Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new start-up aims to take a more rigorous approach.
Jokubas Neciunas was looking to buy an apartment almost two years back in Vilnius, Lithuania. He consulted real estate platforms and government data to help him decide the best option for him. In the process, he realized that there was a lot of information out there, but no one was really using it very well.
Fast-forward two years, and Neciunas and his colleagues have created PlaceILive.com—a start-up trying to leverage open data from cities and information from social media to create a holistic, accessible tool that measures the "livability" of any apartment or house in a city.
"Smart cities are the ones that have smart citizens," says PlaceILive co-founder Sarunas Legeckas.
The team recognizes that foraging for relevant information in the trenches of open data might not be for everyone. So they tried to "spice it up" by creating a visually appealing, user-friendly portal for people looking for a new home to buy or rent. The creators hope PlaceILive becomes a one-stop platform where people find ratings on every quality-of-life metric important to them before their housing hunt begins.
In its beta form, the site features five cities—New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London and Berlin. Once you click on the New York portal, for instance, you can search for the place you want to know about by borough, zip code, or address. I pulled up Brooklyn.
Next you can either type in an address you're looking for or explore entire neighborhoods through the menu on the left. For example, you can find out whether it's crowded in your prospective neighborhood ...
... or whether you'll be near a subway stop ...
... or whether there are enough wine shops nearby for your liking:
The site ultimately scores neighborhoods with a "Life Quality Index"—one number that represents a number of metrics, including transportation, crime, environment, and affordability. This is the key value, says Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities, who advised the company. The index is calculated using a variety of public information sources (from transit agencies, police departments, and the Census, for instance) as well as other available data (from the likes of Google, Socrata, and Foursquare).
Neighborhoods are also scored on individual measures of life quality. The address below in the Midtown West part of Manhattan, for instance, scored 70 overall on the Life Quality Index. But while it earned especially high marks for transportation, sports and leisure, and entertainment, it didn't fare as well on several other measures, including safety.
PlaceILive offers some insight into the methods it uses to determine those figures here. The safety metric, for instance, represents an agglomeration of crime data and whether there are fire stations and police departments located nearby. Other metrics are less refined, such as the demographics number, which takes into account income, education levels, and poverty.
While PlaceILive is obviously a more serious endeavor than some of those awful "ghetto-tracker" neighborhood apps we've written about before, the site does score areas with high poverty rates and low educational attainment levels lower on its Life Quality Index score.
"We just genuinely believe that if there are more educated people, it is a nicer neighborhood, and the same with income," Legeckas says.
That may not necessarily be true, but it points to a broader problem with statistics-driven quality-of-life measures—one that Legeckas acknowledges: numbers can be deceiving. He hopes the site's feedback section will give people who have lived in an area the chance to debunk or confirm what the stats suggest. The creators are also tweaking the current model and adding more layers of data, so the user—your average Joe/Jane apartment hunter—gets a more nuanced picture of the neighborhood.
Ultimately Legeckas hopes the site can do for livability what Walk Score did for walkability. Just as Walkscore eventually showed that highly walkable neighborhoods tend to show higher property values, PlaceILive might lead to other revelations about what affects real estate values.