What happens when an unusual, nonprofit organization tweaks its original mission to create a helpful tool for consumers? In the case of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for open government, the answer is Upwardly Mobile, a relocation research tool.
Not an app, but a mobile website (for smartphone use), Upwardly Mobile is an easy-to-use tool that gives anyone the ability to research where in the country they could enjoy financial security and improved quality of life. To me, it sounds like "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" for job seekers, which has to be considered a good thing.
I mean, if I was just starting out in today’s economy, I certainly would want to know the optimum city for my particular talents — whatever they might be — and my particular lifestyle needs.
Of course, not every solution will involve heading to Portland, Ore., or Austin, Texas, instead of moving back in with mom and dad after graduation, but you will have to use Upwardly Mobile to find that out.
I asked Jeremy Carbaugh, who developed the mobile website, to plug in his important parameters to see what Upwardly Mobile would recommend for him, and, not surprising, considering his tech skills, the responses were San Jose and San Francisco in California, and Bethesda, Md., outside of Washington, D.C.
Here’s the way it works. Go to http://upwardly.us and enter in ZIP code, career information and cost of living, and Upwardly Mobile will generate a list of ideal places to consider.
The four key data points in this are: occupation (average salary for the selected occupation over time and income data for the entire metropolitan area); housing costs (rent as well as cost of maintenance services and goods, i.e., furniture and appliances); cost of living (apparel, education, food and child care); and quality of life costs (recreation, transportation and health care).
One of the cool things about Upwardly Mobile is that it allows you to overweight certain specific factors, such as housing costs or salary.
When Carbaugh ran the numbers on himself, he wryly noted, "I get a bunch of cities that are better for me when it comes to salary."
The mission of the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation is to further government transparency through the use of the Internet and technology. It is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to improving access to government information by making it available online, or as the Sunlight Foundation strongly suggests, to "catalyze greater government openness" by providing new tools and resources for the media and the citizenry.
This all sounds very wonky, and dedicated to the media and people profoundly interested in the ways and means of the political process. And, it is. But, the Sunlight Foundation, through its expertise in searching and researching governmental data and information, has found a secondary meaning in organizational life by answering the question, how can all this governmental stuff, available online, help the consumer?
"We got a grant from the Knight Foundation to take this data that is available from the government and make it accessible to consumers and regular people in a way that hadn’t been done before," said Ryan Sibley, a writer for the Sunlight Foundation who worked on the project. "We took this data, which is usually intimidating and complicated, and we tried to display it in a way that people can make it accessible to themselves and to help them in their everyday life."
The Sunlight Foundation’s first shot at this new mission was Sunlight Health, a mobile website designed to help people make more informed decisions about medical care.
For Upwardly Mobile, there were a lot of sources to choose from and the Sunlight Foundation made good use of many of them: the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Federal Financial Institutions Examinations Council, National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, U.S. Census, and Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Try distilling all this information on your lonesome and you would be creating your own bureau of labor indulgence. I, for one, wouldn’t even know where to start.
"We knew we needed to make this data accessible to regular people (like me!) and we were pushed to find out who the audience would be and what they would use it for," Sibley said. "We came up with the idea, if somebody was moving across the country and he or she wanted to know where to make the most money. When we were first thinking through the concept, we thought of college students, young families on the move or someone recently laid off from a job."
She added, "One of the good things about narrowing the results by occupation is that you might be able to find other areas of the country where there is a demand for jobs that you may not have known about."
An alternative use of the website is to compare different cities, or the city where you live now to a city you aspire to move to. As the Sunlight Foundation notes, "through the use of charts and graphs, you can explore how metropolitan areas of similar size compare to where you live now."
This isn’t a true app, but as I noted, a mobile website. On an Android, you can download from Google Marketplace because a "wrapper" is in place that launches the user into the website so it doesn’t have to be typed in. On an iPhone, you might be out of luck. The original app did not get Apple approval because of the wrapper technology. Apple wants a native Apple experience on the iPhone, not Gmail technology.
I asked Carbaugh and Sibley if there was anything else like this out there. In other words, were they pushing out someone in the private market?
"We researched and couldn’t find anything like this," Carbaugh said. "There are lots of places to turn to so as determine cost of living, but none of them use government data like this, where you can tailor it to your lifestyle."
Sibley added, "Our main goal is to help people and show how this data can be useful to your life. There are a lot of different organizations out there that do rankings of the best places to live. Those aren’t useful to a person looking to find somewhere to move because that best place to live might not be a good place for your particular occupation or interests."