How a Map Can Change the World: State of the Map US 2015 Conference Emphasizes the Role of Geospatial Data for Property Rights

July 28, 2015

Last month in New York City, Omidyar Network was pleased to be one of the sponsors of the State of the Map US 2015 conference (SOTMUS), which physically convened the far-reaching and powerful virtual community behind OpenStreetMap (OSM). More than 800 (mostly volunteer) data contributors and map enthusiasts from 41 countries swarmed the United Nations Secretariat buzzing with energy and ideas on how open data mapping can make the world a better place.

The community was welcoming to open data novices like myself. At the opening session, participants were encouraged to turn to their neighbor to share their “first edit.” The room broke its silence, and a huge wave of energy took over, as almost everyone eagerly had a story to tell about their first contribution of data to the global platform. Everyone, that is, except me and a few others. Little did I know just how much I would learn about open data in this welcoming community over the next few days.

Founded in 2004, OSM allows for the crowdsourcing of geospatial data to create a free and editable map of the world. The community and data alike have grown tremendously over the past decade, with more than 2 million users and organizations like Craigslist and Foursquare using OSM data behind their platforms.

Kate Chapman, chairperson of the OpenStreetMap Foundation and former executive director of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, has recently joined an Omidyar Network Property Rights investee, Cadasta as CTO. In her new role Kate is building an innovative platform that will provide an alternative crowdsourcing model for the collection and management of ownership, lease, occupancy, and use data as well as associated geospatial data, initially targeting the estimated 1.2 billion people living in urban slums who do not have secure rights to where they live. Kate led several discussions during SOTMUS, one of my favorite titled “When Data Doesn’t Belong in OSM: The Land Tenure Use Case, which you can view here.  

Geospatial information is critical in helping people claim their property rights. OSM allows for a flexible database schema and detailed historical information on how and when data originated. Both of these traits are particularly helpful in property rights, which are essentially a social contract between people about their land (versus solely between a person and the land they inhabit without accounting for their neighbors, community, society, etc.).

Omidyar Network often refers to the “who, what, where” of property rights, meaning, which person or group of people have the right(s), (the “who”), which rights are held, e.g., use, leasehold, freehold, (the “what”), and the location of those rights (the “where”). Geospatial information only supports the “where,” which was one of the primary points of caution that Kate reinforced.

Cadasta will collaborate with communities for the “who” and the “what,” in addition to the “where,” through something Kate calls the “on-the-ground principle.” Community input will also support “other, less mappy data” (e.g., demographic data, pictures, document evidence, video data, etc.), something Kate admits she did not enjoy saying as a mapping enthusiast. But the truth is, this other data is critical and in many cases required, in combination with the geospatial data, to solidify people’s rights and increase their sense of security.

A key thread of discussion throughout the conference was that of the diversity (or lack thereof) in crowdsourced data sets, as most of the data tends to come from the Northern Hemisphere, in particular North America and Europe. Cadasta will support the geographic and socioeconomic diversity of contributors to geospatial data by working with the most vulnerable populations, particularly in the Global South. This empowerment of citizens to claim their rights and provide opportunity for improvement in their lives through the use of technology is a core tenet of the Property Rights Initiative at Omidyar Network.

We look forward to seeing the collaborative community of geospatial data contributors continue to grow for the improvement of property rights around the world. And, for my part, I look forward to the day that I can share a story about my first edit.

Tina Arreaza (@TinaBrowne) is an associate on Omidyar Network’s Property Rights Initiative.

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