People Power Vs Technology

People Power Vs Technology

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Bill Love
Bill Love
CEO
Credent Technology Asia, singapore
[email protected]

There are many examples of integrated LIS attempts in ASEAN but none can claim to fully and successfully integrate data across the boundaries of many government agencies. Despite many years of development, it is a common reality that LIS today are at best only partially successful, never having reached their full potential

Land data integration is one of the most important information technology projects that government can undertake. As a citizen this statement may not be self-evident so I’ll explain why. Imagine there is a bungalow that you want to buy; now landed property is very expensive here and you will probably need a loan. You and the finance company will want to know all there is to know about this property. For example, you want to be sure that it has a good and clean title, that is, the person offering the property has the legal right to do so; that the physical property and its location match its legal description; that there are no encumbrances, obligations or other interests in the property; that there are no plans by government authorities to resume the land or otherwise plan to interfere with it for purposes such as road construction; that the land use zoning allows you to carry out your purposes for the property and so on. The task of answering these questions is usually given to your lawyer but if you ever tried to do it yourself you would be driven crazy visiting and queuing at a seemingly endless list of government departments and statutory authorities. An integrated land information system uses information technology that allows the databases of many such organisations to link associated land records and seamlessly share the data making it available to one another and the public at large from a single point of access.

Probably every developed and developing nation is engaged to some extent in land data integration at this moment such is the importance of this process. The development of land for commercial, industrial, residential – any purpose – requires access to lots of land information and the economic development of a city, province, state or nation is dependent on the efficacy of this process.

Land data is both textual and graphic, e.g. address, owner’s name and valuation are obviously textual. The description of a land parcel can be graphic, i.e. a collection of points and lines which define the geographic boundaries of the parcel with its neighbours. Similarly, pubic utilities can be represented graphically by points and lines representing pipes and valves while land use and planning information is often depicted by an area which is coloured or cross-hatched representing different land use or planning zones. Each point, line or area feature may have textual information linked to it to describe it further. When viewed on a computer an operator can click on a feature and retrieve its attribute data. Alternatively, an operator can key in an identifier or a specific attribute and retrieve and display the corresponding graphic data. Thus the integration of land information brings together different types of information in order to describe land in terms of its textual and graphical attributes. Such integration is essential for the process of land administration and enables government to provide services such as, street maps, location of underground facilities to construction contractors, issuance of building licenses, assists in urban planning and environmental monitoring, and levying rates and land taxes.

Because the various agencies that collect land data do so at different accuracies, at different times and sometimes using different points of reference according to their particular needs, the graphic data when overlaid is usually a chaotic mess. The same problem occurs with textual data too. For example, when a property is sold, change of ownership information takes time to reach all of the affected agencies. There is a period during which there is conflicting information about who owns the property. The difficult task of integrating land information is making it all fit together so it can be shared transparently and simultaneously across the entire (government) enterprise. Clearly information technology has a vital roll to play and indeed is the only way to create this environment. Geographic Information Systems (GIS), database, local and wide area networks, and Internet publishing provide the tools and technology to pull together and host land data collected by various government agencies in a truly integrated manner.

The concept of integrated land information systems (LIS) is not new. Studies and development in this field date back to the 1970’s when computing power offered the promise of storage and rapid retrieval of massive amounts of data. In Singapore, development of an integrated land information system can be traced to the original Land Data Hub project (1988) in the State Land Authority (SLA). Neighbouring Malaysia has a National Land Information System (NaLIS).

It would be most convenient to suggest that the reason for this predicament is that technology has failed to deliver the required solution, or that data integration of this magnitude is beyond the capability of technology at the present time. Technology continues to evolve and improve for sure but adequate technology is available and – has been for some time – to address the needs of integrated land information systems. To add to the confusion, some well known IT vendors peddle this view and of course they would be new boys on the block with little or no previous experience with integrated LIS, or which have an agenda to push the ‘next new thing’ in IT. But it would be untrue and futile to either lay the blame for failure or look for deliverance in technology alone because the nature of the problem is not technological.

Successful implementation of an integrated information system requires selfless collaboration among people and the entities they represent and a willingness to share for the common good. Here are three issues that always come into play in an integrated LIS project:

  • Information is gathered at a certain cost and for those that can afford to do so it becomes a competitive advantage and both a valuable and powerful asset. Given the trend to corporatisation and even privatization in the pubic sector, no chief executive will freely part with such an asset; yet the temptation to impose a fee on the sharing of data is a common cause of failure for integrated LIS.
  • Furthermore, after enduring the cost of collecting data, an entity has an inherent, but not necessarily correct, belief that their data is accurate and complete. (It may be accurate and complete by their standards but not necessarily others.) Only when the data is integrated with other’s data will this become apparent and then neither organization will admit fault or responsibility to correct data, which in their belief, is already correct.
  • A strong political mandate is required to effect the necessary level of inter-departmental and cross-ministry collaboration to prize data from one organization and make it available and suitable for another’s use. Conversely, politicizing the project sabotages the chance of establishing the free-will to collaborate and obscures the common goal. The establishment of a separate political entity to oversee the project creates a hierarchy where a network should suffice; promotes authoritarianism where democracy is needed.

Now everyday of my professional life I have been self-employed or engaged in business; I don’t have a background in politics or public administration and, although I am a good student of human nature, therefore I cannot offer an authoritative solution to these issues. But to support my argument, if not my credibility, it is true to say that the fundamental issues above are not novel and have been mooted in forums for integrated LIS for as long as the systems themselves have been contemplated. That these issues are still around 30 years later is testimony to the stubbornness of human nature and perhaps its resistance to information technology. Perhaps the old LIS practitioners are bored with this problem and having left it to a new batch of professionals, old ground is inevitably covered again. Perhaps those given the political mandate see the issues all too clearly and find the only effective influence they can wield is through technological change. Or perhaps global IT corporations with mega marketing budgets and a desire to capture this market are more than willing to take the fall and gain the subsequent opportunity to introduce a new technological panacea. Three corporations in Singapore are evidently willing to jointly ‘invest’ $25million to show how their next new thing can develop the full potential of Land Data Hub. But a successful roll-out from pilot to production system is assuredly not going to happen since no new technology will address the issues.

The concept of integrated land information systems (LIS) is not new. Studies and development in this field date back to the 1970s when computing power offered the promise of storage and rapid retrieval of massive amounts of data

Instead of a wasteful experiment with unnecessary new technology to which only the technology vendors can be truly committed, a good start would be for government to review the ultimate goal of an integrated LIS to produce coherently integrated data for the common good. First, there should not be any fees imposed for the provision of up-to-date data between the collaborating agencies. Second, any analysis of return on investment should include consideration of the efficacy of government resulting from access to coherently integrated land information. Third, the entity given the political mandate to lead the establishment of an integrated LIS should itself be a data provider or data integrator involved in collecting, managing, processing of land data.

Government has the responsibility to provide an environment into which the technology can be effectively placed. Both are important and neither can succeed without the other.