Five Questions with Susan Marlow About Parcel Datasets

By Adena Schutzberg

_Smart Data Strategies has been in the parcel / land records business for 20 years. In the last year or so, parcel data has become an incredibly hot topic. Today, several large commercial companies are in the process of building a national parcel dataset. Adena Schutzberg asked Susan Marlow, CEO of Smart Data Strategies, about parcel data.

Adena Schutzberg (AS): Let's start with the basics. What information is contained in parcel data? How much of that information is currently stored digitally? Who currently holds it in the U.S.?

Susan Marlow (SM):
Parcel data tells the story behind real property, including information that describes the property such as rights, interests and characteristics. This includes the land's value, descriptions and values of structures on the land, boundaries, land use, tax information, subdivision names and transfer history. Most tax jurisdictions store more than 100 attributes, or information fields, on each parcel so this is just a sample of the information included in parcel data. The majority of this information is maintained at the local government level.

The most recent assessment of digital parcel data was conducted by the National Academies of Science's Committee on Land Parcel Databases in 2007. We reported that 70% of all parcels in the United States are in digital format. However, don't be fooled. Just because it is digital does not mean it is standardized, accessible or usable. The remaining 30% are located in 2,000 of the approximately 3,100 counties in the country. To put this in a global context, the United States is actually one of the few industrialized nations without a national parcel dataset. A few examples of countries that have completed datasets are Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, South Korea and Sweden. These countries built a national parcel dataset because they recognized the multiple purposes of parcel data, beyond taxation. It's worth noting that the U.S. has contributed to the funding of several land modernization projects through the World Bank and U.S. foreign aid programs.

The U.S. appears to be catching on, which was evident during a half-day summit I was involved in this past spring. Fifteen federal agencies that attended expressed the need for current and accurate parcel data.

AS: What are the benefits of a national dataset? Who benefits? Is there a measure of the potential economic impact of such a dataset?

The benefits of having universally accessible and usable parcel data are limitless. Our world is in constant motion and a national dataset would simplify and expedite decisions made by you and me, and Fortune 500 companies across the nation, allowing us to make highly informed, real estate-related decisions in less time. People spend hours searching for parcel-related data. We sit at our computers with four or five Web browsers open trying to find the information that we need, and sometimes we find that the data are not available online. With a national parcel dataset that would drastically change, saving everyone an enormous amount of time.

Much as digital centerlines revolutionized the way people get from point A to point B, digital parcels would revolutionize the way people evaluate real estate. Imagine ... you would be able to drive into a neighborhood that you're interested in and right there across a dashboard application or even a cell phone, you're provided information about all of the homes for sale in that area. On the spot you could compare homes that have recently sold, the size of the lots, how many days a home was on the market and much more - all from one source. Now multiply that example by hundreds of thousands and, well, you get the picture.

The key is that we already have the technology to utilize a national dataset. Often it's the other way around - we have usable data and then develop the technology needed to make them applicable to our daily lives. In this case, we have the technology, but need the dataset.

AS: A national parcel layer is one of the seven National Spatial Data Infrastructure framework layers. What's its status compared to other framework layers?

Compared to the other framework layers, it is the least accessible and the only one that has not been completed. The other six layers were primarily funded by the federal government and have been productized by the private sector. Currently, no federal agency has the development of a national parcel dataset as its core mission. Ten years ago Smart Data Strategies introduced the idea of a national parcel layer and we were literally laughed at; now it's more about when rather than if.

As much as I would like to say we saved the best for last, the reality is that the parcel layer is far more dynamic and complex when compared to the other framework layers.

AS: What might be the role of the private sector in developing such a database/system?

I believe the private sector will work collaboratively to create the parcel dataset. There is a movement going on right now to collect the data in the U.S. Some companies are in the process, and others have realized the potential and are about to join in. Because of the complexity of parcel data, money alone will not build a usable parcel dataset. Some companies believe that data are data, but parcel data are different. Because of a lack of knowledge, some companies have failed when trying to utilize this type of data. Parcel data are organic. They can't be gathered and then put on a shelf. Having worked with parcels for nearly twenty years, we understand what it takes to build the dataset and keep it useful. Because of the wide variety of mapping methods and the even wider variety of property conveyance methods in the U.S., a high level of expertise and experience in dealing with all types of land records is essential to creating a long-term, successful national parcel dataset. Since the data are maintained at a local level it is also imperative to understand the inner workings of local government. Remember all politics and all real estate is local.

AS: Are there privacy issues with a freely available dataset (free or fee) of this size and scope?

All of the information that would be included in a national parcel dataset is already available for public use, but we do understand that some people will have initial concerns. Smart Data Strategies provides detailed parcel data for dozens of counties and we rarely receive any negative feedback. Also, there are laws and guidelines in place such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Sunshine Law in many states that create opportunity to share public knowledge and define privacy issues. There is already a shift in the privacy issue discussion. Land records information will be no more of a privacy issue than the content that is already available, including aerial photography or street level views that are currently available online.

Published Friday, June 20th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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