Property Data User Group Meeting Recap

by Bob Gradeck

March 14, 2016

The first User Group meeting for property data was held at the East Liberty Carnegie Library the afternoon of March 3, 2016. The Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center launched Data User Groups to help people to build relationships with other data users, learn from one another about data, contribute to efforts to improve data quality and documentation, share data publication priorities, provide feedback to data publishers, and collaborate on projects. More detail about Data User Groups can be found on the Regional Data Center’s Website and blog. An agenda for the meeting appears in the slides.

Over forty people joined us for the meeting. Attendees came from a wide variety of organizations, including County and City government, municipal government, councils of government, public authorities, community development organizations, affordable housing organizations, the library, civic technologists, university students and researchers, and private consultants.

In a brief presentation, participants were introduced to the concept of open data through projects and tools from other cities (see the slides for hyperlinks), and were provided with an overview of the  tools and features of the Regional Data Center’s open data portal. Our partners at the City and County were also on hand to talk about the publishing process at each organization, including development of data inventories, identification and prioritization of target datasets, the legal review/approval process, data preparation, and automated publishing. Participants were encouraged to read Ellie Newman’s recent blog post describing the publication process for County energy use data.

Discussion Summary

The heart of the meeting was a group discussion. The Regional Data Center wanted to use the conversation to inform our plan for new tools, research, training events, and activities. We also wanted to identify high-demand datasets for future publication. As participants made suggestions, they were recorded on the room’s white board. The discussion was organized around the following questions:

  • How have you used property data in your work?
  • What ideas do you have for using property data?
  • Which datasets are at the top of your wish list?
  • Are there things you find most difficult about using property data?
  • What are your favorite tools/methodologies for using data?
  • What do you most want to learn?

We organized some of the main discussion points into several sections:

Uses of Data

In several suburban communities, property data is used to target code enforcement activities, and also is used to ensure property owners are not delinquent in their taxes before obtaining occupancy or building permits. These approaches appeared to be ad-hoc, did not rely on data standards, and very different in structure from one community to the next.

Many community development organizations attending the meeting also use data in their work. Data has been used to obtain details on property characterics, to learn more about the housing market, and to target interventions to areas of need. In some communities, primary data on property conditions was collected through surveys.

Data Literacy

One of the biggest barriers in using data is the lack of time available. In many organizations, the capacity to use data is often embedded within an intern or only one staff member at the organization.

Maps are very helpful when communicating with residents and elected officials about data. Elected officials also like to have statistics for their own districts.

While not all attendees frequently use data on a regular basis. Those that did not use data expressed they would benefit from help getting started.

Frequent data users in the audience most-commonly use Microsoft Excel, Access, and ArcGIS when analyzing data.

Data and Data Quality

Participants would like to have access to data on property tax delinquency, tax liens, permits, foreclosure filings, and affordable housing. Data users also would welcome a master address database, and a dependable, updated vacant property data source. People would also benefit from archived assessment data to assess property land use and ownership change over time.

The lack of data standards inhibit data usefulness. Code enforcement efforts are not built around a common data standard. Missing or non-standard parcel identifiers make property data less-useful. A zoning crosswalk may also allow for interoperability with zoning data – the home rule system allows municipalities to set their own zoning classifications.

Participants also expressed the need for parcel data to be published on the open data portal with geographic coordinates to be published to facilitate easier mapping.

The County would benefit from municipalities sharing demolition and new construction data with the Office of Property Assessment. Using the open data portal to share data with the county can lead to improved data quality.


People expressed the need for tools that integrate property data across multiple datasets on the Regional Data Center’s open data Portal.

Participants also wanted to be able to download assessment and other data by neighborhood. Working with large datasets poses a problem for many users.

Being able to view a snapshot of their neighborhood or community at a glance across multiple indicators in a dashboard will be very helpful for data users.

Users also asked that we incorporate maps and other data visualizations on the open data portal with each dataset’s landing page where possible.

Takeaways – 2016 Agenda

The meeting gave us plenty of ideas for new data releases, tools, and programming to help people use property data to improve communities. Here are some of the ideas we’ll explore in 2016.

We’ll work with our partners at the City and County to support their efforts to publish new datasets in an automated fashion. We’re also putting processes in place to improve the quality of parcel data published to the open data portal. For example, we’re already working on tools to add geographic coordinates to many of the property datasets, and create standardized parcel numbers across property datasets.

We’ll dedicate staff resources and engage with Open Pittsburgh and other external organizations to build new tools to help people use property data. Some of what we’re planning includes:

  • Adding maps and visualizations to dataset “landing pages” on the open data portal.
  • Replicating several of the tools shown in the meeting presentation, including the New York City parcel data downloader.
  • Integrating parcel data from different sources much like what the City of Philadelphia did with their property data viewer.
  • Exploring different technologies that can create dashboards from data on the open data portal.
  • Connecting data from the open data portal with external tools like plenario and citygram.

The Carnegie Library will be partners with us in training and data literacy efforts, and we’ll continue to support workshops offered by other partners including Open Pittsburgh, Maptime Pittsburgh, and the Carnegie Mellon’s Students for Urban Data Systems (see their outstanding spring training schedule). We’re planning a fall data day event with the library, and would like to work with the Library and other partners on a “Data 101” class and other workshops. Following the workshops, we’d like to use the library as a co-work space allowing data analysts to learn from one another.

We’ll connect with our colleagues at Case Western’s Poverty Center in Cleveland to learn more about their suburban code enforcement project in early April at the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership meeting. We’ll share what they’re doing in Cleveland, and possibly invite them to visit us in Pittsburgh to conduct a workshop.

Please let us know if you have any additional comments or ideas for us.