Saturday, January 15, 2011

Parcel Data: Is it a Public Good?

In December 2010 Planet Money Team broadcast an article on “What Should Government Pay For? Autopsies and Lighthouses”

A few interesting quotes from this article

“Lawmakers have spent a lot of time lately debating what to do about the country's growing deficit. In doing so, they're wrestling with the question that goes back to the beginning of the Republic: What should the government spend its money on?

A public good is something that we all need, that will make our lives better - but that the market will not and cannot provide.”

In the case for lighthouses the point was that initially there were some privately built lighthouses but in 1789, the government set up what would become the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which built lighthouses in places that were hard to get to and expensive to build.

In the case of autopsies the Journal of the American Medical Association has been arguing for 15 years, at least, that there's a public health problem because we're not doing enough autopsies. The autopsy rate has plummeted from 40-some percent down single digits. If we add more autopsies, we'd know more about how people die. So collectively, we all want them. And yet, no individual really has an incentive to pay for one. They don't see the benefit.

If we look at parcel data with some of these economic tenets we find

  • Similar to lighthouses the private sector is very interested in parcel data at least in urban America, but not so much in the more rural or even poorer areas of the country. Yes there are some firms and maybe even an increasing number of firms offering parcel data, but maybe not evenly across the country and certainly not in the public domain.
  • Similar to autopsies the individual parcel producer, typically the county, does not see the benefit in offering their individual data sets, there is no real incentive. There are benefits to reducing the time to process requests and to comply with open records laws, but no consist nationwide policy or direct benefit has been established.

Yet we see time and again multiple federal and state agencies and private organizations that have a need for parcel level information even if no one application actually needs all of the nation's parcels at one time, there are many needs for parcel information that cross county boundaries in sporadic geography across the nation. There is a need for nationwide parcel, just not all in one data set at once.

So is parcel data one of those public goods? Even in these tight economic times maybe we should be looking at pooled funding among the federal agencies that need the data, the local governments that produce the data, the states that could publish compilations of the data and the private sector that uses it as a base for enhanced services to fill a public need. Surely we have the technology to make this happen, but is there a sufficient institutional will and the case for the public good to make it happen?

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