Black Spots Are No Treasure Island

Black Spots Are No Treasure Island: Land Tenure and Property Rights in Megacities

Douglas E. Batson


The city of London's population increased from one million to its peak of eight million on the eve of WWII; a process which took place over the course of a century. Karachi, Pakistan, however, added more than eight million new residents in just the last decade! With a population of over 23 million, Karachi is now the third largest city in the world! Centenarians in Bangladesh's capital city have witnessed a 30-fold population increase in their lifetimes that has also transformed Dhaka into a megacity, defined by the United Nations as populations centers of over 10 million. Security expert Robert Muggah refers to this breakneck pace of rural-to-urban migration as "turbo urbanization," and further suggests that the global rise of megacities offers both promise and peril. Megacities are increasingly becoming the focal point for economic growth, diplomatic wrangling, and developmental aid (Muggah 2013). Indeed, one week after Muggah posted his article, Megacity Rising, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), shifted its 50-year focus on alleviating rural poverty to include stark urban realities. Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein, upon releasing USAID's "Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World" policy," noted that:

One billion people currently live in slums without access to basic services like clean water, electricity or health services. USAID’s field programs need to plan for the challenges that come along with rapid urbanization so we can more effectively help these communities reach their economic potential  and alleviate poverty...An estimated 180,000 people move into cities each day (bold font mine). This policy will help USAID and the development community to respond to the needs of the 1.4 billion who will have moved into urban areas between 2011 and 2030 (USAID 2013).

In the 1970s, there were only three megacities on planet earth; by many counts there are now 23 of these municipal behemoths with another dozen expected to appear over the next decade. This paper examines one aspect of the security and governance perils posed by rapid urbanization and megacity growth. It also suggests new assessment tools in order to analyze and understand the socio-political dynamics that can inform new governance policies and processes suited to the megacity phenomenon.

Black Spots

In the pirate lore of Robert Louis Stevenson’ Treasure Island, black spots symbolized the collective, malignant will of miscreants. When rural-to-urban migration is tracked by business, voter, vehicle, property and other civil registrations, migrants and the gaining municipality both stand to benefit. However, when local governments remain uninformed about new arrivals and their needs for basic services, much more foreboding Black Spots, but with no less group malice, inevitably form.  Dr. Bartosz Stanisławski, of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, defines these atrocious, geographical Black Spots as:

parts of the world that are (1) outside of effective governmental control; (2)controlled, instead, by alternative, mostly illicit, social structures; and (3) capable of the breeding and exportation of insecurity (e.g., illicit drugs, conventional weapons, terrorist operatives, illicit financial flows, strategic/sensitive know-how) to faraway locations. Similar to the notion of “black holes” in astronomy which are located mainly by analyzing anomalous gravity fields, black spots are also difficult to “see,” as they usually, or for extended periods of time, operate with a high degree of “international invisibility”(Stanislawski 2010).

But the proactive Stanislawski is more than a mere coiner of novel terms. His Mapping Global Insecurity project is best viewed as an “intelligence support activity that through research and analysis can provide real-time crisis support, enable new and unique insights, ‘tip’ other intelligence collection, ‘cue’ further classified research and analysis, and lead to the discovery of new requirements within the Intelligence Community (IC)” (Stanislawski, 2013). He further contends that Black Spots are not the same as failed, failing, or weak states, and as such, create very difficult security challenges. Indeed, Black Spots are nothing to be treasured; they are uncharted islands in billowing seas of massed humanity, imperceptible to the IC’s classic sensors. His project uniquely discovers Black Spots through the triangulation of data regarding anomalous events and transfers in particular regions.  “Mapping them allows us to be one step ahead of the so-called ‘global bads’… it is our task to scan for them, pinpoint them, and monitor them” (Stanislawski 2013).

