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What is blockchain and why is it the future of GIS?

For those hearing it first time, let me start by stating here unequivocally that blockchain is the Holy Grail for all future technological applications.  Since Prometheus bequeathed to humanity the gift of fire no other single technological innovation-not even the internet-has captured the imagination of people as it has Nakamoto’s astounding invention.

The idea of a Blockchain which runs on a decentralized database shared across a network of computers was first conceived by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008. A year later it was implemented as a core ledger component validating transactions for the ambitious peer-to-peer crypto-currency Bitcoin. Ever since, the wonderful work of Bitcoin’s Blockchain has spread far and wide. The technology has inspired many innovators from all fields and continues to spread like wildfire to applications and collaborative projects that eliminate a ‘middleman’ and which require transparency and trust as key component.

A Blockchain is simply a distributed database that is built to continuously maintain a growing list of ordered records (otherwise known as blocks). Each record (block) has a timestamp and a link (chain) to a previous record. What is more striking about this technology and the reason it holds the key to the future is that it is inherently secure. Blockchains are immutable, resistant to modification and once a transaction has been made, it cannot thereafter be altered whatsoever! This is what makes it suitable for most solutions which require maintenance of database or recording of a kind.

Blockchain technology has successfully been adopted for decentralized real-time ride sharing, digital assets exchange solutions and smart self-executing contracts. People have also used this technology to build cloud storage solutions, voting applications, and in land ownership and administration.

Blockchain in Land administration

Now, anybody who has had a basic experience in the GIS industry will realize that a larger part of GIS work revolves around manipulation of cadastres/parcels and (shape)-files of administrative boundaries, technical base-maps and more files featuring roads, buildings, settlements, facilities, whatnot. Yet, even in today’s digital age, land administration all-over the world lags behind in adopting new digital technologies.

The real-estate industry is predominantly paper-based with hard copies exchanging hands as prove of ownership. And for a vast majority of people in developing countries, there is no mapping of parcels or proof of ownership available to the actual land owners. These inefficiencies in land administration have made precise mapping a nightmare and have resulted in numerous incidences of land grabbing especially African countries like Kenya and Nigeria.

How Blockchain technology could be applied to land administration

Although not in the mainstream the mind-blowing idea of crypto-cadastre is gaining traction in land administration circles. In a remote region in northern Ghana, a non-profit organization called Bitland is piloting a land registry and title protocol based on blockchain. While in Central America renowned Blockchain Company Factom has been engaged by the government of Honduras to build a future land registry that is secure, transparent and honest.

Factom aims at making fraud, corruption and forgery a thing of the past by implementing a registry system that records occurrence of a deed transaction by inserting references of title into blochchain, thereby backing its trust on Bitcoin’s immutability. The deed references are inserted using Bitcoin’s OP_RETURN protocol, a feature that allows users to insert up to 40 bytes of data into any transaction. Bitland’s approach on the other hand utilizes a proof-of-existence or btcproof service.

Bitland uses a suit of well-known open-source GIS software (such as Open Street Maps, QGS etc) and available technologies (such as GPS AND GNSS) to delineate parcels of land. Title deed are then developed using the standard title contract procedures including reference to the mapping. The titles are signed using owner’s public key and public keys of neighboring land owners to indicate consensus. The existence of the title deeds is then time stamped and immortalized into the Bitcoin Blockchain using a proof-of-existence service.

Advantages of Blockchain for land administration

Most countries have centralized land information systems containing digital records- and in many other cases paper records-of a nation’s land transactions. However, such centralized systems are often havens concealing corruption which provoke ownership disputes. Centralized systems are prone to many physical risks and political tampering. The main advantage of a blockchain registry is that it is decentralized by design, running across a network of computers.

This means that the blockchain registry is indestructible to any form of physical distortion. Blockchain is effectively immutable and transparent, unlike centralized land registries which can be altered under the influence of powerful interests. Finally, blockchains can be easily automated to further increase efficiency in land administration.

Therefore, should the states choose to adopt crypto-cadastre for essential functions such as escrow and titling most ugly corruption incidences and inefficiencies that we are witnessing today will go the way of dinosaurs.  It could also result to unimaginable costs saving, eliminate fraud and increase financial privacy. Furthermore, adoption of crypto-cadastre will speed up processes and ultimately revolutionize GIS.


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