Visualizing Pittsburgh's Property Data

By Robert Burack • July 25, 2017

Properties form the physical fabric of a neighborhood and, ultimately, a city. They’re the spaces in which we live our lives - where work and joy and great sadnesses occur. A building isn’t just a building; a home isn’t just a home. They’re reflections of human life, and of the state and health of a community. Walk down any street and the properties you see, and even the gaps in between, begin to tell a story. In the post-industrial Midwest, these stories often center around resources, redlining, and, more recently, rebirth.

But observation is only skin deep. For community development practitioners, planners, policymakers, and active residents, the work of stabilizing or transforming a neighborhood — or, more simply, ensuring its health — requires a richer understanding of the properties involved. And while many cities and counties are working to increase and modernize access to municipal data, effective access to and display of property information (including tax and real estate data) remains complicated, given its need for spatial presentation and that the data involved tends to come from a patchwork of sources.

To aid its neighborhood-level transformation and make its property data truly accessible to practitioners and residents alike, today the City of Pittsburgh unveiled Burgh’s Eye View: Parcels — the latest in its popular series of “one stop shop” maps for viewing and interacting with the city’s data. The Parcels map allows public users to view, by neighborhood, delinquent properties, city-owned properties, and properties in a tax abatement program.

Users can also view information about any specific parcel, including type of owner, property class, sale information, county land value, and liens and tax delinquencies. While much of this data was previously available on the region’s open data platform, delinquency and abatement data – as well as data on city-owned properties – has been newly released in conjunction with the public launch of Burgh’s Eye View: Parcels. The new parcel map is also much more accessible and user-friendly than the prior formats.

With a modern interface and connection to a broader suite of tools that have gained notoriety in the city, the application also doubles down on the City of Pittsburgh’s commitment to agile, in-house product development. A companion, internal version for the city’s Department of Finance has also launched, reaffirming the Burgh’s Eye View team’s strategy of cultivating strong inter-departmental relationships.

Starting with an Internal Need

Paul Leger is the first to admit that his department is one of the most entrenched in the City of Pittsburgh. Many of the department’s employees “have been constrained by working valiantly with outmoded equipment and information scattered over many data sources,” said Leger, Director of the Department of Finance. His team — including employees in the department’s Real Estate division — is responsible for maximizing the collection of property taxes, which constitute a significant proportion of the city’s budget. In the past, because of the sheer number of sources and systems involved, it’s been difficult for employees to easily access the data they need to complete their work.

“I’m a big believer in single databases,” said Leger. “Putting everything about everything in one database. In order to do that, to have everything revealed in one click, we needed to bring together a lot of things that weren’t even speaking to each other.”

Enter the Burgh’s Eye View team, which consists of a number of Performance Improvement Analysts in the city’s Department of Innovation & Performance. After the successful completion of internal, map-based tools for the City’s Bureaus of Police and Fire and its department of Public Works, the team began to approach other departments about visualizing data and enhancing operations. “It was clear that Finance was a good fit,” said Max Cercone, a performance improvement analyst in the Department of Innovation & Performance and the property map’s chief developer, “given that a lot of their data is related to geographic indicators. We took data already in [Finance’s real estate] database, along with data from Allegheny County (such as assessed value) and other sources, and brought it all together. While the other Burgh’s Eye View maps were point-based, it made the most sense to lay this out in parcels, given the department’s needs.”

After several months of development, what emerged is the tool Leger had been looking for: a way to visualize, and easily and singularly access the data for, the city’s private and public parcels. No longer would his Real Estate division have to spend time searching for information on multiple, difficult-to-navigate databases. And with a neighborhood-level view of delinquent and abated properties, he and his leadership can visually analyze in aggregate.

One hurdle Cercone and the development team worked to overcome was the sheer amount, and size, of the data. “We were working with .shp files, which is a large data type,” said Cercone. “Originally, when you went to use the map, it would display parcels throughout the city. But the application was slow, and sometimes crashed. By adding a feature where internal and public users view one neighborhood at a time (through a GeoJSON API), we were able to dramatically improve performance.”

Public Value: Driven by Needs

“This tax and real estate data has been one of the main things requested by citizens, community groups, and community development practitioners,” said Laura Meixell, Assistant Director of Performance Improvement in the Department of Innovation and Performance. “The public-facing version of this tool reflects that we’re prioritizing requests that are a priority for our partners.”

Aside from excluding the names of property owners, the public version is largely similar to the internal one. “It gives our partners updated information about what parcels are owned by the city, which might be up for public sale, and which have the potential to be put in that pipeline,” said Meixell. “This information was previously scattered over multiple sources and levels of government; it’s the first time it’s available to the public in a central way. We think it can be useful for folks looking to do neighborhood planning or fight blight.”

In addition to filtering to view an entire neighborhood, users can search for specific parcels using a Parcel ID, perform a keyword search of all data, or click on any of the displayed parcels in a neighborhood to see information about that property.

To build awareness around the tool, shape a constituency, and take suggestions for improvements, the Burgh’s Eye View team plans to attend a series of community development corporation meetings and work with practitioners and convening organizations — an approach mirroring the public outreach strategy used for earlier maps.

Next up for the team is the development of Burgh’s Eye View: Paths, which will visualize mobility data, as well as continued partnership with city departments to build operations tools. “We hope to not only build constituency around these tools,” said Cercone, “but an active community of public and internal users.”

About the Author

Robert Burack

Robert Burack is a Data ​Fellow for the Civic Analytics Network. He is based in Pittsburgh where he works with the Chief Data Officer to further the City's open data and analytics efforts, and to support regional open data collaboration. Previously, he was a Fellow at the Richard King Mellon Foundation, where he focused on manufacturing innovation and helped to launch the nation's first accelerator for craft businesses. He has also served as Programs Director at Break Away, where he forwarded the development of shared community impact assessment tools for the service-learning sector. He has a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Michigan-Flint.