Geomatics, land reform and big data: Where to from here?

November 20th, 2018, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT

The geomatics profession is changing. It is no longer all about position, as technological advancements have made it easier for non-professionals to do this. It is now also about big data management and the ability to deal with complexity. Talks at AfricaGEO 2018 and a GISSA Western Cape meeting gave some directions to the future.

At the recent AfricaGEO 2018 Conference in Ekurhuleni, I was asked to do some crystal ball gazing and present on the future of the profession and tertiary-level curricula in light of land reform imperatives. Having very little to go on, I canvassed my colleagues at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) prior to the conference to see if they had anything to offer. Their responses led me to a problem, a question, and a challenge:

  • Problem: For too long, the geomatics profession has been reactive when it comes to land reform.
  • Question: What can we do to be enablers of land reform?
  • Challenge: There can be no land reform without geomatics.

A dominant theme of the conference was the changing role of the geospatial profession from “the science of where” to big data management [1]. This got me thinking about how best to prepare our students for this changing future. In this article, I’ll begin by defining us as geomaticians (or geomagicians, if we’re crystal ball gazing), because it is important to understand who we are before identifying what we can do. Then I’ll describe why I think that geomatics is crucial for land reform. I’ll conclude with the challenge for the profession and academia.

What defines us?

We had this discussion at UCT some years ago, trying to pull together geodesy, land administration, photogrammetry, GISc, and more to understand what defines us as a profession. What makes us unique? Students and academics do research on widely varying topics under the umbrella of geomatics. At a recent GISSA Western Cape meeting, we had presentations on the following:

  • 3D property rights
  • Finding the best roofs for solar panels
  • Visualising the changes in District 6
  • Modelling plant health using hyperspectral sensors
  • Urban structural pattern analysis
  • Monitoring wetlands
  • Measuring rural tenure security

So, what is it that defines us? After some debate, we decided that we are all involved in positioning. From defining national or global coordinate systems to pointing out property boundaries or putting an oil rig on the right spot in the middle of the ocean, a geomatician is your positioning specialist. These days I explain to people that if you want to know where something is, or if you want to put something in the right place, you need a geomatician. This includes the geoinformatics professionals, because geoinformation science involves using position to answer spatial questions and communicate spatial information to clients. It’s about position; it’s about where.

But our profession is changing. It is no longer all about position. It is also about big data management and the ability to deal with complexity (Fig. 1). This theme came through strongly at the AfricaGEO 2018 Conference. The geospatial professional’s niche is no longer merely positioning, because technological advancements have made it easier for non-professionals to do this. Our advantage has moved to using our ability to think spatially and creatively to solve complex problems.

Fig. 1: Defining geomaticians.

Fig. 1: The changing role of geomaticians.

The ease with which vast amounts of data can be collected these days means that the ability to manage such datasets is a sought-after skill. We share management of geospatial data with numerous other fields. Our niche as geomaticians should be optimal integration of various datasets of varying accuracies in finding solutions to spatial-based societal problems (land tenure being one of them). This presents an opportunity and a challenge at the same time. Geomaticians are thus key players in the fourth industrial revolution because of our ability to integrate data, computations and innovations. Geomaticians are the custodians of geospatial information and hold the key to future digital worlds.

So, what has any of this got to do with land reform?

Pillars of land reform

There can be no land reform without geomatics, because two out of the three conventional pillars of land reform are specifically linked to position. Land restitution is about giving people back what was taken from them, or comparable redress. How can that be done effectively if we do not know what was taken from them? We need a means of unequivocally identifying where the land parcels or land areas are/were from which people were removed and relating that to the modern cadastre in order to work out what can be restituted. There is also currently no public repository of which properties are under land claim. Interested parties must contact the regional Land Claims Commissioner for advice, which hinders development. It would be more expedient if this information was publicly available as an attribute of the cadastre. Geomatics can provide the means for this.

At a SAGI (South African Geomatics Institute) talk in Cape Town last year it was said that the profession has failed the country with regards land restitution because some of the current problems (e.g. multiple claims on the same land parcels, over- or under-payments of claims, the slow pace of resolutions of claims) could have been averted had a spatial database been set up at the outset. Others argued that this is not the profession’s fault, but instead evident of a disconnect between government and the profession. Our own Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) is responsible for land reform but has not been adequately consulting the experts who have the tools to do the job properly the first time.

The second pillar, land redistribution, is about making sure that there is a fair distribution of land in the country. To do this, we have to know who holds real rights, and what and where these are. In short, we need a reliable land audit. There have been two land audits in recent times: one by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform and the other by AgriSA [2, 3]. Both reports have been heavily criticised based on their methodologies and underlying assumptions [4, 5]. Geomatics could provide the means for an unbiased land audit. The obstacles appear to be political and administrative, not technical.

The third pillar of land reform is land tenure reform. This is about securing people’s rights to land and is linked to cadastral systems development. The link to positioning is not as clear as in the previous two pillars because we are not dealing with identification and transfers of land parcels. But positioning is still important because land tenure reform relates land rights to specific plots or land areas. These need to be defined using suitable methods, and again, geomatics can provide the solution through the adoption of innovative and fit-for-purpose methods and instruments [6, 7, 8].

