How Sitegeist used great design to make census data cool

Can census data be fun?
At first glance, you might not think median home prices or transit data would be all that interesting. But Sitegeist, the location-based open data app from the Sunlight Foundation and famed design firm IDEO, is proving that good design can make public data cool.
how people commute Sitegeist screenshotThe concept seems simple when you open the app, the app uses data and information pulled from a wide variety of sources. Sitegeist allows users to set their location and then flip through several screens to explore data tied to their specific location. The screens include: people (median age, age distribution, household income, gender, and political contributions), housing (median home value, average rent, percentage renting v. buying, and commuting patterns), local attractions (popular businesses, local movie theaters, and restaurants), environment (weather), and history (median home age and number of housing units.) The app is available for both iOS and Android.
The sheer volume of data that the Sitegeist app provides for each location is a reminder that between census data and public APIs from companies like Yelp, Foursquare, and Dark Sky, users can put together a relatively comprehensive profile of a geographic location. The Sunlight Foundation put together a “how we did it” blog post, explaining the technology behind the app and how they used different APIs to build a comprehensive product:

All of this wonderful data resides on our servers. When you select a location, the latitude and longitude are passed along with the ID of the pane you want to view. Of the various geographies we keep track of (census tracts, ZIP codes, etc.), the boundaries of any shape that contains your location is found. This uses a customized version of Chicago Tribune’sboundary service. We then match those geographic boundaries with any data we have, making calls to third-party APIs as needed. The collected data is rendered into templates and returned to you as the beautiful infographics you see in the app.

But presenting the information in an intuitive manner with help from IDEO was just crucial to the app’s success as the data that went into it. The Sunlight Foundation won a grant from the John and James L. Knight Foundation to hire external designers to work with them on the Sitegeist app, which was the third in a series of data apps the group worked on. The Sunlight Foundation is focused on using technology to promote openness and transparency in government, an idea we’ll be exploring at GigaOM’s Structure:Data conference in New York in March.
Sitegeist app screenshot household income San Francisco“These apps are designed to make the case for why open data is important to people,” said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs. “And I think it’s really accessible for people. It’s visually striking, which is a credit to IDEO’s designers and Sunlight’s designers, and everyone has an investment in their neighborhood.”
I downloaded the app about two weeks ago, and I’ve found myself opening it in different neighborhoods around San Francisco to see what kinds of people live there. The app would be an ideal travel companion for exploring completely new areas, but even comparing two spots in SOMA (on the left) and Telegraph Hill (on the right), was eye-opening:
Sitegeist app housing prices
Sitegeist app housing prices screenshot