Selectivity of “Open Data” Will Make It Irrelevant

This piece will read as somewhat of a rant, but I feel I have to write it.

The City of Melbourne is really into open data.  They have an entire page devoted to it.  Quite a bit of the data is interesting and potentially valuable for better urban decision making, particularly for parking policy.  But the data needed to do an effective analysis of public policy around housing and land values is nowhere to be found.  Instead, the building and land use data includes a lot of rich and seemingly edgy datasets, like rooftop use, that are fun but irrelevant to tackling the major urban issues facing Melbourne and Australia.

Australian political leaders have started eagerly cheer-leading land value capture techniques as a way to finance urban infrastructure.  But few people are talking about how such a scheme would be governed to ensure just outcomes.  Data plays a key role in that, as hypothetical valuations or counter-factual studies of land values without infrastructure investment are necessary to estimate the ‘effect’ of infrastructure on land values and, thus, the resulting taxes to financing said infrastructure.  In California, where I grew up, property taxes are assessed for the year buildings are purchased and are then pegged to inflation–this de-politicizes the data to a large degree.  As such, I can get the property valuation data from California counties online for free or for a small fee.  This includes building attribute data such as the year built and the square footage. I’ve used this data in multiple unrelated studies on housing affordability, and such data would be easy to use to validate or challenge any land value uplift tax assessment.

Australia does not make this data easy to access.  I asked for the year built of every structure in Victoria for a study on what makes so-called ‘naturally occurring affordable housing’ (NOAHs) affordable.  The assumption my colleagues and I are testing is that these so-called “NOAHs” are affordable simply because they are old and likely in need of major repair.  The policy implication is that governments hoping to preserve their affordability might offer grants for upkeep and rehabilitation in exchange for the landlord keeping the rates low.  When I asked for this data I was told, “For privacy reasons, we are restricted in the access we can provide to this data at the individual property level” (correspondence with State of Victoria staff).  I found this really interesting.  The age of a building is apparently a closely guarded secret in this country.  I struggle with accepting this because, in most cases, one could walk by the building and probably guess its age (down to the decade, anyhow), based on architectural features. So why treat it like such a sacred secret?

Supposing I’m just wrong and a bit crazy (as a data oriented researcher I obviously have a vested interest in data access), the question remains: how will society determine things like land value capture taxes in a just way if the data to conduct the analysis is kept confidential?  Households and firms disagreeing with a government assessment will need to hire out their own valuer to do battle with the government’s, I imagine.  The lack of public access of relevant data will ensure most of the debate and its nuance remains the purview of a select few who have access to the data.  I imagine that monopolies will emerge as firms doing the most business will come to have the most data and require the least amount of capital to acquire ever more data.  If I’ve already done 1,000 valuations in a city in the last ten years, it will be easy for me to do ten more, data-acquisition wise.  But for groups just starting up, those first ten will cost a lot more.  And why would firms sell data to their competitors.  Is this how we want urban governance to function?

Am I missing something? Valuers can still thrive in open-data environments.  They manage to thrive in California where most data is public, for example.  So what is the big deal?


Published by mattdpalm

Doctoral Student UC Davis USDOT Graduate Eisenhower Fellow 2014-2015

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