Home Articles Grounded in land: Importance of geodetic infrastructure in modern SDI

Grounded in land: Importance of geodetic infrastructure in modern SDI

The importance of modern SDI, its functionality across much of society and its use in the administration of land is undeniable. An integral part of modern SDI is a strong geodetic infrastructure that serves as the backbone of the entire system.
By John Whitehead and William Marbell


A critical component of the land-registration process is the efficiency with which the geometric data that define the extents of adjudicated boundaries of land are captured, processed and stored for easy retrieval and management. In land registration, spatial technology plays the critical role of defining physical characteristics of land parcels in an accurate and discernible manner. Indeed, without this physical definition, title to land has little economic value because it lacks the fundamental information needed to define its value both to the owner and to others.

The World Bank’s Land Governance Assessment Framework (LGAF), which examines the land tenure systems in five distinct developing countries, establishes that, while initial land registry may take place without significant attention paid to the spatial characteristics of land, lack of a geometric definition of parcels in land-title registration has detrimental long-term effects that carry high economic and social costs. It is unsurprising that 12 of the LGAF’s 21 Land Governance Indicators suggest a strong need for spatial data infrastructure (SDI). While not limited to land registry, the need for spatial data centers around registries, because assets are defined and owners and occupants are aligned with them when land is registered. Registry information feeds a multitude of other land-management functions such as property taxation, land-use planning, administrative and infrastructure planning, and more.

When incorporated into a land registry system, high-quality spatial data facilitates greater efficiencies in land markets by helping to define property boundaries, area, and location to an extent that a parcel’s physical features are not disputed. In areas where the demand for land is high, the demand for accurate spatial data typically is also high. This dynamic between land markets and varying spatial data accuracy is well-understood and well-documented and has long since justified the development and management of cadastral systems. As a source of spatial data that is current, the cadastre is a valuable resource for other segments of society, and ultimately serves as a catalyst for greater spatial data use. A country’s SDI, which contains many types of spatial data and technology, is heavily reliant on cadastral systems.Trimble-1

Adoption of cadastral systems and realization of the benefits they provide may not be easily achieved in the developing world due to myriad challenges. Many developing countries may not have legacy institutions; even if they do, the institutions often lack the technical capacity and resources to deploy modern, cost-effective spatial data capture and management techniques. In some instances, spatial data legitimacy has suffered due to regime change or radical ideological shifts in a country. While these reasons should not be ignored, developing countries are in fact in a fortunate position. Just as cellular technology has enabled most of the developing world to bypass fixed-line telecommunications infrastructure, SDI — of which the cadastre is a fundamental component — helps developing nations avoid years of gradual, costly technology adoption similar to what has taken place in the developed world. More importantly, the cost of this kind of technological leap-frogging is insignificant in comparison to the tremendous economic and social benefits to be accrued.

World Bank, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and others have long recognized the role of land in stimulating and sustaining economic development. The critical role of enhanced land tenure security and its role in poverty reduction have been at the core of recent land-reform projects, mainly in the developing world. Many bottlenecks in the efficient delivery of land administration can be traced to inadequate technology use in the process of securing title to land and its long-term management. Geospatial technology in particular has been increasingly popular with land administrators. Not surprisingly, spatial data holds tremendous value outside the land sector as it is utilized by government, civil society, and private-sector entities in a multitude of functions. Despite its growing popularity, investment in spatial technology is often made within the parameters of only one or a few uses, and thus may be inadequate to ensure that the benefits can be realized by greater society.

What constitutes modern SDI?
There is no benchmark that defines what a modern SDI is or is not, but it is useful to consider the inherent characteristics of a modern SDI that provide benefits to society: system interoperability (openness); integration of old and new technologies; and system accessibility for multiple stakeholders, such as government entities, private individuals and companies, and civil society.

A Booz Allen Hamilton (2005) study of interoperability of geospatial technology found that through examination of the savings-to-investment ratio projects that adopt interoperability standards experience overall costs that are 30% lower on a comparative basis. In general, implementation costs are higher when interoperability is a central component of the project, but this higher initial investment brings up to 26% savings in operation and maintenance costs. This dynamic is reflected in the long-term risk profile of a project, which is found to be higher where interoperability is ignored, because investment decision-making is supported by mutually accepted data and procedural norms. Continuous operating reference stations (CORS), which provide the basis for the use of a common reference frame (or common coordinate system), add significantly to the interoperability of an SDI because of the ease of ubiquitous collection of spatial data.

