Stories

City liberates map data trove

Geographic information once off limits to the web now downloadable, for free

New York City streets are free to walk, but until now getting the city’s master map database cost dearly.

That changed on Thursday, when the Department of City Planning made MapPLUTO — an extensive database full of information about each of the city’s parcels of land — available to the public on its website, free of charge.

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Previously, the same files came at a steep price of $300 per borough, and a required license barred users from posting any of the data, including maps, on the Internet.

“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,” a Department of Planning spokesperson wrote in an email on Thursday.

In April, The New York World reported that even as the city moved to put vital government data online for free download, MapPLUTO remained a glaring exception.

Urban planners and transparency advocates say they are happy with the change.

“It’s a huge win for the public,” said Steve Romalewski, the director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research. “This levels the playing field.”

The data is especially helpful, Romalewski said, “if you want to understand land use patterns [or] how real property is assessed.”

Over the last few years, the department has been moving away from charging for public documents. PLUTO was the last batch of data that wasn’t free.

“If you want to understand development in your community,” Romalewski continued, “this data is essential.”

Under New York City’s new open data law, city agencies are required to have all its public information published online and available for download by the year 2018.

Because MapPLUTO is a compilation of data from other departments, the Department of City Planning has asserted it is not legally required to post the information online.

Paula Segal, executive director of the group 596 Acres, which helps community residents reclaim publicly owned property, said she was happy to see that the Department of Planning is following the law.

“It’s neat,” she said. “This is information people really need.”

Segal added that lifting the last remaining fee on city planning documents shows that the city is “being respectful of the public’s right under the law.”

On Thursday morning, Romalewski downloaded the newly available information, and was pleasantly surprised when he found some additional data elements not previously offered.

“It was especially frustrating that this data wasn’t readily available,” he said. “I’m thrilled that the city has changed its tune.”

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