Land Information System Research Paper

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1. History

The concept of the Land Information System was first developed during the 1980s, but its roots go far back to ancient times. Its present-day evolution is a direct result of two simultaneously occurring phenomena of the closing decades of the twentieth century, one being the rapid growth of the world’s human population and the pressure that this growth has had and is having on the planet’s dwindling land resources. The other continues to be the prodigious progress in the field of computer-based information systems. Before reviewing what a Land Information System could look like today, let us briefly look back at its origins and appreciate that many of the principles maintained at present have come to us from many centuries ago.

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There can be little doubt that humans have always in one way or another classified and arranged their immediate and surrounding territorial space. This endeavor is a necessity even for an individual acting alone, and more so for groups or clans working in unison. We can very well imagine prehistoric cave dwellers designating areas for such purposes as cooking, sleeping, storing, and gathering—together within the confines of their individual and shared living space. Over time, as societies grew in numbers and in complexity, accompanied by the conscious setting aside of spaces or units of land within which to perform specific activities or functions, the task of preparing an accounting system designed to establish formally and govern these activities or functions became an inescapable necessity.

A detailed history of the evolution of land recording is not readily available. What we do have is evidence that as a formal activity land accounting or inventorying is several thousand years old. For example, there is proof in the form of a Chaldean tablet prepared some six thousand years ago. The same may possibly represent some form of agricultural inventory, describing the production of different crops within distinct areal units, for a particular harvest period. This singular type of registry, performed over time, could have undoubtedly given the ancient Babylonians a detailed view of their food production in the Tigris Euphrates river valley, which in turn allowed this form of wealth to be planned for and dealt with accordingly.

There is also evidence that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and in America the Incas and the Aztecs, maintained elaborate land records. As for Asia, the Chinese have a millenary tradition in the establishment of formal accounting and controls for the administration of land. The Romans, for example, were particularly active in the preparation of ‘cadastral’ records. Not only would they prepare and maintain land registers in outlying provincial cities and towns but also copies were remitted to Rome to be consigned to a central registrar. During the reign of Roman emperor Diocletian (AD 284–305) the jugum, a tax on a unit of cultivable land, was imposed. Besides requiring extensive surveying to be undertaken and periodic assessments, it established a linkage between the levying of taxes and the ownership and productivity of land. As empires and kingdoms grew in size and complexity, the inventory of land, and thus the capability of exercising controls over this most important source of wealth and power, was indispensable to their survival. But it was not until the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth that what can be qualified as a ‘modern cadastre’ began to be implemented, particularly in continental Europe. The driving force behind its development and implementation was the taxation of land and its component buildings, and thus its name ‘tax cadastre.’

The modern cadastral survey, with its concomitant cadastral record, is the mainstay of any land information system of the present or near future. What must be kept in mind is that no single cadastral system is suitable for all cases due to the enormous disparities that presently exist between national cultures, jurisprudence, and available material and human resources. It is clear that a cadastral survey must be ‘tailored’ to particular circumstances, but maintaining universally recognized methodology and content. In short, it is an ongoing process that over time can acquire the additional elements that will eventually result in a modern system with all its inherent advantages.

2. The Cadastral Survey

The term cadastre is believed to have derived from the combination of two late Greek words, kata (according to) and stichon (line). At the present time, most land recording activity is undertaken by local or municipal public authorities under the guise of the cadastral survey, performed by the ‘cadastral office.’ Its primary purpose has been for the most part that of establishing the foundation for the implementation and collection of the property tax, predominantly at the urban level.

The cadastre is a parcel-based system, with the gathered information referenced to unique and welldefined units of land. A land parcel is defined to be ‘a continuous area of land (and its components) in which unique and homogenous interests are recognized.’ Each parcel is assigned an exclusive parcel number or identifier, generally by means of a geocodification system, and all are graphically described by means of a large-scale cadastral map.

The data collected for each unique parcel, and linked directly to the cadastral map via the parcel number, generally come under four headings: (1) Location attributes; (2) Physical attributes; (3) Economic attributes; and (4) Legal attributes.

2.1 Location Attributes

The location attributes fix the land unit’s position on the cadastral map, be it at a small scale (1:20,000) such as a metropolitan area, or with a large scale (1:500) of a city block or the basic unit, the parcel. There are three basic ways of locating a parcel, all of which should, if at all possible, be simultaneously present in the parcel’s cadastral record. These are the tangential location, the coordinate location, and the areal location. Each one merits a brief individual description.