A 2009 study funded by the National Geodetic Society of the USA estimates the value of the national spatial reference frame, of which CORS is a significant part, is approximately $2.4 billion per year. While not assuming that the use of CORS in the US is similar to that in the developing world, the study highlights the benefits that may be achieved. Geographic information systems also facilitate interoperability by providing a platform for analysis of multiple spatial datasets, as well as by allowing for spatial and non-spatial data to be combined into a dynamic functional geographic database.

While SDI development today requires the adoption of new technologies, such as, surveying using GNSS or real-time networks (RTN), it supports integration of data collected using conventional surveying techniques as well. The latter provides a framework that supports adoption of new surveying techniques by practicing professionals over a period of time. This possibility of integration of technologies reduces the adverse impact of radically changing data-collection methods while improving productivity and capacity. Often in land titling initiatives, time constraints for completing the titling process drive the use of more efficient technologies. Traditionally, the learning curve in adopting new technologies acts as a disincentive for its acceptance by practicing professionals. However, the possibility of integrating a number of data sources irrespective of the methodology that underpins the data collection in modern SDI provides a relief to professionals who are slow to adopt new techniques.

Role of geodetic infrastructure in SDI development
Modern SDI is a combination of hardware, software, education, training, and regenerating capacity for the acquisition, analysis and maintenance of spatial information. A cadastre contains a large portion of this data and acts as a primary database. The efficiency achieved by using SDI does not only justify its cost, but also facilitates the increased adoption of spatial technology that generates greater economic benefit. SDI affects the use of spatial data in a repetitive manner, encouraging spatial data users to continue to leverage the infrastructure.

In reality, there exists great variation across markets from SDIs that take full advantage of cutting-edge geospatial technology to fragile systems void of modern technology and technical capacity among users. The inclusion of GNSS technology in cadastral development has brought profound changes to surveying and mapping. Spatial technology professionals are transitioning from heavy reliance on optical instruments towards an integrated approach that combines optical instruments, GNSS, remote sensing, GIS, and other technologies. Combining technologies allows an increase in spatial data coverage, and provides alternatives for professionals collecting data in variable, diverse environments where one data-collection technology may perform better than others. Importantly, modern cadastral systems utilizing CORS that provide real-time positioning have benefitted the most from GNSS technology.

In the context of land registry and titling systems, CORS networks have increased the speed and reduced the cost with which land parcels can be surveyed, which has brought greater efficiency to the critical early phases of systematic titling. Workflows for titling lands are improved due to rapid production of parcel maps and greater overall transparency of the physical attributes of parcels. Adjudication remains a process which is affected by many variables unassociated with spatial information. However, the ability to demarcate boundaries when disputes arise is streamlined and made more efficient because of the use of CORS, which may improve the dispute resolution process following systematic land registration. Perhaps more important is how CORS improves the sustainability of dynamic land records by providing a geospatial framework that enhances the ubiquitous determination of location.

As the value of land increases, so does the demand for a highly accurate geometric definition of land. CORS networks provide a backbone for effective parcel data collection on a common reference frame, which allows for integration of affordable, high-accuracy data into a modern SDI.

Sustainable land management and geospatial technology
Land records prior to the evolution and adaption of information technology were literally held in huge piles of paper documents that occupied copious amounts of space in land registries around the world. Today, cadastral management software solutions support conversion of existing records into electronic format to facilitate integration of existing records with new ones and provide a more-effective means of managing the data and generating reports.

A combination of GNSS technology, optical instruments, photogrammetry and remote sensing are providing more cost-effective ways of gathering geometric data on the boundary of parcels and associated attribute information to establish the ownership of the parcels in a cadaster. Utilizing independent GNSS surveys or geodetic network solutions permits ubiquitous positioning determination at varying degrees of accuracy depending on the type of network. Geodetic networks provide services that allow for the adoption of positioning beyond the requirements of cadastral survey and indeed a fundamental infrastructure that enhances a myriad of economic activities.

