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New York City Has a More Level Playing Field for Access to Real Estate Data

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, July 26 2013

New York City's Department of City Planning recently opened up free access to data files that link up maps of individual tax lots with financial data about those lots, following pressure from transparency advocates and media coverage.

The data merges together information like owner name, assessed value and even details like floor-to-area ratio, a function of how tall a building is and how big a lot it sits on, which is a useful index of building density. (An area with zoning rules that allow for high FAR is an area that will have more, taller, buildings.) For someone with a reasonable level of skill, it opens up many new opportunities for research into relationships between the city's built environment, its economy, and its planning policies.

Real estate interests would, and do, pay top dollar for this kind of information — but it can also be valuable for nonprofits and app developers. The New York World reported in April that users had to pay up to $1,500 to obtain the data for all five boroughs, and that the agency received between $50,000 and $80,000 a year from the sale of licences.

A City Planning spokesperson told the World at the time that the dataset was a compilation of data from other agencies, and that New York City's Open Data Law did not require it to release data from other agencies. The spokesperson also said that the data was covered by copyright.

But many transparency advocates argued to the World that the continued restriction contradicted the spirit of New York City's Open Data Law.

Muckrock in April filed a FOI request for the data compilations, known as PLUTO and MapPLUTO.

Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service, noted in an April blog post that the Digital Tax Map shapefiles underlying the compilation data were already freely available from the Department of Finance, undercutting City Planning's restriction.

Romalewski had been calling for the release of the data since as early as 2009, and nonprofits, researchers and developers had complained that the arrangement stifled collaboration.

In April, Romalewski wrote that the release of the data would not only open up business opportunities for app developers, realtors, architectural firms and consulting groups, but would also create a "level playing field" by allowing non-profits, academics and students to more easily engage in local planning efforts.

Thursday, Jessie Braden, a GIS analyst and environmental planner at the Pratt Center, and Romalewski noted the release of the data through RSS.

Romalewski attributed the welcome news to FOI requests from community land access advocacy group 596 Acres and MuckRock, the New York World's coverage and the advocacy of the NYC Transparency Working Group, a coalition of established advocacy and newer civic-hacking groups that was also instrumental in the passage of the Open Data Law. One member group of the coalition is BetaNYC, New York City's Code for America brigade.

In an e-mail to the New York World, a City Planning spokesperson wrote that "we revised our policy on the sale of PLUTO and MapPLUTO data in keeping with the Mayor’s ongoing commitment to using technology to improve customer service and transparency."

Both DoITT and Andrew Nicklin, DoITT's director of research and development also welcomed the news on Twitter.

"Wow. Just wow. [As of several months ago] I'm still having to go in person to council offices in Jersey for printouts for this, so what you've done is just amazing," Sara Farmer, a data scientist and CTO at Change Assembly, wrote in an e-mail to the BetaNYC list.

BetaNYC is already planning a Civic Hack Night on August 7 and inviting members of the public to demonstrate PLUTO projects or challenges and to organize a tutorial.

In separate news earlier this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that more than 100 transportation datasets had been added to the state's open data portal.