Geographic Positioning Solutions for Land in Development

On June 4th, Global Land Alliance hosted the ‘Geographic Positioning Solutions for Land in Development’ brainstorming dialogue and panel discussion in Washington D.C. The purpose of the event was to facilitate a collaborative discussion between ‘suppliers’ and ‘appliers’ of positioning technology for use in the land tenure and administration sector. The panel focused on the premise that development should be sustainable and should build capacity of communities to accurately map their land.

Based on recent research by Global Land Alliance there is approximately US $3.2 billion currently invested in land projects throughout the world, with the majority of funding going to collection of geographically referenced land and parcel data. The average individual land project earmarks, on average, 46% of the total investment to collect land parcel data, 17% towards develop land information management systems, and 10% to update base cartography and establishing geodetic networks. In many cases, countries and, increasingly, communities are mapping land parcels for the first time; while others are updating from long-outdated property cadastres left unmaintained after agrarian reform programs and urban property and landholding inventories. One of the long lingering challenges for land administration projects has been in seeking the most efficient use of geographic positioning technology to rapidly, accurately, and sustainably collect land information.

Moderated by Global Land Alliance’s Kevin Barthel; panelists included Doug Merrill of Leica Geosystems, Frank Pichel of Cadasta Foundation, Bryan Baker of Leica Geosystems, and Joseph Muhlhausen from WeRobotics. The panel and participants from government, private sector and the NGO community discussed the latest and best way for utilizing and applying positioning technology for land in development. While the event’s focal point was the use of geographic positioning technology; discussions evolved into non-technology issues – legal, cultural and institutional – that continue to hamper the effective application of technology to address land tenure and land administration challenges.

Doug Merrill, a land surveyor from Leica Geosystems, presented many options for the latest devices of accurate mapping to address key questions: What is really needed from GPS? What accuracy do you need? Maybe you don’t need accuracy now, but what about in three to five years?

There are many tools one can consider: including Optical Total Stations and GNSS Receivers; GNSS hardware, software to use in the field, and software to use in the office; CORS Network, dedicated reference stations, Precise Point Positioning, subscription-based correction services, etc. These components can work together for collection of geographically referenced spatial data.

With minimal training geospatial professionals and non-professionals can use GNSS to collect data with centimeter accuracy. In emerging-market countries, where it is often difficult to source trained personnel, a team of non-professionals can be managed by a professional to conduct wide-spread data collection. CORs Networks pose certain challenges such as electric power in remote locations, physical maintenance, need for internet coverage and software/hardware compatibility. However, while these challenges exist, especially in less developed and remote environments, the technical benefits are widely unquestioned.

There are technologies that are compatible with smartphones and tablets that allow you to “Bring your own device”. This allows people to use the operating system they desire with a Smart Antennae — which is ‘fit for purpose’ and particularly useful in developing countries.

Aerial view of village near Phang Nga bay, Thailand


Dedicated reference stations established in specific project areas can be useful because they can be set up quickly and can be easily relocated over large project areas. However, some challenges are: safety of equipment during operations, need for a dedicated radio and corrections only available and valid within a limited area from the reference station.

For geographic positioning, Merrill underscored there are multiple technologies and tools available. It is important for practitioners to understand the advantages and disadvantages when choosing the best path forward. There is no universal answer for what to use, as it depends on the application.

Frank Pichel, a land administration specialist with Cadasta Foundation, identified a main issue in the land sector as being the lack of long-term maintenance of geographic data and sustainability land information technology.

For example, one can obtain very accurate data that is then stored in inaccessible locations or poorly-maintained technological platforms. Adding to the problem, there are outdated legal and regulatory frameworks that do not accept technology or address needs for more ‘fit-for-purpose’ lower-accuracy mapping. Pichel added that traditional approaches to survey and mapping simply are aren’t working if 70-80% of people worldwide do not have proper surveys and documentation of their land holdings. Therefore, even less accurate geospatial data of informal settlements has value. Land practitioners need to be pragmatic about geographic positioning technology and take into consideration the needs and experiences of the local community and the local government requirements.

Establishing Tenure: Orthophoto with CAD Design and Aircraft Flight Line Overlay

Bryan Baker, a geodesist and UAV specialist from Leica Geosystems, shared a story of work he performed in a forested village outside of Pulcallpa, Peru that did not have legally defined village boundaries. Leica went into this community to determine an efficient, yet accurate, way to survey and set boundaries to prevent encroachment of loggers, miners, and other groups interested in the village’s natural resources. Additionally, a nearby community was selling land in their jurisdiction, but the village did not have legal evidence of ownership to protect against this. In this case, Bryan and the Leica team used Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAV) – drone –to quickly and accurately determine and map the boundaries of the village which can be used as a geographic representation on a deed of ownership.  The UAV also allowed the village to determine if their community was being encroached upon by illegal logging activities.

