Paper Houses, Digital Homes

4 minute read

“All the land records against this wall have been scanned.” Stacks of land records—browning paper tied together with string—lined the walls, the tables, the shelves. White receipts with markered labels flopped out of some of them; processed and scanned. The tahasildar beamed, visibly proud at the progress his office had made. Still, stacks of titles remained, and still more remained unrecorded. And any new records would also be delivered on paper, awaiting digitization.

This is the state of land records in Odisha, India—and many other maturing land regimes: digital, almost. An ever-changing mix of analog and digital record-keeping further complicates the delivery of titles to landless homes. The closer one gets to a household-level record, the more likely that record is only exist on paper. The household and village level is also where tracking is most critical—not only for administrators to understand what’s working and what isn’t, but to create a transparent record of activity that potential titleholders can use to mark their own progress through a complicated process.

Piles of land records.

A photo posted by Keith Porcaro (@vigilantballoon) on

If information about a titling process can be made digital, in whatever form is available, that can have a transformative effect not only on how efficiently land titles are delivered to the most marginalized, but on how people understand and build their lives around land.

In Odisha, SIMLab has partnered with Landesa on a funded project to do just that. We’re using simple mobile technology (SMS and FrontlineCloud, to start) to help deliver titles to landless rural and tribal villagers across Odisha.

Over the last year, SIMLab staff have spent nearly three months on the ground in Odisha: interviewing officials at every stage of the land process, visiting villages that have received title under the program, conducting context assessments, iteratively designing and modifying the software in close consultation with Landesa staff, and conducting technology trainings across the state. Along the way, we’ve adjusted the program and approach to the changing context in Odisha: adjusting the scope of the program to fit technology ownership in villages and districts, reintroducing ourself to a new set of government officials after the most recent round of elections, and iterating a scaling program to meet the exciting e-governance developments in Odisha. That’s not even mentioning the cyclone that swept the state last October.

In April, we began the first round of training and implementation, and continue to monitor the pilot for results. For the pilot stage, officials and village-level workers can use SMS to report their progress (there are nearly 30 individual steps in the program, taking between 12 and 18 months to complete in total) and receive reminders of tasks that are behind schedule, while supervisors can generate and download up to the minute aggregate reports, summarizing total progress in their area. Finally, village-level officials, and villagers, can submit status queries to find out how far along their—or any—village is in the program. Because the system uses a combination of SMS and cloud-based services, we can adjust the parameters of the system (such as the number of days before a task is considered late) mid-stream. In other words, rather than replacing a process that’s already underway, we’ve created a low-touch system that allows select data to run ahead of paper surveys, hopefully reducing the latency between problem identification and problem solving from months to days.

We’re excited about what lies ahead for this program, and for others like it. Although the technology context is difficult, we’re exploring small opportunities to reach out directly to titleholders, enabling a person to track their own application, build land literacy, or even request services via SMS. We’re also beginning to explore integration into the rapidly maturing Odisha land database, which would enable government officials to seamlessly communicate land-record changes to the local level, villagers to verify title, and perhaps open up an opportunity to communicate private land transactions back to a database.

To show how SMS and other inclusive technologies can be used to optimize large-scale land interventions, we’ve made a small demo, which will be up for a short time. You can access it by texting the word DEMO to ‭+1 (919) 582-5077. If you’re interested in working with SIMLab to bring inclusive technology to your land program, shoot us an email, at