Dr. Geoffrey Demarest, a researcher at the U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, would be pleased with the work of Stanislawski’s Mapping Global Insecurity project.  For over a decade, Demarest has “advised industrial-level GIS (geographic information systems) cadastral (land and property registry) projects for countries of special interest,” (Demarest 2004) and pleaded for the U.S. and UN not to continue to place property formalization on a secondary plane of goals. A polity that does not formalize ownership rights and duties, especially rights and duties related to land, will not enjoy peace. Comprehensive, precise and transparent expression of real property is a necessary precondition of peace, adjures Demarest.  “Places outside the lines of formal property necessarily slump toward possession by force….The process of formalizing property, moreover, illuminates power and power relationships. It also exposes the otherwise invisible lines of communication and sanctuary that power over places provides” (Demarest, 2008, p .iii). Demarest further sketches how illegal armed groups (IAG) pursue and enjoy eight principal, overlapping uses of urban slum land in relation to their illicit pursuits. These eight land uses, in no particular order, are: 1. taxation; 2. free trade; 3. sanctuary; 4. clandestine manufacture or processing; 5. staging for violent operations outside the slum; 6. safe transit of contraband; 7. recruiting; and 8. as a prison or graveyard for their victims.

The eight categories could be used as part of taxonomy for geographic profiling (predictive geographic forensics). The IAG land-use categories are suitable as variables (field descriptions or attribute names – the titles of the columns at the top of an SQL spreadsheet perhaps) in a forensic police/military GIS data table. While such use of GIS may be the most immediate or directly relevant application to government reduction of illegal armed groups, other uses, such as informing urban building and street design, may yield the more important longer–term security benefits (Demarest 2011).

Demarest, a noted Colombia analyst, would likewise be pleased by “The Medellin Miracle” (Colby 2012). The city’s grim past of violence, drug lords, guerillas, and paramilitary death squads has been radically transformed by political will and social inclusion, from the most dangerous city in the world to a showcase of urban renewal and even host of the UN’s World Urban Forum VII in April 2014.

A Plurality of Urban Power Brokers

Over the past dozen years, the U.S. has been militarily and politically transfixed on Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, stupendous socio-demographic trends in the developing world have received scant notice. These include the aforementioned rapid urbanization:  70 million new urbanites annually, the equivalent of two new Tokyos, appear on the earthscape (Engelke 2013); the emergence of sub-state entities and privatized versus state-delivered services; and, from urban centers, where political consciousness is first formed, the growing demand for participatory governance that sparked the Arab Spring. Indeed, future operational environments are scarcely recognizable from the pre-9/11 era.

Recent rural-to-urban migration has resulted in 23 urban agglomerations that can be classified as megacities. By 2025 there will likely be 37 megacities (Jones 2012. p. 38). Despite a rapidly rising middle class, one billion urbanites eke out a living in informal settlements (slums) worldwide (UN HABITAT 2005). Slum dwellers lack infrastructure; yes, photographs of urban squalor are shocking, but more significantly, they lack any documentable land tenure and property rights. Terrorists, insurgents, crime bosses, narcotics and human traffickers, and slum lords well understand the power informal settlements offer for the taking. Harrowing scenes from a 1992 film (City of Joy) depict how eagerly nefarious actors await the next billion-person vulnerable cohort expected to  join the current billion slum dwellers by 2030 (The Boston Globe 2012). Unimaginably, Africa, the last continent to urbanize, by 2030 may become fifty per cent metropolitan as well (Jones 2012, p. 37). Without little to any industry providing the newcomers with jobs and livelihoods, they nevertheless organize themselves into place-based ethnic enclaves, informal shadow economies, and intricate social networks. The governance vacuum, to include land governance,  is quickly filled by other actors.

Fundamentally, land governance is about power and the political economy of land. Land tenure is the relationship among people with respect to land and its resources. The rules of tenure define how access is granted to rights to use, control, and transfer land….they develop in a manner that entrenches the power relations between and among individuals and social groups (FAO 2009).

