On behalf of all the urban planning students, local nonprofits, neighborhood groups, Community Boards, journalists, and others who’ve paid cold hard cash to the NYC Department of City Planning for the “privilege” of having license-restricted access to the city’s tax parcel data, I’d like to make a modest proposal:
New York City’s Planning Department should refund the fees they’ve collected for the past decade from all of MapPLUTO’s licensees, and MapPLUTO should be posted online for free downloading.
We’re talking real money for many local groups
The MapPLUTO database was conceived by City Planning circa 2003 as the successor to earlier efforts to license and sell tax parcel boundaries.
Based on an article this week from The New York World, City Planning has collected up to $80,000 a year from the sale of MapPLUTO data. Over a decade, that’s $800,000. According to a response from City Planning to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request by 596 Acres for a list of all PLUTO licensees from 2003 to 2012, there have been almost 400 licensees (including several dozen city agencies, which I’ll discuss separately below).
It’s hard to say the exact amounts that each group has paid to City Planning; as far as I know, City Planning has never released a full accounting of the fees they’ve received from MapPLUTO licenses. In this era of transparent government, we should be able to find this out. But this information is hidden behind City Planning’s walls. Even a search for “MapPLUTO” or “PLUTO” at CheckbookNYC reveals nothing.
I do know that my organization, the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center / CUNY, has spent $7,500 in MapPLUTO license fees since 2006. Before that, the mapping project I co-founded at NYPIRG also licensed MapPLUTO and paid City Planning several thousand dollars over several years.
That’s real money, especially to a nonprofit group and modest academic research center. And it’s money I think we – and all the other MapPLUTO licensees – never should have had to pay.
(Note: my critique shouldn’t detract from the great work that the Dept of City Planning does in so many other areas, including the other data sets that the agency makes available for free online.)
Why does the Dept of City Planning restrict access to such an important database?
This week’s New York World article highlights the absurdity of the city’s efforts to charge fees for the data. MapPLUTO is based on data that City Planning obtains from other city agencies. It’s not new data. It’s not data that has been created so that City Planning can sell it. It’s data that’s been compiled using taxpayer dollars, for the purposes of land use analysis and planning. The data has already been paid for by the public, and the Planning Department shouldn’t be justified in charging extra for it.
City Planning has worked hard to keep a lock on the fees they receive (though as I understand it, the Planning Department doesn’t even receive the fees directly – the funds are put in the city’s general fund):
- The Planning Department requires MapPLUTO users to sign a license agreement that prohibits any kind of sharing or reuse of the data.
- According to the agreement, “unlicensed third parties” cannot have access to the data.
- There’s an additional prohibition for distributing the “geographic coordinates” contained in MapPLUTO – i.e, the GIS representation of tax parcel boundaries that you need to map the data and analyze it spatially.
- Using the data for a product that will be resold (such as a mobile app) is prohibited.
- And MapPLUTO “or any of its components” cannot be “place[d]… on the Internet.”
Now that the city’s Open Data Law requires agencies to post data online, City Planning is falling back on the argument that since the MapPLUTO data comes from other agencies, they don’t have to post it (an exemption in the law). It’s up to the other agencies to do so. But as Dominic Mauro from the Transparency Working Group puts it:
If you’re getting paid for this data, I don’t see how they can reasonably claim that this is not their data.
In other words, City Planning can’t have it both ways.
City Planning also claims copyright over the MapPLUTO data. I’m all for giving credit where credit is due – City Planning should be cited whenever MapPLUTO data is used (and for that matter, all the individual agencies from whom City Planning gets the data should be cited as well). But why control what can be done with the data? Why limit its use? This just stifles innovation and entrepreneurship, not to mention any local community planning work that might be prohibited by the license or by copyright.
Indeed, allowing app developers, realtors, architectural firms, consulting groups, and any other for-profit entity to use the city’s tax parcel data at no cost and with no restrictions can only help the city. Removing these restrictions opens up business opportunities, and with business growth comes job creation and tax revenue, precisely the kinds of things that our current Mayor has been keen on promoting.
And removing barriers to MapPLUTO makes it easier for nonprofits, academic institutions, and students to engage in local planning efforts on a level playing field. If only groups that can afford the data can use it, the rest of us are at a disadvantage.
Will the city actually enforce its restrictive practices?
What if you decide to ignore the license or copyright restrictions? City Planning reserves its right to come after you. According to the New York World article, the Department of City Planning says that “Any such use without a license could give rise to an enforcement action.”