Reliance on land highlights the need within governance institutions to leverage spatial data for better management, improve delivery of title, and continue to develop SDI

Today, the reduction in cost and increased benefits of advancements in technology are making formalization of land rights for the poor in developing world more feasible than before. The World Bank figures on recent major, land-right formalization projects show that the costs of projects vary between $20 million to $250 million. Most of these projects involve a substantial amount of mapping, adjudication and parcel surveying and registration. All these activities are now heavily dependent on spatial technology for efficiency and productivity.

Evaluating land projects
The economic benefits of SDI are far-reaching, as revealed by the spectrum of applications of spatial data However, attempts at developing a rigorous conceptual framework for measuring these benefits have proved daunting. This is partly due to the multipurpose and ubiquitous nature of SDI in almost every part of the economic and social sphere.

The work of the Allen Consulting Group (2008) among others, which aimed at evaluating the economic impact of SDI on certain sub-sectors of the Australian economy, was pioneering as well as educative. The ACIL Tasman (2008) study of the value of spatial technology to the Australian economy was ground-breaking as the first known attempt of establishing the aggregate economic impact of spatial technology in an economy. The approach determined the aggregate economic impact of investment in geospatial technology by capturing its footprint throughout the Australian economy in terms of its impact on GDP, using the computable general equilibrium framework (CGE). Due to the fact that an SDI is founded on robust modern geodetic infrastructure, it is important to note that the study focuses heavily on the provision of real-time spatial data. In terms of achieving both real-time data acquisition and data accessibility, geodetic infrastructure is a requisite investment, particularly in providing these services on a national scale. Adoption of the approach will provide a good measure of the economic benefits to be accrued from investments in geospatial technology.

One of the drawbacks to the CGE framework, however, is its colossal data requirement, which may prove a constraint in many developing countries. In the absence of data in Ghana, the World Bank instead applied the empirical results of the study in estimating the economic return on investment in Phase 2 of the Ghana Land Administration Project for a period of 20 years. The project investment over the implementation period of five years is $75 million, followed by a recurrent operation cost of $1 million annually for the remaining 15 years. Project benefits are not expected to occur until the investment phase is complete, allowing for 15 years of benefits to be realized. Starting with a very conservative impact on GDP of 0.08%, the project ERR was estimated at 15% using the standard project opportunity cost of 10%. Increases in the impact on GDP from 0.08% to 0.1% and 0.4% generate ERRs of 21% and 49%, respectively, were estimated.

One notable aspect of the World Bank estimate is that even the most aggressive assumptions of impact on GDP in Ghana fall short of the lowest estimated impact of spatial technology on Australian GDP given in the ACIL Tasman (2008) study. Given this conservative application, the results of a post-implementation evaluation and how it compares to the pre-project assessment will be revealing and informative at the end of the project.

While Ghana’s SDI is developing, it has active mining and agriculture sectors and a generic infrastructure deficit, so the expectation is that the economic impact of the investment in a nationwide geodetic infrastructure will be much more pronounced than in the case of Australia. Furthermore, Ghana’s economy is heavily reliant on land, from agriculture to forestry to mining. This reliance on land, as well as rapid land-price inflation spurred by speculation and urbanization, highlights the need within land-governance institutions to leverage spatial data to streamline land management, improve delivery of title, and continue to develop SDI. This can be done by updating and actively managing and sustaining land market activity. Recognizing the broader importance of SDI economy-wide, Phase 2 investment by the World Bank in Ghana’s SDI goes beyond the scope of land administration and facilitates investment for a broad user base.

The importance of modern SDI, its functionality across much of society and its use in the administration of land is undeniable. A modern SDI, while difficult to define holistically, allows for system interoperability, facilitates the integration of old and new technologies, and, importantly, is accessible to multiple stakeholders. An integral part of modern SDI is a strong geodetic infrastructure that serves as the backbone of the entire system. Through a ubiquitous positioning framework, data can be collected in a cost-effective and efficient manner and leveraged in a variety of applications hitherto inconceivable.

William Marbell
Continent Manager, Africa, Trimble
[email protected]

John Whitehead
Geospatial Sales Continent Manager, APAC, Trimble
[email protected]