Most if not all nations utilize the tangential location for the positioning of individual properties. This age old system is simply the commonplace ‘street number or address,’ or some other similar locating element or counterpart. The premise is that the parcel’s location is a function of the means or method of physically accessing it. Be it for example a street, avenue, or alleyway, along with an additional component, usually a number, it is possible to identify the parcel’s singular location. For even greater reference, accompanying political administrative elements are included to give the parcel a global position, example: 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, the address of the White House.

Modern cartography has always been dependent on astronomy and the use of geographic coordinate systems. But in spite of being available in one form or another for hundreds of years, the use of coordinate location as a component of the cadastral survey is actually a twentieth century occurrence. Its inclusion must be considered an important advancement in the steady progress and modernization of any cadastre system. The confusion often present in the exclusive use of tangential location, especially in rural areas or regions of difficult access, can most often be satisfactorily resolved by means of coordinate location. Its presence in the cadastral survey can be of two forms, one being a single coordinate reference point within the boundaries of the parcel. The other presence is generally referred to the cadastral map, where the coordinates of each of the existing vertices, or corners of the closed polygon, are clearly labeled.

Areal location refers to the linkage between the total space of the parcel with a technically established identifier or geographic code. The advances in the development of geocodification have occurred simultaneously with the progress in the field of computer technology. Assigning a unique numeric code to each parcel not only enormously facilitates the organization of the data files but also provides for rapid access to both graphic and alpha numeric information, and allows for the cross-referencing of information of a particular parcel from various sources. There is no single unique way of designing what can be called a cadastral location code, but they generally fall into two categories: the technical cadastral code and the simplified cadastral code. The former is based on the use of quadrants of equal size, using as the starting point, for example, maps based on the UTM coordinate system. The advantage of this method is that extensive geographical areas can be associated with a common cartographic reference. The disadvantage is that its complexity renders its use difficult, except to those especially trained. The latter, the simplified cadastral code, has as its main advantage in that it utilizes commonplace geographic elements in establishing the boundaries of the different levels of spatial aggregation, thus making it easy to understand and use. Its disadvantage is that the commonplace is vulnerable to change. Regardless of the method to be chosen, a numeric code of no less than 10 digits can easily link land data with its corresponding location on the cadastral map.

2.2 Physical Attributes

A single universally accepted cadastral register, or dossier, useful for all necessities and circumstances, does not exist. Each governmental authority must select the type and amount of information that it deems necessary and desirable. In order to avoid unnecessary costs and complications, the volume of information should be kept at the necessary minimum. Nevertheless, the design of the register should be modular and flexible so as to allow for adjustments over time, the implementation of positive changes that will not negatively affect the integrity, and usefulness of the existing database.

With respect to the physical attributes of each parcel, the following information should be included:

  • Basic characteristics of the land such as size, shape, occupied or vacant, topography, and availability of public services.
  • Basic characteristics of existing buildings such as type of occupancy (by owner, rented, unoccupied), type of building (single family home, apartment complex, commercial establishment), use, conservation, and basic structural characteristics.

If possible, it is recommended to include one or more photographs of all parcels and constructions, but especially so of the building if it is of some historical and/or architectural value. In some jurisdictions, the planning office or engineering department stores copies of the building’s blueprints. If so, a reference to the location of these instruments should also be included.

2.3 Economic Attributes

For most of its existence, the cadastral survey had as its central and most important function the calculation and collection of the property tax. This tribute represents the primary source of income for many local governments, and therefore the focus of the cadastral undertaking has been very often narrowly confined to this end. But it is now clear that besides being an indispensable instrument for the levying of the property tax, the economic attributes reflected in the cadastral survey can be of significant assistance in the formulation of a multifaceted economic policy, embracing not only the traditional financial aspects but also as an instrument for the planning of growth and development. Examples of the latter include the use of tax incentives and disincentives in order to direct development as a reliable reference for the correct execution of eminent domain, and as a complimentary tool for the calculation of value added to property as a result of investments in public infrastructure.

The financial health of many local governments may very well depend upon an effective implementation of a dynamic, efficient, and fair property tax code. To accomplish this end, the cadastral office must establish a working methodology that will enable it to continuously adjust values to reflect changes in the land market (the inflation and depression in the price of real property), effectively charge and collect the corresponding tax from each property holder, and finally, to ensure that the amount collected is reasonable and in accordance with the law. It is clear that this enormous and complex task cannot be adequately accomplished without automating the land data base.

