Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
A new tool from the Sunlight Foundation aims to quantify real-world differences in quality of life across the country.
Most of us tend to make one of the biggest decisions of our lives – where to live – on vague notions of which city has the most jobs or the best coffee shops or Chinese restaurants. But the cost of living and quality of life varies widely across the country, particularly depending on what you do and which expenses you carry, and chances are you may not be living where economic data suggests you’d be the most comfortable.
Now an app just unveiled this week can calculate all of this for you (we are not suggesting you peruse the Bureau of Labor Statistics on your own). Upwardly Mobile, a new tool from Sunlight Foundation, can take your career information and your spending priorities and figure out where it makes the most sense to be a library archivist with children in daycare and cars to gas up.
Upwardly Mobile is one of a suite of apps the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is funding to turn Sunlight’s traditional open-government mission on its ear. The non-profit is better known around Washington for putting information about government – lobbying data, congressional voting records – into your hands. Here, they’re playing with information the government collects about you.
“We wanted to use this as an opportunity to make the case for how government data is relevant to people in their daily lives,” says Tom Lee, the director of Sunlight Labs.
Every dataset pulled into the back end of Upwardly Mobile comes from the federal government, with the exception of information on the regional costs of childcare. This includes data on employment, salaries, average rents, and local medical and transportation costs. Some of the data points are weighted differently. Upwardly Mobile assumes, for instance, that your biggest concern is probably your salary (although you can change these settings if you are the rare person who could take or leave a paycheck).
“Salary and the cost of recreation goods are both single data points in our application,” says Jeremy Carbaugh, who led the development of the app. “But there’s no one that would consider the cost of a basketball to be as important as their salary.”
The app has also been constructed such that it won’t advise all of us to move to New York City, where average salaries are among the highest in the country. As a result, the tool churns out a lot of surprising suggestions, and this is part of the point: Upwardly Mobile isn’t just crunching obscure economic data for us so that we don’t have to; that data is pointing to locations we would likely never entertain on our own.
If you're a biomedical engineer (who drives a lot and wants a nice home), try Minneapolis. Or how about a court reporter with kids? Either Portland might do. Dayton, Ohio, it turns out, is a great place to be a bailiff.
So would Upwardly Mobile’s creators follow the advice of their own app?
“I totally would,” Carbaugh says.
That’s easy for him to say. He’s a developer. His top two suggestions were Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas. Ryan Sibley, a writer for the Sunlight Foundation who also worked on the project, was toying with the different preference settings when Upwardly Mobile popped out this suggested destination for her: New Jersey.
“My first response was, 'I don’t want to live in New Jersey!'” she laughs. “But maybe I do want to live in New Jersey…”