Visualizing NYC’s MapPLUTO Database

Originally written for Visually.

It’s no secret that we’re in the era of big data – our world can be endlessly quantified, measured, and analyzed. While this has become the new norm, the era of open data is just beginning. The US government has made strides to make data open and easily accessible on the federal level, and many US cities have done the same at the local level.

Washington, DCChicagoBostonSan Francisco, and New York City all boast significant open data websites, along with many other cities. The information on these sites is accessible and free, but in such excess that it is difficult to understand. Having an abundance of data is useless without the means to tap into it.

This is where people like Andrew Hill of New York City come in. Hill, a senior scientist at Vizzuality, created the PLUTO data tour – an interactive slideshow based on New York City’s MapPLUTO dataset (short for Property Land Use Tax lot Output). While tax lot records might seem banal, they contain a wealth of information about property value, property owners, number of buildings per lot, construction dates, square footage, and more.

The PLUTO records were released in July, following months of protests from data transparency groups. Previously, access to the data was available, but at $300 per borough ($1,500 total) and for only one update at a time. Furthermore, anyone who purchased the data was explicitly prohibited from posting their findings online.

With the data now both accessible and restriction-free, Hill dug in and began looking for anything that caught his eye – both PLUTO’s facts and its errors.

“I wanted to see if there were any interesting stories that would start popping out of the PLUTO data once you got it on a map,” Hill said. “I tried hard to not actually bring in any other data, I wanted to focus entirely on PLUTO without any supplemental information. My idea was just to give people a quick look at what this data is so that they can then figure out innovative ways to use it or visualize it with the universe of other datasets in the city.”

In less than half a week, Hill had created a fully interactive graphic powered by the CartoDB visualization software. Hill admits that he “probably got a bit carried away” with the project, which totals 27 graphics. Each slide highlights a different fact about the NYC property landscape. Slides include information on how many residential units there are per tax lot, when buildings were built, and who owns the most private land on the island of Manhattan.

Hill credited CartoDB with helping him complete the project so quickly, despite its complexity.

“The data all comes from the same source on CartoDB, then the dynamic rendering capabilities let me apply filtering and custom styles for each slide, resulting in the different views you see in the tour. I don’t know another tool out there that actually can let me make so many different maps from the same data so quickly.”

Hill’s visualization of MapPLUTO is a great example of using open data to its fullest potential. But this is just one example – there are hundreds of other similar projects that citizens like Hill can create by tapping into rich and powerful public data.

The PLUTO data tour can be found here and more information about NYC open data can be found here.