Five Questions with Susan Marlow About Parcel Datasets
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
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?
SM: 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
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?
SM: 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
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
SM: 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?
SM: 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