A Modest Proposal for NYC Tax Parcel Data

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.

Free MapPLUTO!

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:

  1. immediately remove any fees and restrictions on MapPLUTO (and post the data online for anyone to download it); and
  2. 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

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24 Responses

  1. bravo..

  2. It is not Pluto but DOF agreed to put the Digital Tax Map on the open data portal. That data set contains the tax parcels, which is the building-block of Pluto.

    http://spatialityblog.com/2013/04/04/a-modest-proposal-for-nyc-tax-parcel-data/

  3. Thanks for writing this, Steven. I strongly agree that MapPLUTO should be posted online for free downloading.

    If people reading this post are interested in taking action, check out the Open NY Forum thread “Free MapPluto Now!” at http://www.meetup.com/openny/messages/archive/

  4. ..and change your database name to something less stupid.

  5. But seriously… I think that the first thing that comes to mind when we hear about fees for data is a fat bureaucratic official lining his pockets with money to pay for services that should already be paid for. Having worked from the public side of the equation for 15 years I can say that it is more complex than that and probably less dramatic.

    I can’t speak to the reasoning behind NYC plannings choice but I know that compiling and standardizing data takes resources just like it takes resources to pave and maintain roads. When people buy licence plates or pay gas taxes they help supplemental other publicly contributed dollars because they use that resource more than others.

    “But we already paid for you to do it” is what most of us think when we hear these stories. Unfortunately the amount of tax dollars taken in by government agencies do not actually cover the totality of programs offered. Enhancing data might be less of a priority than say paving roads and the budget must look for ways to work. Perhaps the priorities should change and I recommend taking that up with your local representation.

    NYC planning should be explicit about the way the money is used. $1500 seems like too high a cost in this day and age. They should also be flexible.

    I completely support the data being free. I just would not want to see the data stop being produced because it can’t be paid for in the short term.

    JH

    • Thanks Justin. I don’t think the city will stop producing this data — it’s too important for the mission of the City Planning Department and the Department of Finance (and likely many other agencies) to not have this data. So really the only extra/marginal cost is the time involved in sharing it with others. That can be complicated (as in, signing a license agreement, potentially enforcing the licenses, copying the data to multiple DVDs each time someone requests, etc.). That’s what City Planning does now, and has been doing for years. It’s a waste of time and money, in my view.

      Or the cost can be trivial to non-existent, as in posting it online for anyone to download whenever they want, and not worrying about whether people will be using the data in compliance with some outmoded and likely unenforceable license agreement.

      Perhaps there can be a sensible way for the city to recoup some of its expenses for developing a database such as MapPLUTO. But I think that’s unlikely (I can’t begin to think how the accounting would work). And if it’s going to be city policy to do so, there needs to be a very public discussion about what that will mean. The city has been secretive, at best, about the fees and license restrictions for MapPLUTO.

      Also, I think the city probably can’t be explicit about how the money is used, as you suggest, because as I understand it the funds from MapPLUTO fees are put in the city’s general budget. I’d be interested in the City Planning Department’s input if they can document how those fees have actually been put to use, in a direct and clear way, to support the work of the department. That would be a helpful part of the discussion.

  6. I agree with your point, but just for a greater perspective on costs of purchasing such parcel data, I’ve been quoted by a much smaller upstate county a figure of $5,000 to access synonymous data.

    In light of that I always though $250 (or whatever it is) per borough is reasonable/affordable for research purchases (that is a lot cheaper than any other software I need to purchase at least).

    The fact that the money doesn’t go directly to Planning is an (unfortunate) fact of bureaucracy. This is more of a rule than an exception that such alternative revenue generating streams for govt. agencies get funneled into more general coffers, and are redistributed (and not necessarily back into the same agency).

    • Your point about perspective is a good one, Andrew, thanks for sharing. In Suffolk County, Long Island, for example, the county’s real estate department sells its parcel boundary file for the incredible fee of $100,000 (yes, one hundred thousand dollars), and all you get are the parcel boundaries, parcel IDs, owner name, and perhaps land use category. So in that context, perhaps you could consider the PLUTO fees as a bargain. Their argument? It’s what the market will bear (though only one or two entities can afford such an outrageous fee). To me, that is reprehensible and far worse than the situation in New York City.

      But the city’s Planning Department has done such a good job with the exception of MapPLUTO in terms of making data accessible with no restrictions (fees or otherwise), that it’s especially troubling that they cling to the fees for PLUTO. There’s no question the department understands the value and importance in providing data for no cost online. So why not PLUTO. And even though $1,500 a year is less than what some other municipalities charge, it is still quite a real cost for us to bear, especially for smaller organizations.

      I’ve never bought in to the cost recovery argument. It’s not what agencies are good at, and it’s not what they’re supposed to do. It would be one thing if there was a public discussion about the need to fund certain aspects of what City Planning does, over and above what tax dollars already pay for. But at least for MapPLUTO, that type of conversation has never happened. The fees (and license restrictions) have been by fiat, with little to no rationale offered publicly. In contrast, there’s been quite a robust public conversation about the need to remove restrictions like fees and licenses for city data sets, as embodied in Local Law 11 and other initiatives. MapPLUTO remains a glaring exception.

  7. [...] I blogged this morning about the frustrations of the City Planning Department’s restrictions on mapped tax parcel data, [...]

  8. In my lab alone at The New School we’ve spent $4500 on MapPluto data, and I am finding out that other departments within the university have spent even more. It’s adding up for sure and cuts into research budgets for work that will ultimately benefit the city.

  9. Great article. We filed our own request for the data, and if and when we get it, it will be posted online on the request page:

    https://www.muckrock.com/foi/new-york-city-17/pluto-and-mappluto-data-set-4889/

    Thanks for raising awareness about this issue

  10. Thanks for the info on where to download the shapefiles. I just contacted Barbara at city planning a few weeks ago to request the data She sent me the ridiculous license agreement, but
    never mentioned the download site. Thanks again!

  11. mappluto last i heard is free for other city agencies

  12. […] April 2 2013, the NY World wrote a fantastic piece pointing out that PLUTO was missing. Then, Steven Romalewski quickly demanded a 10 year refund. Followed by the NYC Transparency Working Group picking up the phone and asking City Hall and […]

  13. […] April 2 2013, the NY World wrote a fantastic piece pointing out that PLUTO was missing. Then, Steven Romalewski quickly demanded a 10 year refund. Followed by the NYC Transparency Working Group picking up the phone and asking City Hall and […]

  14. […] was also a step forward for open data this week on the city level: after inquiries and pressure from advocates, the Department of City Planning is no longer charging licensing fees for access to MapPLUTO, its […]

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