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PLUTO out of orbit

While a new law liberates the city’s data online, a valuable city planning tool remains out of public reach

As the city puts gigabytes of free data online, one chunk remains conspicuously missing: a database that reveals the vital details of every piece of real estate in the city.

MapPLUTO is a mashup of city data that, when plugged into mapping software, opens up a real-world version of Sim City. Tax lot characteristics and building outlines may not be the sexiest topics of conversation, but in New York City the digital information is (almost) invaluable. Real estate developers use MapPLUTO data to plot out their visions; urban planners to craft the environment those buildings sit in.

MapPLUTO unlocks troves of city data about real estate — for those who pay and agree to stiff restrictions on its use. Illustration: Michael Sullivan

All of it comes courtesy of the Department of City Planning — at a price. Users must pay $300 a borough, $1,500 for all five, for each semiannual batch. They must also sign on to a 14-page license dictating how the maps can and can’t be used. Among the forbidden acts: putting any portion of MapPLUTO on the Internet.

These barriers would seem contrary to the new city law that requires all public data to be posted for download online on a central portal by 2018. But City Planning continues to assert it’s entitled to keep MapPLUTO out of reach for nonpaying customers and off the internet.

The agency claims that it is not required to share MapPLUTO because it consists of information gathered from other city agencies.

“MapPLUTO is a compilation of information from a variety of agency sources, most of which are now available on the Open Data portal,” said a spokesman for the agency in an emailed statement. “DCP is not required to post the data of other agencies on the portal.” The agency receives between $50,000 and $80,000 a year from the sale of licenses.

The department notes that anyone can collect much of the same information that is in MapPLUTO from the other city agencies that maintain it, and then cobble together their own compilation.

The city’s open data law does not require agencies to disclose information supplied by other governmental entities. But Dominic Mauro, staff attorney for the good-government group Reinvent Albany — a member of a Transparency Working Group monitoring city and state sharing of government information — questions whether or not this exception applies to MapPLUTO. “If you’re getting paid for this data, I don’t see how they can reasonably claim that this is not their data,” he said.

The Department of City Planning also asserts that MapPLUTO is its property, protected by copyright — and therefore exempt under a provision of the open-data law.

Mauro acknowledges MapPLUTO may have added value to existing city data, but still questions the call. “This isn’t poetry they’ve written about the best tax lot in New York City,” said Mauro. “Statistical information is really hard to copyright.”

In 2000, the state Committee on Open Government weighed in on a similar situation, in which the state Department of Transportation insisted that a map publisher enter into a paid licensing agreement in order to use state geographic data. The committee called the state’s claim of copyright invalid.

The committee’s executive director, Bob Freeman, says that MapPLUTO is not the city’s to license, either. “In my view, the data at issue should not be subject to any copyright protection or restriction,” he said. “It seems to me that this flies in the face of the general policy of New York City government.”

The exclusion of some of the government’s most valuable data from the new public trove has some open-data advocates calling on the Department of City Planning to tear down its paywall.

“There’s no reason that we should have to pay for that information when it is already being collected, when it’s already being compiled,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research (and sometime collaborator with The New York World). “It’s especially frustrating now that the city has been making great strides in making data accessible for free online, encouraging agencies to provide free access to data, encouraging app developers and others to access information and do interesting things with it.”

One critical piece of MapPLUTO for Romalewski is the unique number assigned to every piece of real estate in the city, known as “borough block and lot,” or BBL. With a BBL in hand, a user can match up data from disparate sources, confident that it all refers to the same property.

Romalewski uses MapPLUTO to drive OASIS, an online interactive map that reveals rich layers of detail about city buildings, open space and infrastructure. He was able to put it online under a special licensing agreement with the city for the project.

But for other groups, access remains out of reach. “It’s a pay-to-play system,” said Paula Segal, the founder and director of the nonprofit 596 Acres, a group of urban-planning activists seeking to put city-owned land back into public use. She says smaller groups can’t necessarily afford to pay. “It impedes their ability to sometimes do their work.” Segal also notes that the fee “sends a clear message to who the city is for, and who is supposed to be shaping it and who is not.”

Those who can’t pay the $1,500 price of admission also have another option: they can submit a freedom of information law (FOIL) request to the Department of City Planning. That’s the course taken by the 596 Acres. For $5 – the price of five CD-ROMs — the group received a complete five-borough MapPLUTO data set after sending a FOIL request to the department.

The Department of City Planning says that those who obtain the data through FOIL must abide by the license agreement, except where copyright law allows so-called fair use exemptions.

“Any such use without a license could give rise to an enforcement action,” said an agency spokesperson in an emailed statement.

Freeman remains skeptical that the city has to power to tell people how they can and can’t use government data obtained through freedom of information law once they have it.

“One of the basic principles underlying FOIL is that who you are, why you want it, and what you intend to do it with it irrelevant,” said Freeman. “Once you get it, you want to use it for government accountability? Great. But you can use it for wallpaper.”