The day NY released its real estate data to developers

3 min reading
Proptech / 19 November 2014
The day NY released its real estate data to developers
The day NY released its real estate data to developers


Urban layers is an interactive map created by Morphocode, a design and technology studio applied to architectural planning that visually shows information on the history, ownership and dimensions of over 45,000 buildings in the Big Apple. New York’s urban perimeter contains over one million buildings –too many for a fluid visualization– so Urban layers shows only the ones located on the island of Manhattan.

It is based on two datasets: PLUTO and Building Footprints. Building Footprints is a dataset published on New York City’s Open Data Portal, which contains almost 4,000 open datasets (you can see a visualization of its content here). The second, PLUTO, is much more interesting and has a whole story behind it.

Image/Credits: Morphocode

The city of New York passed its Open Data Law in March 2012. Gigas and gigas of public data were then dumped free of charge on the website to be reused. There was an abundance of data… except for a critical set that the open data community had been demanding for years: PLUTO (and MapPLUTO, the geospatial version), a data mashup with geographic and tax lot information on a map platform that is comparable to “a real world version of Sim City”, the popular videogame. PLUTO is an acronym of Primary Land Use Tax lot Output. Urban planning, real estate ownership, plot distribution… all in one place, in a resource compiled by the New York Urban Planning Department and open to all… at a price ($300 for data on one district and $1500 for all five) and with numerous exceptions for its use, the most important of which was that no one was entitled to upload even the minutest portion of PLUTO to the Internet.

The new law established that all municipal data should be available and downloadable on a portal before 2018, and with these appetizing features, it is only natural that the city’s open data community made a big fuss of PLUTO’s release. The Department of Planning argued that it could not furnish “data that had been collected by a number of other agencies”. The Transparency Working Group retorted that “If you’re getting paid for this data, I don’t see how they can reasonably claim that this is not their data”. PLUTO generated profits for the planning agency of between $50,000 and $80,000 a year from the sale of licenses. Its data were finally released the following year, in 2013. For New York’s open data community, this represented a major triumph, and media like Wired picked up the issue. There were even meetups between programmers to present projects based on this particular dataset.

Like Morphocode, many other developers have created projects based on PLUTO. Andrew Hill of Vizzuality launched this PLUTO Tour in the form of slides to highlight the possibilities of this information. It offers numerous visualizations of the areas owned by the city council up to the height of the skyscrapers that make up the city’s famous skyline, or shows where we can still see buildings dating from before 1800. This other visualization by Sarah Michael Levine also reveals which buildings belong to New York City.

The case of PLUTO demonstrates that authorities with an obligation to release public data can (and must) listen to developers, the pro-open data community, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem in order to find out their needs at first hand and open datasets with a high value for reuse. No one can identify them better. Thanks to Nación Rotonda for sharing this story.

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