Fig. 2: The four pillars of land reform.

Fig. 2: The four pillars of land reform.

It was suggested at the conference by Siyabu Manona of Phuhlisani Solutions that we missed a trick in ’94, and that there is a fourth pillar for land reform: land administration (see Fig. 2). Back in the 90s, while an undergraduate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), I was taught that land surveyors are the custodians of the cadastre. This has been expanded so that geomaticians are now custodians of geospatial information. In the modern era, and in response to land reform imperatives, this should include the integration of land identification (positioning) and allocation as per customary norms and practices into the cadastre. Geomatics can provide the means for this if we are willing to shift our thinking beyond the technical solutions to embrace social aspects as well [9, 10].

Responding to the challenge

So why is geomatics being left out of the party? If we have solutions to offer, why is no one asking us? To paraphrase St Paul in his letter to the Romans (ch10 v14): how will they know unless they hear, and how can they hear unless someone tells them?

The first keynote speaker at AfricaGEO 2018, Matthew Pennells of Esri, summed it up when he said that marketing is our industry’s weakness – tertiary institutions know too well the truth of that statement. In the context of land reform, we need to address the disconnect between the government and the profession. Government must see that the National Development Plan [11] includes spatial definition, and that geospatial experts are the best for addressing this.

In talking about the changing role of the geospatial profession, Arnaud Lezennec of Trimble Geospatial said that the challenge for future geomaticians is in big data management. Considering how professionals and tertiary institutions should respond to this challenge, he and other members of the panel gave the following four tips, which I’ve made into four Ps.

  • Practice makes perfect
  • First Principles are important
  • Promote critical thinking
  • Prepare for the end

Practice makes perfect

At first I was discouraged when I heard this suggestion, but as I thought about it, I became rather pleased, because our students at UCT are already doing this. In second year, they produce a contour map of a small site. They do it all by hand: they are not allowed to book on the instrument and they have to calculate the coordinates and height of every point manually, triangulate on paper, interpolate contours, and draw everything by hand. The purpose is to avoid “black box” thinking: we want to make sure that they know what the instrument or software is doing. Later, in the same year, they have to produce a more detailed map of a bigger site under a tighter timeline. For this, they may record observations on the instrument, download it to a computer, get the software to process everything, and make a map (Fig. 3). They quickly realise that getting the software to do it for them is not necessarily easy. Later, in fourth year, they produce 3D models of buildings by merging terrestrial and aerial lidar (Fig. 4). Through the degree, our students are already getting exposure to managing bigger and bigger datasets. And practice makes perfect.

Fig. 3: Second year students performing a detailed survey of a site at the West Coast Fossil Park.

Fig. 3: Second year students performing a detailed survey of a site at the West Coast Fossil Park.

What is big data management other than handling complexity? And what is geomatics other than handling complexity? We take a complex, chaotic world, and we simplify it. We model it. We represent it in two or three dimensions. We handle complexity. And what could be more complex than land reform?

Many presenters at AfricaGEO 2018 spoke of the multi-layered, nuanced, temporal, politically sensitive, socially embedded, emotive nature of land reform. Land reform imperatives are big data. They include technical aspects related to the cadastre and land administration, social aspects related to land tenure and customary land rights, environmental and political and social drivers. It is a big, complicated mess. Which makes the geospatial profession potentially quite good at providing solutions. But solutions do not come “off the shelf”, which is why NGOs and academic institutions are practicing through the use of pilot studies [12]. Pilots are important for testing procedures and for practicing different ways of handling the complexity of land reform.

First Principles are important

My students will tell you how much I love sticking to first principles, e.g. booking, calculating, and even drawing by hand when the technology exists for the entire process to be done electronically. Yet, time and again, we hear from those in private practice how crucially important it is to be able to revert to first principles when the need arises.

Fig. 4: Point cloud of Memorial Hall, UCT, compiled from terrestrial and aerial lidar.

Fig. 4: Point cloud of Memorial Hall, UCT, compiled from terrestrial and aerial lidar.

Understanding first principles makes the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish. These days anyone can be given a GPS or a laser scanner and taught very quickly how to capture data. You can do it without understanding. But those who can do it with understanding may become the managers of those without understanding.

What are first principles in the context of land reform imperatives? At its most basic, land reform is about people, land and rights. It is the who, what, where and when questions: who has what rights to which land parcel (where), and when? Those four questions should form the basis for land reform discussions – those are our first principles.

Promote critical thinking

Handling complexity requires critical thinking. It requires innovative solutions, thinking out of the box. People who employ our graduates tell us that is often what sets them apart: the ability to tackle complex problems and come up with creative solutions. Some of our graduates have ended up with careers that we could not have dreamed of, and they tell us that problem solving and critical thinking are their biggest assets. Yes, they know how to set up a total station, use a GPS, close a traverse. But big data management is about problem solving, and that is a skill you cannot teach directly.

