A Modest Victory regarding NYC Tax Parcel Data

After I blogged this morning about the frustrations of the City Planning Department’s restrictions on mapped tax parcel data, I learned that the foundation of their “MapPLUTO” product is now available for free online.

This is a partial – but very important – victory for anyone who has been impacted by the city’s burdensome fees and license restrictions associated with MapPLUTO.

The good news is that the Department of Finance has decided to post its “Digital Tax Map” in GIS format online for free download.  (Thanks to Colin Reilly for alerting me to the online data.)  Here’s the link: https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Property/Department-of-Finance-Digital-Tax-Map/smk3-tmxj

Start mapping real property data!

To some extent, this pulls the rug out from under City Planning’s efforts to restrict access to tax parcel data, enabling anyone now to analyze and map the spatial patterns of land use, real property tax assessment, ownership, and more across the five boroughs.  Here’s what you’ll need to do:

  1. Download the Digital Tax Map file from the city’s Open Data Portal (when you unzip this file, you’ll actually receive a collection of GIS shapefiles and data tables);
  2. Download the assessment roll file (also for free online).  The Finance Dept makes this available in Microsoft Access format.  You’ll want to download the separate files for “Tax Class 1” and “Tax Classes 2, 3, and 4”.  The “condensed” version of the file only has a limited number of fields, nowhere near what MapPLUTO has;
  3. Combine the two “Tax Class” downloads into a single file;
  4. Join this combined file with the “DTM_1212_Tax_Lot_Polygon” shapefile using a robust GIS package such as ArcGIS or QGIS; and
  5. Map away!

Not a total MapPLUTO replacement, though

The “Tax Class 1” and “Tax Classes 2, 3, and 4” assessment roll files contain most, though not all, of what the City Planning Department packages as part of its MapPLUTO product.  Some missing items include:

  • Detailed parcel-level zoning characteristics;
  • Floor Area Ratio (FAR), a critical factor in making parcel-specific land use decisions;
  • Land use characteristics (though this can be calculated based on the assessment roll’s “building class” codes and a formula published by City Planning);
  • The various tract and district IDs for each parcel (but this can be calculated using GIS);
  • Parcel-specific easements;
  • If the property is a designated NYC landmark; and
  • There may be other differences that I haven’t noticed.

While some of these characteristics can be calculated, others cannot without City Planning’s involvement (since they maintain the data on parcel-by-parcel zoning and FAR, for example).

Also, there can be some confusion over linking assessment roll tabular data to tax parcel boundaries for tax lots that are condos.  I can discuss this in a separate blog post, or perhaps others can weigh in on this topic.

So the Digital Tax Map plus the assessment roll files are not a complete replacement for MapPLUTO.  That’s one reason this is only a partial victory.  I would imagine that the information in these combined files will enable many groups and individuals to avoid using MapPLUTO completely.  But other organizations that rely on characteristics such as FAR, detailed zoning, easements, etc will still need the more complete MapPLUTO package.

We still need to Free MapPLUTO

But the availability of the Digital Tax Map shapefiles greatly undercuts City Planning’s ability to levy fees and impose license restrictions on the public for this data so essential to understanding our city.  It underscores how unnecessary it was for City Planning to be involved in selling the data in the first place.  For several years now the tax parcel boundaries have been maintained by the Dept of Finance, and the assessment roll data that provides the bulk of PLUTO is created and maintained by Finance too.  So why has City Planning been selling data from other agencies as its own?

It also begs the question: now that the Digital Tax Map and the assessment roll data is free online, why is City Planning still selling/licensing MapPLUTO?  Is this an oversight on their part?  Or does City Planning think they that an unaware public will still come to them for MapPLUTO so they can extract more fees?  Either way the fees for MapPLUTO should end immediately, even if it requires the Mayor’s office to step in and require his agencies to comply with Local Law 11.

And it would be more than a nice gesture if the city refunded the past decade’s worth of license fees the city has collected on the backs of local community groups, academic institutions, students, and others who’ve had to pay City Planning in order to access mapped tax parcel data.

Communication to help bridge the data gap?

Btw, while it’s wonderful the Digital Tax Map files are now available online, I wonder why it took my blog post to reveal the availability of the files?

I’ve known for some time that the Dept of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) maintains an interactive map displaying the tax parcel boundaries.  But there’s no download option at that mapping site for the boundary data.

Also, I regularly check the Finance Department’s website where you can download the assessment roll data.  Even today, there’s no mention that the Digital Tax Map is available for free online.  Nor does the Finance Department’s web page explaining the Digital Tax Map project mention anything about a download option.

I also regularly search the city’s Open Data Portal, but I hadn’t come across the Digital Tax Map file until Colin posted a comment today at my blog.  If you sort the Open Data list by “Newest” or “Recently Updated”, the Digital Tax Map doesn’t show up in the first several pages.

I think this speaks to the need for communication between the agencies that create the data, and the various constituencies of groups that use (or might hope to use) the city’s data sets.  Simply posting something to the portal is not enough.  If the city truly wants to foster innovation by making its data files more open, it would help if either the agencies or the Mayor’s office or some entity within city government provided regular communication about data that’s available, how to use it, what it shouldn’t be used for, etc.

Nonetheless, the city has taken an important step in opening up access to tax parcel information with the Digital Tax Map.  Looking forward to more to come!

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One Response

  1. This is a big step forward. I’ve been frustrated recently by California counties charging $20,000 for their appraisal roll data. I don’t know how this is legal given the California Public Records act. Fortunately, I work mostly with Texas data. I think the most I’ve ever paid for a Texas County Appraisal roll is $200. Lately, I’ve even begun to find some appraisal districts putting BOTH their parcel data & their appraisal roll data online for free — like Ector County and Cameron County.

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