Shielded by anonymity and impunity, purveyors of instability hide in unregistered properties, and use the wealth hidden in those properties to fund their illicit activities. They decide who gets what by imposing their own “property ownership” regimes on the local populace; they offer services to offended claimants, create loyalties and obligations, and sow fear (Demarest 2008, pp. 277, 286). This dynamic is illustrated in Sandra Joireman‘s research on property rights enforcement mechanisms in a Nairobi slum. She identified three sub-state entities in Kibera ―a pocket of statelessness located directly in the geographic center of power in Kenya ― that have emerged to fill the void left by a state that lacks the political will to resolve land disputes. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the first type of non-state entity, conduct alternative dispute resolution because the government is perceived as aloof (offering bureaucratic forms to fill out at unaffordable costs), ethnically biased, or corrupt (demanding bribes). The second alternative is government officials who, outside their formal authorities, misuse their positions to resolve disputes for personal enrichment. The notorious, third option is ethnic gangs who run protection rackets and use violence and intimidation on behalf of clients seeking redress (Joireman 2011).

Professor Seth G. Jones cites a number of reasons why insurgents have historically favored rural areas as their base of operations. This assumption also will have to adapt to 21st century changes: insurgents and their ilk may well shift their operations to urban areas in order to avoid the lethal scrutiny of drone aircraft. Jones also ascribes to rural areas the advantage that “government security forces often have better intelligence penetration in urban settings” (Jones 2012).  That rings true where governments prize transparency of property ownership and land use. Sadly, that is not often the case for the slums of the world’s megacities, where government officials (or their well-placed relatives) benefit from the status quo in terms of social power and profitable rent schemes.  Dr. Peter Engelke, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-chair of the Urban World 2030 working group contends that megacities are the most complex problem in the history of humankind. “We have seen the future and it is urban!” (Engleke, 2013) Others share his concern “that poor planning and governance of developing world megacities---including the failure to positively engage slum dwellers---will both diminish national economic growth and leave behind a huge urban underclass” (Liotta and Miskle 2012) (Commins 2011) (Davis 2006).

Yet Engelke offers a prescription: “the world’s foreign and security policy establishments must not only become more cognizant of mass urbanization, but begin creating the processes that will productively integrate cities with global governance structures” (Engleke, 2013). Dr. James Knotwell, a Regional and Geospatial Scholar with the Cultural Knowledge Consortium (CKC), recently surveyed megacity literature in four informative CKC blogs (Knotwell, 2013). With a tone concordant with Engelke’s analysis, he appreciates what lies beyond the pervasive images of megacity poverty.

These impoverished urban groupings are, at the same time, highly enterprising and resourceful in creating their own informal infrastructures and integrating these in the more formal, state-originated, networks of assistance and support. This demonstrates a critical change in analytical perspective that leads decision-makers of potential interventions, be they development or security-related, in a different direction from those subscribing to former CDP [colonial/dependency/poverty] explanatory models, re-orienting these institutions (which will include military/NGO) toward the locality/neighborhood and its inherent power structure and away from the representatives of state power brokers. It also demonstrates the utility of investing resources in identifying those local power networks (Knotwell 2013).

According to futurist Mike Davis, “Slum populations can support a bewildering variety of responses to structural neglect and deprivation, ranging from charismatic churches and prophetic cults to ethnic militias, street gangs, neoliberal NGOs, and revolutionary social movements.”  How future U.S. defense, diplomacy, and development efforts might identify and positively engage megacity power brokers is the subject of the next section.

Megaproblem:  4.5 Billion Unregistered Properties

By 2030, sixty per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, with the most explosive growth oc­curring in developing countries (UN 2013). Conflicts in megacities will inevitably occur and they will be in­creasing horrid. Future U.S. operations abroad, of any scale, will now most likely encounter multiple actors in dense, urban environments where shaping and winning the information domain invariably will include a robust knowledge of how persons are tied to places.

Land administration, a discipline scarcely known in the U.S., is the process of determining, registering, and disseminating information about the relationship between people and land (ISO 2013). Until a decade ago the preferred way to confer land rights upon individuals and groups across the globe had been through formal land titling administered by the state. A new paradigm has recently emerged, recognizing a continuum of rights and interests in land, one inclusive of individuals and groups who live in megacity slums and other areas where formal titles are not the norm, or not accessible or affordable. Registered title (or deed) ownership of land, common in only 50 or so developed countries, account for 1.5 billion land parcels. The remaining 4.5 billion of the world‘s estimated six billion land parcels are held informally and are thus susceptible to disputes, land grabs, environmental degradation, food insecurity, and social unrest (McLaren 2011).