The initial problem in obtaining the economic attributes of the parcel is in defining the concept of value. There exists no single accepted formula for accomplishing this end, but regardless of the one adopted, it must be flexible enough so as to make adjustments for the purpose of perfecting it over time. Once defined, a value is then assigned for each parcel (individually to the land, and if present, in combination with the building components), and it is then possible to calculate the appropriate tax. Generally, the manner of assigning value to each individual parcel is accomplished by means of a two-tiered process, beginning with a massive appraisal to be followed by an individual appraisal.

Whenever there exists a general backlog in the cadastral record, which may very well be the case in most of the world’s municipalities, the recourse to the massive appraisal is unavoidable. Its principal advantage is that it permits an initial calculation of value and the assigning of a tax duty to a large number of properties in the short term. Its main disadvantage is that to ensure fairness to the taxpayer, the massive appraisal should lean towards minimum values so as not to incur the injustice of overtaxing. This in turn represents a lower tax income than would be the case if the survey were reasonably up to date. Consequently, the medianterm goal should be to undertake systematic individual appraisals so as to insure that higher valued properties are appraised first, and that eventually each contributor’s property tax be in correspondence to the market value of their holdings.

2.4 Legal Attributes

It is often the case that the cadastral record refers legal ownership of each individual parcel to the prevailing jurisprudence governing the Land Registration System. Nonetheless, the cadastral record should include the following basic information concerning tenure and use:

  • The name, address, and phone number of the property’s presumed owner, and if applicable, the same data as to its administrator. The owner in turn can be of several categories, including private individual, government agency (national, state or provincial, local), community, corporate, condominium, and mixed (national and local government ownership for example).
  • The nature of the occupancy of the parcel, for example, whether the same is unoccupied, occupied by owner, rented, entrusted, or squatted.
  • The present use given to the property in accordance to an established system of classification of land use activities. These uses in urban areas generally include the following: vacant, residential, commercial, industrial, governmental, religious, transportation, and cultural-recreational. In nonurban or rural areas, uses such as agricultural, mining, and forestry are classified. The legal importance of determining existing use is related directly to the established zoning ordinance and/or approved land use plan, and thus whether or not the use in question is in compliance, as well as the effect the prescribed zoning has on its tax bracket.

2.5 Multipurpose Cadastre

Around the 1930s and 1940s, the term ‘multipurpose cadastre’ first appeared. The expression ‘modern cadastre’ could just as easily be used in its place. Regardless of whichever term is employed, they both illustrate the progress the cadastral survey has experienced in the twentieth century. An important aspect of this progress has undoubtedly been the enormous advances in the automating of both the mapping, and the data collection and maintenance, the ‘how’ aspect. But equally important, if not more so, have been the advances made with respect to ‘for what end’ the cadastral survey is undertaken. The systematic inclusion of information such as land use, soil assessment, public services, and historical conditions allow for the cadastral record to be of singular usefulness in the implementation of land management strategies and the preparation of urban and regional plans. The purpose is no longer just fiscal, but managerial and planning as well.

One must not confuse Multipurpose Cadastre with Land Information System. Whereas the cadastre is generally a public sector endeavor, with laws and ordinances governing its purpose and execution, a Land Information System is the outcome of an understanding attained by numerous participants from both the public and the private sector. Of these participants, there can be no doubt that foremost from the public sector is the role played by the cadastral office. But to establish a Land Information System effectively, the presence of another public sector undertaking is required, the one performed by the entity responsible for maintaining the Land Registration System.

3. Land Registration

Land Registration is concerned with land tenure, which is ‘the nature of the legal estate in land,’ or simply stated, the rights by which an individual or groups lay claim to landed property. Internationally, there exist innumerable ways of conceptualizing the character and manner of existing rights over land, but generally they are an expression of a particular combination of ‘customary law’ and of ‘formal law.’ In most States, this expression is manifested by means of one of two acknowledged systems of Land Registration, the Land Deed and the Land Title.

A Land Deed is a ‘writing or document executed under seal and delivered to effect a conveyance,’ with conveyance signifying the transfer of property from one entity (person or party) to another. This in turn can result in the establishment of a Deed Registration System, which ‘means that the deed itself, being a document describing an isolated transaction, is registered. This deed is evidence that a particular transaction took place, but it is in principle not in itself proof of the legal rights of the parties to conduct that transaction.’ Thus in order to strengthen or guarantee the purchaser’s rights of ownership, it is recommendable to trace backwards the property’s ‘root title.’ This can generally be accomplished when a close relationship is established and maintained between a systematic deed registration archive and a functioning cadastral record.