A key point of the presentation on the use of UAV or geographic positioning was its timeliness to be used ‘where and when needed to produce on-demand geospatial datasets that serve a variety of land management and land administration purposes’. Bryan also presented the various UAV platforms and also the imaging and sensing equipment that can be attached and flown on drones. Using the right drone and sensor for the mission specific requirements of the project and constraints of the country is essential. As with the GNSS technology, finding the right tool for the job – in some cases various geographic positioning tools working together – is important.

Joseph Muhlhausen, a natural resource management specialist and Head of Drone Data & Systems at WeRobotics, presented their organizational efforts in co-creating a global network of local knowledge hubs – “Flying Labs®” – in emerging economies. The goal of Flying Labs is to accelerate the positive impact of local aid, health, development and environmental projects by sustainably localizing appropriate robotics solutions, through training of local partners on how to use robotics technology responsibly and effectively to accelerate and scale social good solutions. Muhlhausen underscored the symbiosis between localizing technologies through initiatives such as flying labs, data sharing, and accelerating technological developments with incubators.

The Flying Labs networks builds local capacity. An example can be found in the linked video from the Tanzania Flying Lab here.

Using a drone is in many cases, Muhlhausen pointed out, more efficient and safer for the user than to walk the ground, and in many cases it is more cost effective at scale to use drones. One can also complement existing data geospatial data and aerial imagery with up-dated drone imagery. Usually drone imagery is much more detailed than satellite imagery, however, the use of drones over satellite imagery or traditional aerial photography depends on the extent of the geographic area to be covered.

Muhlhausen also provide insights on drone flight planning including both physical and cultural risks. A drone is not going to provide all the information needed to map a community and it is important to collect socioeconomic data to complement drone imagery.  Beyond imaging and positioning for land applications, Muhlhausen explained the important role drones can play in natural resource management applications such as flood risk modeling. Governments can be more prepared to respond to scenarios of sea and water level rise and policy makers can use drone imagery and computer-driven scenarios to create models of areas vulnerable to flooding and to create evacuation plans or models of expected economic loss as a result of flooding.

Brainstorming Session

In a subsequent “brainstorming” session, moderated by Kevin Barthel, audience members, largely implementers of land tenure and administration programs, were invited to ask questions of the panel to address geographic positioning technologies and to opine on some of the frequently faced challenges and lessons-learned.

When asked what changes the panelists have seen in geographic positioning technologies throughout their career, Bryan Baker responded; “visualization” has changed the most in the sense that one is able to quickly use earth-imaging applications on the web and then easily superimpose other geographic data to visualize geography.  Muhlhausen pointed out that computer processing power has shown the most progress, stating “I think some of the algorithms have existed for a while but the technology has caught up to process a lot of information very quickly”.

How can we bridge the gap between the technology and the appliers of the technology?

Baker provided an example; “engineers without boarders are doing some exciting work with using very low-level technology with rural communities where even double AA batteries can be a hurdle for development”. He added; “Don’t over-technologize the solution if it won’t stay [after a project] and that early engagement with the community will answer a lot of questions or provide a feasible and hopefully sustainable path forward. It’s a challenge — it’s not easy” and highlighted that local engagement and simplicity or ease of use is important.

Pichel approached the question from an institutional perspective, making the point that some of the most conservative actors exist in the land sector; that is surveyors and lawyers who are very risk adverse (primarily for legal liability reasons). Education components and generational change within government land agencies, he stated, play an important role in bringing about change. That is, if officials do not modernize they will be usurped by the younger generations. Muhlhausen added; “When we do community engagement, we see a lot of interest from the community afterwards. We bring this [imagery] back to the community and it changes the way people interact with the data I think working with local partners, like Global Land Alliance does, it really helps the project”.

A question was posed regarding the capacity for such rapid advancement in technologies for many of these communities. Is the expectation for people the global south to accelerate technology-wise 50 years overnight? To this Merrill responded that yes this is the case, but that this phenomenon is “not specific to developing areas. In everything people are adapting quickly to technological change”.

Others attendees postulated about the entrenched interest with drone technology— will those in the government surveying departments fear they will be displaced with this advanced technology and/or by establishing a CORS network?

Baker responded; “The average age of surveyors is getting older and older and the demand for surveys as was pointed out earlier, is becoming more and more. With technology, it will ensure younger surveyors will have a role. It does not make sense to incorporate the younger surveyors into old technologies”. Muhlhausen echoed this thought reflecting that we “train surveyors and I train governments— if they don’t adapt to newer technologies than they won’t get anything out of my trainings, and that is unfortunate”.

Barthel reflected, “geographic positioning and mapping technologies certainly help, but these informal communities are sometimes unmapped for reasons that are not at all related to technology. In all cases, community engagement is very important and takes a significant amount to time. At the same time, the work needs to be done so there has to be a balance between community engagement and doing the technical work”.

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