When transitioning last year from a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University to the work world, Jenelle Bray faced a common predicament. Deep into the job search, she was looking at positions in the East Bay and San Francisco, even though her husband was currently working in Mountain View.
Turning to the Internet, Bray looked for a resource that would help them decide where to live. They wanted to minimize commute times and rental prices while keeping other important amenities close. Though she found some tools, she saw nothing that combined all the information she wanted in a neat and convenient format.
Finished last October, the result, PlacePickr, is simple and straightforward. The application asks for the zip codes where each partner works and whether they are looking to rent or buy. Those entered, a map of the Bay Area pops up, segmented into zip codes, color-coded for the quality of the match (green being good; red, bad). A panel on the left lists suitable areas, specifying estimated commute times and prices for each.
PlacePickr then allows the user to weight the importance of six different categories: the length of the commute for each partner, school quality, safety, walkability and housing prices. Changing the weights gives different results, creating a very customizable experience.
"I wanted to make it different for different people," Bray said, explaining that the friends she spoke with all had different priorities. Some cared about the quality of public schools, others cared about rental prices. "You can adjust how important each factor is for you."
In making the application, Bray received help from other fellows of the Insight program, especially with the programming. Much of the work though, she said, was finding sources for all the different data and visual elements she needed.
Ultimately, she found home prices through the Zillow real estate website, calculated walkability using Walk Score , compiled public school ratings from the site school-ratings.com, and found drive times between zip codes using Mapquest. Crime data was trickier as she had to take into account population density. She ended up using ratings from a website called Sperling's Best Places. To pull the map together, she used the Google Maps application programming interface (API).
While PlacePickr was just a personal project for her, friends she shared it with found the tool genuinely useful. Eli Bressert -- who studied with Bray at Insight -- took advantage of PlacePickr in his own housing search. The priorities for his family were a walkable community and quality public schools, which he found in downtown Palo Alto.
After locating a neighborhood, Bressert turned for specific home and rental listings to Craigslist. For him, Craigslist has an advantage over more curated real-estate websites with its usability, frequent updates and ease of communication with users, which can be critical in the fast-paced market of the Peninsula.
Though acknowledging the limited time Bray had to work on the project, Bressert said it would have been great if she combined PlacePickr with apartment and home listings in those choice zip codes.
"If she did (that), then I think it would have been a stand-alone app," Bressert said. "Everybody would be using it."
There are other websites that offer a plethora of data about particular neighborhoods and areas. The neighborhoods category of FindTheBest includes information about population size, incomes, commute times, ages of residents, housing prices and school ratings, among other topics. It also allows users to compare and sort areas using some of these factors. NeighborhoodScout provides much of the same, as well as in-depth public school information, crime data and more. Sperling's Best Places, which has similar offerings, also has a questionnaire to help site visitors find their "best place."
PlackPickr, though, seems to be somewhat unique with its focus on workplaces and the needs of couples where both partners commute.
Comically enough, Bray never had to use her own service; she ended up finding a job at LinkedIn in Mountain View, not far from her husband's work. They live now in south Palo Alto.
Having settled into her position, Bray has thought about returning to PlacePickr to make some improvements. She would like to add traffic to the equation, which she sees as a key missing element. She has also considered duplicating the application for other large metropolitan areas, something Bressert said would be valuable too.
However, Bray said she mostly thinks of PlacePickr as a fun project and something helpful that she can share with her friends -- people who juggle different commutes but still want a nice place to live and play. For now, PlacePickr is not a catch-all tool but rather one way to simplify today's complicated work and housing landscape. And that's what Bray was after.
"At some point, if you put too many things into it, it gets too confusing," she said. "I wanted to make it pretty intuitive to use."