIS expertise and resources. While the local authority may provide individual parcels upon request, many cash strapped local governments don’t have the capacity to service usable, up-to-date or accurate ownership data at the appropriate scale needed for analysis.
  • Perpetuating the ownership model of property – as soon as land is represented as ownership parcels, it tends to squash alternative visions of use, control and access. Access to land is better understood as the ability to benefit from land’s resources rather than just holding an entitlement. Much land globally (especially agricultural and grazing land) is managed as a commons, where the concept of sole proprietors fails to recognize the many social interactions that govern who has decision making power over the resource. Representing the world as bits of owned property tends to erase historical use and often indigenous claims to land. When land titling efforts are made, even in good faith, they end up entrenching existing power structures, for example granting title to the male head of household or rejecting marginalised claims to land.
  • Pernicious uses and users—the first step in land speculation is land titling and in this domain, servicing good land ownership information receives a premium. For example , take  Acre Value and Boundary Solutions. These institutions monetize the aggregation of public property data to sell their datasets and analysis to potential real estate developers and farmland investment trusts. Opening these data further may facilitate certain forms of land use that may run against the goals or values of an open environmental data initiative.

Potential benefits

  • Contesting the power of privacy—landowners currently enjoy somewhat of a veil of secrecy often in the name of private property. Many conservation mapping projects purposefully exclude land ownership information or tend to blur the geodata associated with important species (as is the case in iNaturalist). A basis of this omission is the fear of upsetting private property owners, who often have privilege and power to shape legislation and planning efforts. While some privacy concerns are valid, the logic of privacy is used to transfer land and negotiate land use outside of the gaze of the public domain and to disregard responsibility when private action leads to public impact.
  • Counter mapping to protect cultural use rights—in geographies (most usually defined as living in the southern hemisphere) with more established cultural or commons land use arrangements, the documentation of customary land rights has served to protect these interests from the privatization of land and foreign speculation. The Land Portal and Cadasta are two examples that believe in these values and design tools specifically with respect to their mission.
  • Mobilising community action—Maps carry a certain legitimacy to them in spheres of power. They act as a translatory tool between different knowledge forms. By providing engaged community groups with access to land ownership information, it could provide a tool for argumentation when there are disputes about who has access to land or who is responsible for damaging land use.

Diving into this tenuous balance is the Scottish Government, that by decree of the government's various Land Reform Acts, has mandated the official land registry be completed and made digitally public by 2024. The goal of the Scottish Land Reform Agenda is to rebalance the shape of land tenure, moving the land from large estates to a diversity of ownership forms, especially community ownership. The legislation sets up a new process, funding and legal powers for communities to register their interest in any asset in Scotland, with the goal of protecting local community interest in  asset acquisition when it comes up for sale. In some cases (of neglect, vacancy, or unsustainability) a community group can force the sale of an asset from private landowner to the community [3].

Based on my experience studying how Scotland’s unique land reform policies may change agricultural practices, I sense that the Scottish Government recognises that if it wants communities to be able to identify, study, and put forth productive land use visions they first need to understand who owns the land, its boundaries in space and the surrounding land ownership context. As evident in the government’s Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, owners of land are thought to have a responsibility to use the balances of private and public goods.

In the most recent part of the Land Reform agenda, the law states that a community group can begin a process of compulsory sale of land if the community can adequately claim that the land in its current use and management impedes the sustainability of the community. Here is where citizen science and open land ownership data converge to produce new outcomes for society. For this land reform objective to work, non-expert community groups must be able to swiftly understand landscape dynamics related to property boundaries, make compelling evidence-based arguments and mobilise action based on the results. This is only achievable with a usable, well governed open and ownership system.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the data provided by the Register of Scotland is usable by a broad array of publics. But importantly, instead of software developers to monetise these datasets, tools could be built to serve the ambitions of citizen scientists and community land reformers. Because of the mandate of the Register of Scotland, tools like Shared Asset’s Land Explorer is an early example of a mission driven land interface that supports the goals of community science.

For Public Participation in Science on agriculture to be transformative and move it more towards participatory action research, you have to know who owns what. Although tenuous, open land ownership data is the way forward. Otherwise, the benefits of land ownership data will only benefit the powerful, hidden from community inquiry.

About the author: Adam Calo, PhD is based at the James Hutton Institute, Scotland, UK


[1] Or land rights information

[2] Different legal rules apply to the provision of these data. Some counties have stricter privacy rules that prevent the disclosure of addresses. These rules are often in delicate balance with a duty to provide the public with tax assessment information. Some counties are just cash strapped and don’t spend on the ongoing maintenance of a complex geospatial database.

[3] For a recent example of a ‘community buy out’ as well as a great summary of the Land Reform Acts, see Lovett and Combe, 2020.

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