Zillow CEO: Agencies should offer more open data

Too much public data still flows through for-profit intermediaries, Spencer Rascoff said.

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Online real-estate site Zillow is one of U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel's favorite examples of how private firms can find business opportunities in government-provided data. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff agrees -- and he wants agencies to provide more.

Speaking as part of a congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee Speakers Series event on March 27, Rascoff underscored the benefits open data could bring to consumers in the housing market. He said he believes that if the government opened up its databases, consumers looking for new homes could use that information to make better decisions.

"When data is readily available and free in a particular market, whether it is real estate or stocks, good things happen for consumers," he said.

Much of the data on Zillow, the largest real-estate site in the United States in terms of monthly users, comes from intermediaries. Zillow and its competitors pay other firms millions of dollars a year to send people into county courthouses to buy property records and repackage them.

That information includes how much previous buyers paid for the houses; property attributes such as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, and roof type; and tax assessments and taxes paid.

Rascoff said only a small portion of the data on Zillow's website is obtained for free from agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said having regulatory agencies open their data to the public would give people greater insight into the housing market and other sectors.

It is hard to find a downside to sharing the data, he added. "Better decisions are made because of all that data," Rascoff said.

Although some critics say sharing foreclosure data violates the privacy of individuals, Rascoff argued that the pros of publishing the data outweigh the cons. Zillow posts about 1 million foreclosure listings and 1 million pre-foreclosure listings for free, he added.

"We decided that it is valuable information to the efficient functioning of that local marketplace," Rascoff said. "[Buyers'] right to know that there is a house on their street that is going to materially impact the value of an asset that they are considering purchasing, that is a significant benefit to that buyer."

Rascoff added that through Zillow, agents can identify houses in pre-foreclosure and help the owners sell their homes before they are foreclosed on -- a public good that agencies should support.

Jeanne Holm, the General Services Administration's evangelist for Data.gov, agreed. "I think that is absolutely true," she said when told of Rascoff's remarks. "Zillow is a great example of a company that has been built around open data that helps people [make] better decisions."

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