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National Land Parcel Data: A Vision for the Future
burden equitably, and even save lives. Other, more remote and less affluent counties or local governments have not profited from this range of benefits. At a state or national level, we have been unable to rely on basic parcel information because of its spotty availability and nonstandard format.
Although many land parcel data exist in the United States, they are not entirely in digital form, they are not in a common format, and they are certainly not consistently available across the nation. In 1980, a National Research Council (NRC) study, Need for a Multipurpose Cadastre (NRC, 1980), asserted the importance of parcel data within an integrated system of land information to support the wide range of decision making necessary for effective land management. The report acknowledged that land parcel data can only be developed and maintained at the local government level, but that the federal government must foster the integration of these local data sets through a set of consistent standards, funding programs, and coordination with each state. Much of what was said in the 1980 report is still true today. The needs for a national land parcel data set are more widely recognized, and the benefits from maintaining a system have been clearly demonstrated by numerous local governments. Perhaps most importantly, although the 1980 report was optimistic about the development of a multipurpose cadastre, it was also realistic about the major organizational and institutional obstacles that existed.
Twenty-seven years later, much has happened. Early in the twenty-first century we are immersed in location-based information systems—we rely on in-car navigation systems to get us to new destinations, keep track of people on parole with global positioning system (GPS) enabled bracelets, and find restaurants and hotels through a web browser or cell phone. Citizens can now use their home computers to routinely access information about their property taxes, seek information about the purchase of their next house around the corner or thousands of miles away, or explore the world with virtual globes such as Google Earth.1 In the current geographically aware age it is clear that the private sector has assessed user needs and determined how to take advantage of sophisticated GPS satellite location capabilities, easy-to-use and responsive mapping and geographic information system (GIS) technology, and database integration engines to attract millions of users and make a profit. However, even these sophisticated systems have a fundamental weakness. In many cases they can direct you to the right city, the right neighborhood, the right street, even the right block. Yet they cannot get you consistently to the correct property or the correct building.
Most city, county, state, and federal government agencies have not kept pace with many technical advances. While private companies such as Zillow2 are able to retrieve and display maps of property values for much of the nation in a few seconds, digital records for property ownership along the Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma were largely nonexistent in the aftermath of the hurricanes, and public agencies were left scrambling to assemble some form of property information that could identify the location, value, ownership, and extent of damage to thousands of pieces of property and structures. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that the absence of these critical documented property records resulted in millions of dollars in fraudulent claims (GAO, 2006a). Therefore, although it is clear that an integrated set of land parcel data is needed and possible, it still does not exist in the United States. The purpose of this study is to assess why and to determine whether the environment has changed to make such a system more palatable, plausible, and practical today.