An “enforcement action”? Really? When Mayor Bloomberg signed Local Law 11, he said “If we’re going to continue leading the country in innovation and transparency, we’re going to have to make sure that all New Yorkers have access to the data that drives our City.” I don’t think there’s any dispute that real estate is one of the key drivers of the city. So I wonder if Mayor Bloomberg’s planning agency would go after a NYC BigApps entrant who uses MapPLUTO data in a web-based app? Would the Mayor approve of City Planning suing a local nonprofit group that posts the data online? Would he let City Planning take enforcement action against Cornell University if Cornell’s new technology campus developed a profitable product that relied on MapPLUTO data?
And from the perspective of investing tax dollars, would city funds be best spent on lawsuits, or on facilitating innovation?
You’re not alone: other city agencies have paid for MapPLUTO, too!
City Planning’s efforts to control access to MapPLUTO data haven’t been reserved only for those outside city government. The Planning Department has even imposed its restrictions and fees on other city agencies.
According to the list of MapPLUTO licensees uncovered by 596 Acres, City Planning has issued licenses to the Mayor’s Office, the Dept of Information Technology and Telecommuncations (DoITT), the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the Police Department, the Law Department (presumably they’re the ones who need to review the license in the first place!), the City Council, and several Community Boards.
What possible reason could City Planning have for wanting or needing to know how and why these agencies are using MapPLUTO data? Why should city agencies need to license data from another city agency? And some of these agencies – especially Dept of Finance, but also Parks and Recreation, the Dept of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), and the Landmarks Commission – are the very agencies that City Planning gets the data from to create MapPLUTO in the first place!
Not to pile on (but it’s so easy to do with such an absurd situation), City Planning historically has not only required licenses from other city agencies, but City Planning previously required other agencies to pay a fee to obtain tax parcel boundary files. In 2000, for example, not only were the fees for tax parcel data files higher ($1,150 per borough, rather than the current $300/borough fee), but the fees were “$750 per borough for New York City agencies”.
That must’ve made for some interesting discussions among agency heads during budget time. As far as I know, that practice ended soon thereafter. But it’s evidence of City Planning’s inexplicable and ongoing effort to control access to tax parcel data, and to try to profit from it, even from their own colleagues in city government.
Tear down the paywall (and offer some payback while you’re at it)
Now that the city has a law requiring data to be freely available online, there’s strong justification for removing the fees and the license requirements and copyright restrictions. But frankly, we’ve already had a law requiring data such as MapPLUTO to be made available with no restrictions and for no more than the cost of distribution (such as what it could cost to copy the files to a DVD or to post them online). That’s the New York State Freedom of Information Law, in effect since the mid-1970s.
What’s especially curious – and frustrating – about City Planning’s persistence in restricting access to tax parcel data is that the agency has made great strides in opening up access to other data sets it maintains.
A decade ago City Planning was charging fees to the public and other agencies for data as simple as a GIS file representing borough boundaries, or Census tract boundaries, or Community Boards. One by one the agency has removed these fees and developed what I consider a model website for making agency data publicly accessible: the “Bytes of the Big Apple” website (overly cute name for a very useful site).
Even as recently as Fall 2012, the Planning Department removed the fee it had been charging for its “Geosupport Desktop Edition”, a software and data package that takes a list of street addresses and returns information about each address’s building ID, tax parcel ID, and more. City Planning previously was selling this package for $2,500 a year (and more if you wanted more frequent updates). In terms of the time involved by City Planning to create this application, maintain it, and keep it updated, I would imagine it’s worth much more than the effort to update the MapPLUTO data. Yet “Geosupport” is now free, but we still have to pay for MapPLUTO. I don’t get it.
The time is right for the Department of City Planning to change its ways regarding MapPLUTO – the one remaining major data set it licenses for a fee. I think City Planning should take two simple steps:
- immediately remove any fees and restrictions on MapPLUTO (and post the data online for anyone to download it); and
- refund all its MapPLUTO fees from the last 10 years. The city should think of this as a relatively small but important investment in innovation and entrepreneurship. And it would be a way of apologizing to all the groups and individuals who’ve effectively paid taxes twice on this information that’s so essential to understanding land use and real estate – arguably the lifeblood of the city.
Such a sensible proposal!
But what if City Planning continues to dig in its heels? Perhaps you can try the Freedom of Information route and request the data via FOIL. That’s what 596 Acres did, and they received MapPLUTO for a mere $5 fee! City Planning still claimed copyright restrictions, but maybe if City Planning receives enough FOIL requests they’ll be persuaded that there’s no point in maintaining MapPLUTO’s high fees and restrictive licenses. Here’s the link http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/about/location.shtml#foil