Documenting land: replacing traditional technologies

Faster cadastre

1 March 2018

A critical shortage of surveyors is slowing down the documentation of land around the world – a vital step in reducing poverty. Frank Pichel reveals how new technologies are replacing traditional surveys with quicker and easier methods

Increased demand for land and a greater understanding of the importance of land rights in sustainable development and poverty alleviation have sparked exponential growth in efforts to document and formalise such rights around the world.

Professionals working in the land sector, particularly surveyors, have a critical role to play in meeting the growing demand for land documentation, but a shortage of land surveyors has become a bottleneck. In Uganda, for example, an estimated 15m parcels of land are not registered or documented. It would take the country’s few dozen registered land surveyors more than 1,000 years to document and register all these if they continue at the current rate. Even when a surveyor is available, their fees are often prohibitive for the vast majority of citizens in emerging economies. Surveys are mostly done on an ad hoc basis for the select few who can afford them. Unfortunately, this bottleneck in the form of affordable services is common in emerging economies.

From Uganda to the Ivory Coast, traditional approaches to documenting and recording property rights are not keeping pace with increased demand. However, recent technological innovations, including drones, GPS technology and cloud computing, are making it easier than ever for individuals, communities and organisations to map and document land rights, so a new role for surveyors is beginning to emerge.

Simple technologies

Cadasta Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Washington DC, was launched in 2015 to meet the growing demand to document land and resource rights for those left out of formal land administration systems in emerging economies. Cadasta works to tackle land administration constraints with easy digital tools and technology designed to help its partners efficiently document, analyse, store and share critical land and resource rights information, particularly in places where governments are failing to provide the public good of equitable and affordable land administration.

The Cadasta platform is a secure suite of mobile and web-based tools designed to collect multi-layered information about people’s relationship with land and resources, including spatial dimensions, footage from drones, digital maps, video or audio interviews, photographs, paper attestations, tax receipts and other supporting documentation. It can also store data that has already been collected through traditional paper-based surveys and maps, and data collected with Cadasta’s suite of digital collection forms; or it can be paired with a wide variety of other digital data collection tools.

Cadasta’s digital forms enable partners to collect data quickly based on their specific needs. The flexibility of the platform allows for data collection in a variety of ways, whether using GPS-enabled smartphones and tablets, paper-based forms combined with satellite imagery to identify property boundaries or hand-held GPS devices. Cadasta works to overcome surveyor shortages and the problems faced with traditional systems, informing individuals, organisations, communities and governments as they make decisions to secure their land and resource rights to build stronger, more sustainable communities.

An incremental approach

In much of the world, particularly in Africa, land is managed by customary tenure systems that are not part of any formal statutory system. In many countries, the government is not able to recognise or manage what is happening in these areas. Additionally, the shortage of qualified land administrators and surveyors in emerging economies affects the government’s ability to manage a formal land system.

For example, there are fewer than 45 licensed surveyors in all of Tanzania, which has a population of about 45m people. The idea of Cadasta’s platform is thus to move communities along a continuum, incrementally documenting their land rights. For this purpose, a sketch map with satellite imagery of imprecise boundaries may be a sufficient starting point. Local partners can then improve on that data, if they choose, until they eventually meet their government’s requirements. By strengthening the evidence of customary land rights, the security of these rights is improved.

A new role for surveyors

By making it easier for individuals, communities and organisations to map and document property, Cadasta gives governments and surveyors access to more land data than ever before.

With its digital data collection and management tools, the platform can help formal land administration systems move away from paper-based processes. This enables a new and evolving role for land surveyors in emerging economies in data quality control and management. In this role, the traditional surveying community can use their skills and experiences to verify and improve initial data to bring it into the formal system for more effective and affordable management.

It would take land surveyors in Uganda more than 1,000 years to document unregistered parcels

This approach was successful in Rwanda, where the UK government supported massive, systematic titling. Through this programme, the Rwandan government was able to demarcate and register all land in the country for the first time – more than 10m parcels – in just 3 years. Rather than rely on the country’s few registered surveyors, the programme trained local communities and landowners to demarcate their parcel boundaries. The data was then submitted to the local land agency District Land Bureau for review by professional surveyors before going into the registry.

Documenting land rights in Bangladesh

In an effort to reduce conflict and provide a foundation for more sustainable development, the government of Bangladesh launched an ambitious programme to document all land rights in the country and create a national digital land registry. The government enlisted a local non-profit organisation, Uttaran, to ensure that vulnerable groups such as religious minorities, lower castes, women and the elderly were informed of the project and that their land rights were included in the registry.

After first attempting the project on printed survey forms and testing a range of digital tools, Uttaran turned to Cadasta for help. Cadasta worked with Uttaran to make the process more accurate and efficient, with a bespoke data collection form using a smartphone- or tablet-based data collection application called GeoOpenDataKit or GeoODK. GeoODK is an open-source mobile application for collecting survey information. After a short training course with Cadasta, Uttaran staff reached more than 13,000 families by migrating their existing data and continuing with the field data collection. The data collected included key documents that supported ownership claims.

Using the survey data, the government and Uttaran educated landowners and communities about their legal rights. This accelerated the issuing of land titles for these families, and enabled the government to launch the country’s first digital land rights database.


A functioning land administration sector is the foundation of a national economy, critical for economic growth. Unfortunately, effective land registries and cadastral systems with national coverage exist in only a fraction of the world’s countries. Without accurate information regarding land rights, many development goals – including food security, sustainable resource management, climate change mitigation and equal rights to property for women – remain impossible to achieve, while there is also potential for conflict when rights are not recognised and enforced.

Cadasta Foundation is working to overcome these hurdles. Where individuals, communities, and organisations can document their land rights, then governments and surveyors have access to more land data than ever before. By reviewing and formalising this data, surveyors can help the 70% of the world’s population who are currently left out of formal systems to benefit from secure land and resource rights.

Frank Pichel is Chief Programme Officer of the Cadasta Foundation

Further information