A Land Title entails the registration of the consequence of a transaction, that is, the ‘title’ or the acquired right in and of itself. It is by means of a publicly accepted registration that the acquired right is produced. The registration of property (land title) is a public institution ‘for the purpose of registering the possession of title and the conditions of dominion over a particular landed property, for the exercising of the contractual obligations over the same and as a guarantee for the contracting parties, not only with respect to the property in and of itself, but also to the personal circumstances of the proprietor.’ From a juridical point of view, some argue that the relation between deed registration and title registration is comparable to the relation between legal facts and legal consequences.

To be effective, all land registration systems should abide by the following three principles: (1) The Mirror Principle—the land register is the true reflection of the legal status of the property; (2) The Curtain Principle—no further investigation into the root title of the property is required; and (3) The Insurance Principle—the State guarantees to all parties the validity of the information thus subscribed, and is liable to honor any valid disclaimer presented unto the register. In order to best insure the upholding of these three principles, there must be cooperation and coordination of the activities performed by the surveyor, the notary, and the registrar. Each of these parties should have a clear understanding of the role played by the other two if the land recording process is to be effective and reliable.

Almost all land registration systems are exclusively descriptive and legalistic. In order to strengthen the important relation between the ‘legal object’ (parcel) with its location and physical attributes, modern legislation should require a direct relationship between the register and the cadastral office. Some would argue that the most recommendable direction should be toward an eventual fusing of these two activities. Although the advantages of doing so appear to be obvious, the benefits of having them separate should not be overlooked. Land registration worldwide is fraught with abuse and fraud, due in great measure to the absence of oversight and checksand-balances between the different actors in the process. Rather than fusing, which would concentrate the decision-making process and thus facilitate possible arbitrariness and corruption on the part of public officials, improved coordination and integration between the register and the cadastral record should improve the detection of irregularities and incongruities when and wherever these may arise. The more open a Land Registration System is to public inspection and scrutiny, the less vulnerable the information it contains.

4. Public, Private, and Mixed Land Recording Systems

In Brazil it is called logradouro, and it means ‘public way, street, public square or garden.’ When these spaces, or any nonparcel areal unit is officially surveyed and recorded, it is called cadastro de logradouro (public way cadastre). As the management of urban space has become more and more complex, the importance of having and maintaining information of these and other shared spaces is paramount. But to do so the participation of both the public and private sector, or a combination of the two (mixed), is essential.

The public park or square is incorporated into the cadastral record generally in the form of the ‘city block.’ Not so the highway, street, or alleyway. Although viewed as a separate entity, these ‘spaces of movement’ are clearly an important part of the urban landscape. So much so that some studies of major cities in the United States have calculated that streets occupy between 20% and 40% of the land surface of the Central Business Districts. By no means should this significant portion of urban space be excluded from the land recording process.

The preparation of a public way cadastre requires the participation of numerous parties, most of which are involved with the provision of public services. Basic street infrastructure (sewer, water, drainage, pavement, sidewalks, and sidewalk furniture) is generally the responsibility of the public sector. On the other hand, services such as electricity, telephone, and television cable, all of which utilize the public way, are very often provided by private sector companies. But either way, all of them are subjected to some form of public regulation, mostly with respect to the manner the particular service is physically established. Until recent years little importance was given to ‘centralizing’ the information of these various service providers, a step that would have set the stage for improved planning, coordination, and control over the public way. And even if regulations were in place to create a unified public way cadastre, unless all parties involved agreed to a common geocodification base, the goal of establishing and maintaining a public way cadastre would be seriously hampered.

In the early 1970s, J. Brian McLoughlin addressed the importance of establishing a single cartographic reference base when he stated the following: ‘What we wish to reiterate is the need to bring all data to a common system of areal units; unless this is done its utility is very considerably reduced, indeed it may be valueless. This is because of our cardinal need to understand activities within spaces from which it follows that information on all aspects of activity (e.g., the familiar conventional measures of population, employment, land value, ownership, etc.) as well as the spaces which support them must be coincident and congruent; this principle must be maintained strictly.’ At the present time this principle of commonality is absent in most societies. National government agencies, local authorities, universities, public service providers, and private land management agencies more often than not design their very own particular geocodification system, with little or no agreement with one another. This veritable Tower of Babel approach to land-related information gathering inevitably results in diseconomies and high opportunity costs when approved land policies lack an up-to-date and integrated Land Information System.

