Sunday, February 14, 2016

City should be more open about property-tax values data

For more than 7 months, computer programmer Tim Wisniewski has tried to get his hands on the city’s database of local property-tax assessments for a project — to no avail. He asked for it in order to build an app where users can look up property values by typing in a person’s name.

City should be more open about property-tax values data

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Tim Wisniewski is a computer programmer and open-data geek.
Tim Wisniewski is a computer programmer and open-data geek.

For more than 7 months, computer programmer Tim Wisniewski has tried to get his hands on the city’s database of local property-tax assessments for a project — to no avail. He asked for it in order to build an app where users can look up property values by typing in a person’s name.

The Office of Property Assessment’s website doesn’t let you do that, which is too bad for taxpayers.

Not being able to search by name makes it hard to look up information on absentee landlords and find out if elected officials paid their taxes on time, among other things.

The problem isn’t just that Wisniewski wants to do something for taxpayers that the city won’t. It’s that the city is failing to be transparent — for safety reasons, it says.

The OPA told Wisniewski it would fork over the information only if he signed a statement promising to not “make the data available in name-searchable format” — which is exactly what he planned to do.

Terry Mutchler, director of Pa.’s Office of Open Records, said the state’s right-to-know law forbids the city from denying a records request because it disapproves of how someone plans to use the information. She would not comment on Wisniewski’s case specifically, but said that the city generally can’t attach a waiver to public records.

“Public information is public information, and you can do anything you want with it, absent criminal activity,” she said.

Michael Piper, the OPA’s deputy administrator, said that anyone who asks for the property-tax assessments database must sign the statement due to “safety concerns.” He doesn’t want people to use it to locate residents.

“For instance, someone who has a protection-from-abuse order might not want their former spouse to know their whereabouts,” he said.

It’s worth noting that other cities, including Baltimore, allow users to look up property-tax assessments by typing in people’s names.

Ultimately, Wisniewski was able to build the app — two apps, actually — without the city’s help by pulling the data off the OPA’s website through an ingenious process called “scraping.” The apps are really sweet. Check them out here and here.

But he still wants the records in order to improve the apps and save time.

“Scraping is tedious and bandwidth-consuming,” he said.

The city still isn't budging. In fact, it’s hasn't for years: Political junkies will recall that way back in 2002, Hallwatch.org founder Ed Goppelt fought with the city because he wanted to create a database where users could look up property-tax assessments by name.

Then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham said she was “absolutely opposed” to the search-by-name option because it could be dangerous. Goppelt eventually provided it to his subscribers of his site, but Hallwatch.org shut down a few years ago.

Nearly 10 years later, a lot has changed: We now have a robust open-records law, and an administration that cares about transparency. But somehow, the city’s policy on property-tax assessments records is much the same.

Wisniewski has a theory.

“I believe that the current administration supports transparency,” he said. “But since the [right-to-know law] was updated relatively recently, there are still some policies regarding data that need to be upgraded.”

That sounds about right to us. But the right-to-know law went into effect almost three ago. It’s time for the city to get up to speed.

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