In many developed countries, it is hard for citizens to prove they own the land they live and work on. University of Calgary geomatics professor Dr. Michael Barry received a $500,000 personal gift from Focus Corporation Chairman John Holmlund for his ongoing research in settling property disputes in developing countries and conflict zones.
Fraud and land theft are major issues in developing countries. According to Barry, most land theft is caused by the state.
"Educated elites often hijack systems which are designed to supposedly improve tenure security," explained Barry.
Official land records are often destroyed in civil wars and years of misrule have left many countries without the capacity to control land registration, claimed Barry. The process of registering land is often extremely tedious and can cost up to 50 per cent of the actual value of the land. Transactions are often informal and not recorded. In Somaliland, land dispute is the main cause of homicide, he added.
Barry has been developing a software system called Talking Titler to help solve the property disputes. It's a database combining multi-media items, such as sound clips, videos and still photographs with paper-based records and documents, relevant to land tenure information. The idea for the system existed 10 years ago, but only with recent technology like YouTube has the idea become feasible. Barry described the software as a document management system. He explained that it provides a way of integrating information about land in a flexible way. The program also has an evolutionary system design, meaning it can be adapted for a variety of situations.
Talking Titler is licensed freeware and is available for use as long as Barry is informed of what it is being used for. He hopes to gain feedback on the system for it to be improved. It is currently licensed to the Surveyor General of Canada and Directorate of Land Regularization in Lagos, Nigeria and will not be commercialized.
Barry explained that many of the societies in developing countries function in very different ways and that it is important not to hastily intervene, but to simply provide alternatives.
"I'm not out to save the world," Barry said. "One does not go in as an outsider and parachute a solution in to them. You go in and you listen. You ask, 'What are the alter- natives to what you do now?' "
John Holmlund's contribution will undoubtedly have a positive impact on Barry's research and on the Schulich School of Engineering, which claims the only geomatics department in western Canada.
"Donations like this make a huge difference," said Barry, who will soon be travelling to Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa to further his understanding of why information transactions that complicate land ownership are taking place.