Figure :1 Continuum of Land Rights. (Courtesy of UN HABITAT”

Thus, the continuum, from left to right, begins with informal land rights, which are usually oral agreements, and then customary tenures, both relied upon by poor and marginalized populations (Deininger et al, 2011). Certifi­cates of occupancy, while not enabling the holder to sell or lease, do provide a measure of tenure security against predatory slum lords and unscrupulous cus­tomary or government authorities bent on eviction. Group tenure is much easier to secure than individual tenure. Efforts to formalize group tenures in land administration systems (LAS) have also done much to improve the livelihoods of people at risk of losing their communal land rights in land grabs and other wicked schemes.  The authors of a primer on global land administration concur:

LAS are about formalizing tenure, ir­respective of its local form and content, whether it’s short-term occupation rights or full ownership. Sim­ply, land administration is about formal systems. We don’t apologize for this. We accept that informal sys­tems are essential parts of any system of society, but without organizing a coherent, formal system for ad­ministering land...a country or society will be doomed to poverty. This does not mean that that the formal system needs to be complicated, national in scale, or expensive (Williamson et al 2010).

Cadastres provide a degree of systematic clarity in identifying owners, spatial extents, and rights and interests over land.  When official or authoritative data is lacking, an increasing number of land agencies are recognizing the potential utility of crowd-sourced information. Volunteered geographic information can be harvested to help address---and redress---the billions of unregistered land rights and interests that need better visibility in the immediate term –regardless of whether they represent full ownership or not (McDougall et al 2013). Moreover, there are now advanced Information Communication Technology capabilities that can accomplish such a herculean feat. The final section examines three of these.

Tying People to Land Interests: The Human Geography of Megacities

The hundreds of millions of people informally residing in Black Spots are often invisible to their governments and international actors because their secondary land rights are not documented. Fortunately, three new tools have recently become available to help decode the human geography narrative of megacities.

1. An International Standard for Land Administration

A decade-long effort in land administration recently achieved a strategic breakthrough and, on a per capita basis, informal settlement populaces stand to reap substantial benefits. In November 2012, the Land Administration Domain Model (LADM) became the first international standard for the unsung discipline of land administration. ISO 19152 provides an abstract, conceptual model with three packages related to:

  • parties (people and organizations);
  • basic administrative units, rights, responsibilities, and restrictions (ownership rights);
  • spatial units (parcels, and the legal space of buildings and utility networks); with sub-packages for spatial sources (surveying), and spatial representations (geometry and topology) (Lemmen and van Oosterom 2013)

Based on the LADM, the Social Tenure Domain Model (STDM) is an initiative of UN-HABITAT to address land tenure gaps such as those found in Black Spots.  It identifies relationships between people and land independent of levels of formalization or the legality of those relationships.  The STDM enables comparisons of peoples’ hold on land across cultural and political boundaries.  The linkage of people to informal settlements is done by capturing best available evidence:  water and electrical receipts, ground photos, recorded oral testimony, copies of leases, etc. By potentially including every human being in some form of LAS, the STDM can contribute to poverty reduction, as the land rights and claims of the poor are brought into the formal system over time. It opens new land markets, and aids development by equipping urban communities with land management skills. While the advent of LADM/STDM offers cheery news for slum dwellers, spatial entrepreneur Jill Urban-Karr admonishes that turning the LADM/STDM from a conceptual into a logical model that describes cadastral data requirements for an actual urban environment is an often overlooked next step for ISO 19152’s implementation. To this end, she and her colleagues examined data correlation between LADM-based logical models and case studies in Belize and Victoria, Australia. Their evaluation positively compares the case studies against the same model in an ArcGIS geodatabase (Kalantari et al 2013). 

2. Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI)

Black Spot residents may, at times, be invisible, but they are no longer silent. In 2008, the notorious Nairobi slum of Kibera was wracked by post-election violence and displacement. At the time, the slum of at least 250,000 Kenyans was “a blank [black] spot on the map until November 2009, when young Kiberans created the first free and open digital map of their own community. Land ho! The excitement felt by Stevenson’s seafarers upon sighting land following a long sea voyage was replicated by a quarter-million Kibera slum dwellers, who “saw” their land depicted on a chart for the first time. Map Kibera has now grown into a complete interactive community information project (Map Kibera 2013). Military geographers at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) vetted the Map Kibera data, to include spatial extents of the named neighborhoods of this extraordinary participatory mapping project. Citing it as “best available data” over Kibera, they deviated from their decades old practice of using only official host nation government cartographic sources, and coded the Kibera neighborhood names as U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN)-approved toponyms. NGA added the Map Kibera place names to its publically available Geonet Names Server (NGA 2013) weeks before the March 2013 Kenyan elections (Foster and Batson 2013). Had Kibera again convulsed in mayhem, first responders and international actors would have been much more informed about Kibera’s human geography. That political violence in the 2013 election cycle was minimal was no accident. Map Kibera and other Kenyan NGOs banded together to form the Kibera Civic Watch Consortium, a network to respond to and coordinate the community’s efforts to maintain peace and provide interventions where possible. According to Erica Hagen, co-founder of Map Kibera, “a sea-change is underway in terms of how people engage with information in Kenya: they feel it’s their right and responsibility to speak out and to protect peace by countering rumor; and they increasingly feel they have tools with which to do so” (Hagen 2013).

One of those tools is the mobile telephone; in megacities, they are many times more prevalent than toilets. Crowd-sourced data maven Robin McLaren notes how cell phones progressively integrate satellite positioning, digital cameras and video capabilities. In the hands of even the poorest slum dweller, they provide

the opportunity to directly participate in the full range of land administration processes from videoing property boundaries to secure payment of land administration fees using “mobile” banking. But even today’s simpler phones … would allow a partnership to be established between land professionals and citizens and would encourage and support citizens to involve themselves in directly capturing and maintaining information about their land rights. Crowdsourcing initiatives in land administration may coalesce into a much wider open data phenomenon similar to the global OpenStreetMap initiative. If this happened then a free and open source software solution to store and manage the crowd-sourced land administration information would be created and populated by volunteers. (McLaren 2013).

More guarded in their optimism about the value of VGI for land administration are Andrew Frank and Gerhard Navratil of the Technical University of Vienna.  The Austrian geoscientists believe that VGI can provide information on topics where direct observation is possible, for example, occupation and use of land. Rights over land, however, the forte of land administration, cannot be observed directly by citizens with local knowledge because they are not observable. They suggest that publically-sourced data might provide an advantageous perspective, e.g., land use data in contrast to land cover data provided by remote sensing, and serve as supporting information to VGI (Navratil and Frank 2013). In any case, the activities surrounding crowdsourcing and VGI not only serve the primary purpose of documenting the spatial and social dimensions of Black Spots, they also build the political, and even entrepreneurial, capacity of women, disabled, and youth---the poorest of the poor. Of all the deprivations slum dwellers face, political exclusion is the most destabilizing for megacities.

3. Dynamic Map Data Supporting Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response

Third, while U.S. government agencies, especially those tasked with humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR), would agree that local knowledge should inform operational decisions; they nevertheless wrestle with how to treat volunteered versus “authoritative” geographic information. The unorthodox answer to this dilemma is not “either/or” but rather both!  The Rapid Open Geospatial User-driven Enterprise (ROGUE) is an interagency project under development by the U.S. Army Corps of  Engineers. ROGUE offers the capability for organizations to collaboratively develop, manage, and share geographic feature data with traditional and non-traditional partners. This new, rogue paradigm allows authoritative geographic information and VGI to coexist. An improved OpenGeo Suite ingests, updates, and distributes non-proprietary feature data utilizing open source software and open standards---such as the LADM/STDM.

The authoritative organization can make certified copies (versions) available, and most users would clone or fork it according to their needs. They could work on a dataset outside the main repository or push the changes back to the authoritative organization. Either way, those individuals in charge of the central repository would be able to pull the new changes and incorporate them into their quality assurance process before publishing the changes as an updated version (Clark et al 2013).