Tackling the complexity of land reform imperatives also requires critical thinking. Again, there is no off the shelf solution, no one-size-fits-all approach [13, 14]. Every solution has to be tailor-made for the particular context in which it is applied. Of course, this raises questions of scalability: will a solution that works in one location work in another? Generally, the answer is no, but that is why the first P – practice – is so important. Only after a few pilots have been done will more generalisable solutions present themselves. Until then, it is a matter of reinventing the wheel every time. Land reform cannot be rushed [15].

Prepare for the end

Finally, we need to prepare for the end. That is not doomsday speak – it is actually my clumsy attempt to say, “start with the end in mind”, but beginning with a P. In any geomatics project, whether it is a dam deformation survey, laser scan of an archaeological ruin, analysis of hyperspectral data for plant health, monitoring wetlands, or mapping ocean currents, begin with the end in mind. This means asking two important questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Who needs this information?

When it comes to land reform, what are we trying to achieve? Is the dream for every person to own the land they occupy? Is it for the state to own all land and for everyone to have use rights [16]? Is it for certain people to own some land (politicians and traditional leaders) and everyone else to be tenants or subjects [17, 18]?

I propose that if our government had started their land reform programme with a clear idea of what the final picture would look like, land reform would be much closer to completion that it is now. We would not have incomplete legislation [19] and contradictory policies [20]. And without a clear idea of the end picture, you cannot answer the second question either. If you are mapping land rights, who needs that information? What will it be used for? How will it be useful?

In geomatics, we know how important it is to have a clear idea of what the client wants, and to deliver on that idea. Our client’s needs dictate how we approach a problem, which tools we use, and how we communicate the results. You must start with the end in mind, or else you’ll end up going to and fro or around in circles and never closing on a solution.

Geomaticians, land reform needs us. Let’s try to be more proactive. With our skills and knowledge, we are uniquely positioned to become enablers of land reform.


[1] Esri Press. 2017. Understanding The Science of Where. Available: [28 September 2018].
[2] DRDLR. 2017. Land audit report, Phase II: Private land ownership by race, gender and nationality. Available: [23 July 2018].
[3] AgriSA. 2017. Land Audit: A Transactions Approach. Available:
[4] Nicolson. 2017. Who owns SA land? AgriSA tries and fails to provide a clear answer. Daily Maverick. 1 November 2017. Available: [28 September 2018].
[5] IRR. 2018. Who Owns the Land? A Critique of the State Land Audit. Available: [23 July 2018].
[6] K Deininger, C Augustinus, S Enemark and P Munro-Faure. 2010. Innovations in Land Rights Recognition, Administration, and Governance. In Annual Conference on Land Policy and Administration. K Deininger, C Augustinus, S Enemark and P Munro-Faure, Eds. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Publications, GLTN, FIG, FAO.
[7] P van Asperen. 2014. Evaluation of innovative land tools in sub-Saharan Africa: Three cases from a peri-urban context. Amsterdam: Doctoral dissertation, Delft University of Technology.
[8] S Enemark, R McLaren and C Lemmen. 2015. Fit-For-Purpose Land Administration Guiding Principles. UN-HABITAT/GLTN/Kadaster.
[9] C Augustinus, C Lemmen and P van Oosterom. 2006. Social tenure domain model: Requirements from the perspective of pro-poor land management. In Proceeding of the 5th FIG Regional Conference. Accra, Ghana: International Federation of Surveyors. Available: [25 July 2013].
[10] C Lemmen. 2010. The social tenure domain model: A pro-poor land tool. Copenhagen, Denmark: International Federation of Surveyors.
[11] National Planning Commission. 2012. National Development Plan 2030 Our Future – make it work. Pretoria, South Africa. DOI: ISBN: 978-0-621-41180-5.
[12] VPUU. 2016. Enumeration process in Monwabisi Park. Available: [28 September 2018].
[13] CDE. 2008. Land Reform in South Africa: Getting Back on Track. Johannesburg: The Centre for Development and Enterprise.
[14] R de Satgé, K Cartwright, R Kingwill and L Royston. 2017. The role of land tenure and governance in reproducing and transforming spatial inequality. Available:
[15] L Donnelly. 2015. SA land policy is as clear as mud. Mail & Guardian. 16 October.
[16] EFF. n.d. Expropriation of land without compensation for equitable redistribution. Available: [28 September 2018].
[17] DRDLR. 2013a. State Land Lease and Disposal Policy. Pretoria, South Africa. Available: [11 April 2018].
[18] DRDLR. 2013b. Communal Land Tenure Policy (CLTP). Stellenbosch.
[19] S Hull and J Whittal. 2018. Filling the Gap: Customary Land Tenure Reform in Mozambique and South Africa. South African Journal of Geomatics. 7(2):102 – 117. DOI:
[20] T Weinberg. 2015. Rural Status Report 3: The contested status of “communal land tenure” in South Africa. L Sparg, Ed. Cape Town: Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies. Available:

Contact Simon Hull, UCT,

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