Last month, the US Census Bureau released a new mobile app aimed at helping people figure out what place to live is likely to be a good fit for them.  The census says that 30 million people in the United States moved last year, and while it doesn’t say if they moved across town or across the country, that’s a lot of people with a lot of boxes. It’s also a great deal to think about, and the census folks think this is a way to bring helpful data out of databases and spreadsheets and right into your tablet or smartphone.

The Census Bureau trumpeted the program:

The Census Bureau’s new mobile app, dwellr, provides those (statistics) on the go with immediate, personalized access to the latest demographic, socio-economic and housing statistics from the American Community Survey for neighborhoods across the nation. Using the level of importance you place on a location’s characteristics, the app generates a list of top 25 towns or cities most suitable for you. Once you have used the app, it saves your selections on your phone so you can see how they match up against each new place you visit.

In 2009, Richard Florida asked the question “Who’s Your City?” in a book that focused primarily on the creative class economy in the new millennium. This app carries the conversion on outside of the creative bubble and offers solutions for people regardless of what industry they might be in. Most people don’t give any thought to moving to a new city, as there are many factors that play into such a big decision. Work and family are big reasons why people stay close to home, and even if they aren’t in the same city, the Census data tells us that 59% of all Americans in 2010 lived in their state of birth. Florida points out that this is often to their own peril, as other cities may be a better fit culturally or economically for a person, and can increase their overall happiness.

The hard part is finding out what cities you should consider. Where do you start? Many of us have an idea as to where we would like to live, be it in Nashville for the music scene, Miami for the climate, or New York for the street life. However we may be overlooking other great places that would be an excellent fit, like Iowa City or Spokane. Places that we don’t inherently romanticize. Part of the beauty of Dwellr is that it can open your eyes to a lot of places you never would have considered.

How does this thing actually work?

Dwellr starts by asking you a series of questions to build you a profile. They are all directly related to the way the data in the American Community Survey (ACS) is structured, so don’t expect questions like “how much do you enjoy nightclubs”, as the government doesn’t collect data on such things. Here are the categories they do break it down into:

A built out profile using Dwellr

A profile I built for myself using Dwellr

  • Gender
  • Preferred population size to live in (from Rural to Big City)
  • What region of the country you want to live in
  • Your ideal geography
  • Marital Status
  • Occupation
  • Type of Community
  • Age of community (in age of residents)
  • Education of population
  • Commute
  • Climate

For most settings, there is an adjustable slider that you can move in order to give importance to certain categories.

While it doesn’t explicitly say so, the sliders try to tie you to the ACS data that is available (unlike elusive nightclub preferences). For example, take the marital status question. There are four options: Married, Never Married, Single, and Divorced. This is exactly the way the data was collected; when someone was given an ACS to fill out, those were the options. What is less clear is what the slider actually means, as you wouldn’t typically adjust a slider to say exactly how “married” or how “divorced” you are. What it does instead is it assumes that you are going to want to be around people that are like yourself; the question is to what degree. So Dwellr is not only asking you what your marital status is, but it is asking you “if you are married, how important is it that you’re around a community with a high percentage of married people?”.

The rest of the questions follow the same pattern of an issue and priority. It asks you a question about yourself, your friends, or what you prefer, and then it asks how important it is that a city meets these criteria.

Since the questions are more geared towards how you want to live your life as opposed to how you can realistically live your life, there are some questions that will be left unanswered and some recommendations that will not be at all helpful. It does not factor in, for example: income, children, ethnic diversity, migration and immigration, etc. To get a better idea of the data that is available through the ACS, but not available in the app, take a look at the ACS social and economic characteristics.

Due to these shortcomings in the data, you may be recommended a city that is not a viable option for you. It could have a cost of living too high, or not good enough job prospects (even if the app tells you that your career field pays well there). So when combing through your results, keep in mind that this is much more of a “you should consider this place if you want to move” instead of “you should move to this place”.

How the results look

City Results from Dwellr

City Results from Dwellr

Once your profile has been completed, the app is ready to give you some ideas. Are they any good? Well, that all depends.

The results are delivered either in alphabetical order or distance from your current location, obtained via your mobile device’s GPS. You end up with a list that looks something like the one to the right, which is what I got when I created a personal profile.