By integrating these capabilities with Pacific Disaster Center’s DisasterAWARE platform and the Department of State Humanitarian Information Unit, the DoD, and mission partners, are able to plan, analyze, and collaborate using dynamic map data supporting HA/DR and other geospatial collaboration scenarios. The development of GeoGit (a set of data repository-creating utilities) is the cornerstone of ROGUE. It allows for distributed collaboration and versioning of geographic data. GeoGit will provide the ability to maintain a history of the changes to geospatial vector data, track who made the changes and when, and store comments on the reasons for the changes.

GeoGit is fundamentally different from previous geospatial versioning efforts in that it is designed to support distributed operations at its core. It does not rely on network connectivity to be fully functional. GeoGit is designed to handle projects that have a very large number of contributors (Clark et al 2013).

ROGUE seeks to improve mechanisms for tracking, managing, and curating data. It posits that collaboration is maximized by putting the user at the center of the infrastructure and encouraging data contribution. Perhaps more importantly, enhanced situational awareness is gained from a bevy of internal and external viewpoints about the data and current ground truth.

Figure 2 The ROGUE Approach. (Courtesy of LMN Solutions)


In the world’s Black Spots, power brokers rise and fall with little notice by those in official positions of power. But as megacities are increasingly engorged with more people who receive inadequate municipal services, a key non-state actor's (an individual or group) demise has the potential to collapse not only a city, but an already fragile state connected to the massive urban engine. Remotely sensed imagery can detect a number of physical and human “patterns of life” changes. But Black Spots leave little evidence with which to gauge what is normal to begin with, namely, a dearth of information on who occupies and controls land.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, a fast-growing megacity of over 14 million residents, is situated on the world’s largest river delta, the Ganges-Brahmaputra, effectively surrounding it by water. It is thus prone to multiple natural hazards, namely, monsoon flooding and ocean typhoons. “If water doesn’t pose enough risk, Dhaka sits close to three active seismic fault lines – the Madhupur, Dawki, and Himalayan faults – for which a big tremor is overdue” (Open Cities Project 2013). Dhaka’s 5.5 million slum dwellers are at grave risk for a mega-disaster.  Fortunately, Dhaka is a megacity in which publically-sourced data is obtainable. The Open Cities Project graphically portrays data on Dhaka's building conditions, inhabitants, and associated risks; building plans, use, and other infrastructure use. A totally separte effort, Global Housing Indicators (GHI,) creates data for housing practitioners to use as a standard way to collect information about housing policies across cities and countries (GHI, 2013). According to Robert Lopez, a human geographer at NGA, crowdsourcing could well reconcile discrepancies between GHI’s recently published full assessment of Dhaka’s housing and Open Cities’ metadata on Dhaka’s buildings, and thus alert citizens and municipal authorities to the people at greatest peril.

Similarly, the LADM/STDM can overcoming previously vexing constraints by enabling municipal authorities to record informal land tenures alongside statutory ones. Crowdsourcing and VGI can alert them to which megacity neighborhoods demand attention so that they might not fall under the sway of rogues. Finally, ROGUE can inform USG operational decisions with both volunteered and authoritative geographic information. A century-long precedent in USG exists for such an approach. By publishing millions of BGN-approved foreign place names and spellings, but also millions of variant and unverified names of geographic features used by ethno-linguistic groups beyond a nation’s official language, NGA’s GeoNet Names Server is a treasure trove of human geography information. The complexity of actors and factors surrounding megacity land matters demands the fusion of volunteered and authoritative information. New tools are available to harvest that information and extend governance to the globe’s Black Spots. The Jolly Roger will then, as it did centuries ago, fly only over a few uncharted desert isles and not over populous megacity enclaves.


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Mr. Batson,

I realize your "treasure island" reference was ironic, but here's a twist:

(The locals are convinced that the looted WWII gold the Japanese took from… elsewhere… were stashed in their islands defensive cave complex, which is still largely unexplored due to the large amount of unexploded munitions and booby traps).

If you need help figuring out the chaos that is Dhaka for background to go along with your NGA mapping, please feel free to contact me. I have… very rare access and networks there, which might not have been shared with your agency due to a political liability related to several US Senators (some sitting, some retired) and the Dept of State., and/or a financial liability related to a different political figure (whom I'd rather not discuss on a public forum).


Alexander Scott Crawford