As we progress deeper into the digital age, we often find ourselves enamored with the new vocations that these uncharted waters continuously create. What I find even more interesting is how advancements in technology have completely transformed industries that were deeply rooted in the fabric of America before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs soldered their first processor.
You would be hard pressed to find an area where this is still a more prevalent yet divisive issue than in the Land Industry. There are several fundamental reasons why this industry constantly finds itself struggling between moving at the speed of innovation and being complacent with the processes of old. This slow transition allows us to speculate on what the future could look like as the Land Industry clumsily and inevitably succumbs to the pressures of a world that demands technological evolution.
Technology has Already Transformed the Life of the Landman
Let’s look at some of the areas where technology has worked its way into the Land Industry and proven itself valuable.
The first and most obvious benefit realized in the last 15 years is the speed at which communication and data is shared. The use of email and cell phones allows landmen to share data instantly with coworkers and colleagues across vast distances. I know these are invaluable in almost every facet of life, but it is worth mentioning.
Living out of hotels, going weeks without a home cooked meal, spending irreplaceable time away from loved ones, wasting hours traveling and waiting to access indexes, documents and copiers are just a few of the ailments that wear on field landmen. But through the growing expansion of online courthouses like County Scans or NDRIN, landmen now have the option to fulfill all their title needs from the comfort of their home or office 24 hours a day.
Another benefit is that many online courthouses build databases that make it possible to search by attributes not available to a landman using a courthouse index, tract book or abstract plant.
A more recent innovation that has brought the land industry value is the creation of mapping software. Landmen who have run title in Texas, and more specifically East Texas, know the pain of plotting tracts using metes and bounds. With the creation of software like Deed Plotter and GIS, this task has become much more manageable and efficient.
The Land Industry is Cautious about Innovations
Let’s focus on the factors that seem to fight against the progression of the digital revolution in the land industry.
One of the main factors inhibiting advancement is county courthouses that have no incentive to invest in technology – and in many cases are penalized for doing so. The cost to digitally copy an entire courthouse, transcribe the information into a database and build a user interface is not trivial and could takes years, if not decades, to recoup. If a county clerk lets a third party vendor tackle the task, the courthouse could potentially lose out on the profit made from copies. Also, landmen and abstractors wouldn’t have a need to travel the county and thereby stimulate the local economy by staying in hotels, eating at the local restaurants and doing business with the area’s merchants.
Another issue is the age difference. As with most enterprises within the oil and gas world, landmen took a big hit in the crash of the 1980’s. The land industry slowly gained traction over the following decades and then skyrocketed with the natural gas land grab of the early to mid-2000s. This resulted in a unique demographic with a sizable age gap between executives, department heads, and owners of brokerage firms on one side, and landmen in the field on the other.
Also, during the 90’s most industries were graced with a steady stream of new employees that brought with them solid standardized computer degrees and a drive to integrate that skillset within their respective companies. Since the Land Industry was essentially frozen, this advance of technology never fully materialized.
There are Problems That Can’t be Solved by Technology (Yet)
The greatest barrier to the automation of Land tasks is that much of the data that needs to be processed and linked requires detailed interpretation that processors and databases just can’t perform at this time. While some landgrids such as Section Township Range (STR) and Quarter Quarter sections (QQ) can be mapped and linked to metadata using fairly simple software, more complex systems like metes and bounds are often too complex and require a skilled technician to plot them.
Arguably the greatest value a landman brings to the table is the ability to read complex legal documents, extract out the pertinent information, analyze it and make a decision about what needs to happen next. Creating software that is capable of replicating those functions will be years, if not decades, away.
And There are People Factors
Independent landmen charge a day rate which directly works against the notion of finding new and creative ways to achieve a final product faster for their client. I’m not implying that landmen in the field purposefully do slow work but I do want to highlight that there isn’t an incentive to innovate; in fact, quite the opposite. This is why most of the progress that will take place in the future will most likely be driven by In-house landmen looking to outperform their competition.
Having said that, I don’t feel that technological innovation and the success of independent landmen are mutually exclusive, but both will have to find new ways to fulfill the needs of the Land Industry.
The Future Landman
The above is a quick list of issues we need to solve in order to take the land industry to the next level. I’m going to provide one possible solution and then give you, the reader, a chance to begin thinking on how you would tackle them. My hope is that you will respond to this article with hindrances that I failed to mention along with possible products, solutions and insight into what you see the technological future looking like for the Land Industry.
We should incentivize the counties to change the manner in which they accept and file documents.
We need County Clerks to require more from the people filing land based instruments. Along with the original hard copy of a document, we need the person filing the instrument to provide a digital copy of the document as well as a shapefile of the subject tract/s.
By requiring this, the metadata can then be associated with the subject tracts on a GIS level (even if the county is not capable of processing this type of data yet). We could then search for the metadata from an interactive map (ex. Google Earth). We could slide a bar over a time line, and visualize the evolution of the tracts on your screen as they morph into their current or past states. We could click on a tract at any point on the timeline bringing back all documents associated with the subject tract to that point in history. As we build a database of shapefiles, when a new document is being drafted, the internal filing number of the shapefile can be used as an additional legal description. When a tract is partitioned and new shapefiles are created, the new filing numbers can be associated with the old thus linking the shapefiles and all associated documents. When entered into a search, these numbers will instantly give the landman access to all associated shapefiles thus providing them an accurate tract outline and precise location of the subject tract.
The end result is that obtaining supporting documents and tract location and outlines will no longer take days or weeks but will be instantaneous. This frees the landman to do what he does best and use his critical thinking skills to pore over the documents to extract out the pertinent data. When we think about the tens of millions of dollars that are lost each year performing one of the most primitive and mundane of tasks for computers and processors, searching for data, it’s mind blowing that for the most part we must still rely on old paperbound indexes and volumes for document retrieval. My team and I are already tackling this task for STR/QQ landgrids but the real prize is Texas metes and bounds landgrids. This proposal would most likely require an outside third party to retroactively create shapefiles for historical documents but to the company that does, a windfall of revenue would follow.
What do you think? What improvements do you see in the landman’s technological future? What should landmen be careful about? Leave a comment below.
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