My initial reactions to this list were very positive – Denver, the Bay area, and Long Beach are all desirable parts of the United States for me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a total ranking score which would be helpful in weeding out what the app feels is a “great choice” instead of a choice that is included simply out of lack of available options.

Each city is accompanied by a series of three icons, which at a first glance seem to represent the three areas in which the city fits in with what you considered to be an important factor in your relocation decision. A further look shows that this is, in fact, somewhat odd and contradictory. Back when I filled out my profile (see the image above), I had essentially said that the education level of my friends was low priority. Given this stipulation, it makes sense that pretty much every listing has a little graduation cap next to it, saying that it fits my education preferences.

However I was somewhat dumbstruck when I noticed the number of little transit icons next to places that – as far as I knew – did not have popular or well-run public transit systems. Something was amiss. Luckily, clicking a city will give you more information. This further inspection gives us a full profile, as well as where the city fits in with your own personal preferences. Since I considered Mesa, Arizona to be suspect in the public transit category, I viewed its profile. What I found was that even though both the education and transit icons are listed, they couldn’t be further apart.

Mesa, Arizona profile excerpt.

Mesa, Arizona profile excerpt.

Dwellr is telling me that either 2% of people in Mesa use public transit or that it matches my preference level at 2% out of 100. On top of that, there were other options that fell in between the two and certainly would have been a better picture of where Mesa fell within my overall preferences. After checking more cities out, I found that despite having low numbers of public transit commuters, I was still being recommended cities based on their public transit systems.

Another complication is that even if public transit ridership was high, that doesn’t make it either desirable or reliable, painting a potentially false picture. While higher than expected transit ridership could mean that there is a good transit system, it could also mean that people who do not have the economic means for car ownership support a terrible transit system. The lesson? Take it with a grain of salt and look into all the options more than what the app tells you.

Shortcomings, however, don’t stop there. While the app seems to make concessions in many aspects, saying “I’m going to recommend this place even though it really doesn’t fit many of the lifestyle options you are looking for” in some categories, on others it simply won’t budge on. It stands to reason that what a person wants in their community is going to matter more so than the size of the city they are in, yet there is no overlap; as soon as I switch my preference to a different city size, it gives me 100% different results. Additionally, Dweller’s results are limited to cities in your defined regional area. Despite the fact that the climate in South Florida is very similar to that of Puerto Rico, there is no way that Dwellr will give you results that cover both. While Hawaii is defined in the “West” region, Puerto Rico sits alone in its own category.

It also doesn’t differentiate between cities that are the heart of a metro and cities that are cities in name only. Not every “city” is a city in the aspects we typically think of: density, a defined downtown, etc. A city is simply a means of incorporation that will make sense for some communities and not others, and as a result there are many places you will find in Dwellr that are essentially re-incorporated suburban townships. To illustrate how far apart the results can actually be, the inner-ring suburb of Warren sits right outside of Detroit, Michigan. But it sits right alongside Salt Lake City, Utah in my results when I kept all my preferences the same;  changing only my preferred city size to “medium sized city” and my preferred region to the midwest. While this is a limit of the available census data, it is an even better reminder that the terms “city” and “urban” are not necessarily synonymous.

Final impressions

Depending on your lifestyle, preferred city size, and occupation, Dwellr could be a real eye opening experience or completely useless. Depending on what you tell the app, you may be able to find some really interesting ideas for places that you have never thought about. You could also end up with pretty much every major city on the eastern seaboard. Regardless of the data limitations, and sometimes-misplaced results, Dwellr is a fun brainstorming tool.

The best use that I can see for it is the opportunity to get a glimpse into new communities you hadn’t previously considered. Make sure that you view the full profiles of cities in order to get a better idea as to what a community truly represents, as well as supplement these findings with web research, even if it’s just pulling up a Wikipedia page. Dwellr also reinforces the fact that people’s needs, wants, and preferences are all different. The dream city for one person or family may not be the dream city for another. There is no such thing as the perfect place to live, just places that are in some ways a better fit; places where you can increase your overall happiness.

If many of the app’s technical shortcomings can be addressed, and / or if other sources of data can be incorporated into the search results, this has the ability to become a very powerful tool. Until then, it lies somewhere in the grey area between useless, amusing, and effective. Your mileage may vary.

You can download Dwellr for both Apple’s IOS in the Apple App Store and Android mobile devices in Google Play.