In the case of rural areas the same principle applies. There can be no doubt that the particular attributes of nonurban spaces require a different approach with respect to the type of information to be gathered and the manner in which this is accomplished. Nevertheless the convenience, economy, and usefulness of common areal units for the preparation of ‘ecological inventories’ (term utilized by Ian McHarg in his landmark work Design with Nature) that ‘would include human artifacts as well as natural processes,’ should not be ignored. It is not uncommon to see government agencies, as for example those responsible for the protection of the environment and for the preparation and implementation of agriculture policy, work in almost complete isolation from one another. The absence of a common land database not only results in important diseconomies when there is duplicity present in the information gathering process, but more importantly, the lack of coordination and information sharing can oftentimes result in the formulation of policies by the different parties that are in direct conflict with one another.

Governments should waste no time in working towards establishing a unified geocodification system, the design of which should include the active participation of all the nonpublic actors involved. But should for some reason or another the creation of a common system of areal units be unattainable, efforts should be made so as to enable the translation, or transformation, of information from all relevant information systems to one another. Clearly, all efforts toward achieving commonality by every agent involved in gathering land information would contribute positively towards the effective implementation of a Land Information System.

5. Land Information System

Unfortunately today very few countries have a working Land Information System as has been defined. The required steps that lead towards achieving this goal involve significant economic investments and a determined political will on the part of the society and government. Many would argue, and with some reason, that the larger and more unified an information system is the greater the dangers to individual privacy and liberty will become. But the world we live in today cannot afford to be without well-designed land recording systems and to continue as it has with inadequate land management strategies. With the proper measures in place, it is possible to realize an acceptable balance between individual rights and the public good. Without a working Land Information System, nations individually and collectively will be ill-adapted to manage future population growth with its ever-increasing demands on the planet’s limited land and natural resources. The first quarter of the twenty-first century will be crucial to this end, and should be a period of human history in which governments give land recording systems high priority in order to be better prepared to face the challenges of growth and development in the years ahead.

What does the future hold for Land Information Systems? This question must be addressed under two headings, technological advancements and scope. In the short term, the next 15–25 years will continue to experience advances in computer sciences and their applications in the development of extremely large data base systems. With respect to mapping, which will inevitably become more digitilized and automated, the mission of Space Shuttle Endevour of February 11, 2000 is a harbinger of things to come. Titled Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, in a period of eleven days, close to one trillion measurements of the Earth’s topography were performed from an orbit of 126 miles. Approximately 80% of the planet’s land mass will benefit by the availability of ‘unrivaled 3-D images of the Earth’s surface.’ This information will contribute significantly to improved urban and regional planning, as well as the development of environmentally sound policies.

With respect to scope, the very distant future can very well resemble something like what Isaac Asimov described in one of his novels 50 years ago: ‘Biron leafed through the Standard Galactic Ephemeris with something like despair. Tens of thousands of stars were listed in detail, with their positions crammed into three figures. There were hundreds of pages of these figures, symbolized by the Greek letters r (rho), y (theta) and f (phi)… .r was the distance from the Galactic Center in parsecs; y, the angular separation, along the plane of the Galactic Lens from the Standard Galactic Baseline (the line, that is, which connects the Galactic Center and the sun of the planet Earth); f, the angular separation from the Baseline in the plane perpendicular to that of the Galactic Lens, the latter measurements being expressed in radians. Given those three figures, one could locate any star accurately in all the vast immensity of space.’ No person can foresee how humanity will one day manage the information on the scale of the vastness of the Milky Way Galaxy, but what is clear from Asimov’s speculations about the very distant future is that the need to classify and arrange the space in which the human race moves has been, is, and will always be a necessity.

Before we can even seriously speculate on the remote future, it is possible to imagine that over the next century Land Information Systems will most probably evolve in a manner so as to include the whole of the biosphere, with special attention given to the inclusion of detailed data concerning the ocean floor. As land resources continue to dwindle, the oceans will become more important as a source of materials required by human progress. The sound management of the exploitation of the resources under the surface of the oceans will require a welldesigned information system, integrated necessarily to all the existing information of the land mass. Once accomplished, this new scope will probably result in the Land Information System, along with the Ocean and possibly Atmosphere Information systems, becoming not the end product of today, but instead a component of a larger information system. This future inventory could very well be titled Biospheric Information System.


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