Software allows custom ratings


November 01, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Where would you live if your dream city had lots of snow, plenty of public transportation and movie theaters galore? Armed with the computer version of the Places Rated Almanac, the inveterate snowbird can punch in the information and find the answer: Appleton-Oshkosh-Neenah in Wisconsin.

While that bit of information may be only useful to the Central Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, the new computer software allows travelers and trivia buffs the chance to rewrite the Almanac's famous ranking of cities or compare cities where they might like to live. Civic breast-beaters can also see what it takes to make their city No. 1 -- in Baltimore's case an almost impossible task.

The product combines the exhaustive data base of the best-selling Places Rated Almanac with software designed by PHH Corp., the Hunt Valley-based corporate relocation company. PHH, which will earn a percentage of the software's sales, also hopes to market the product to its corporate clients; companies could use the software to help executives who might be transferring to another city.

Three products are for sale: the $20 Almanac, which is published by Paramount Publishing in New York; the book and a simplified version of the software for $34.95; and the more sophisticated software, which is sold separately from the book by Paramount for $39.95.

Both versions of the PHH software must be used with Microsoft Windows and allow users to weight some factors more heavily or eliminate geographic regions when ranking cities. Haters of the District of Columbia, for example, could strike it from consideration to ensure that no fluke would allow that city to appear on a ranking.

The Almanac uses 10 factors to determine which city in North America is most livable: cost of living, jobs, housing, transportation, education, health care, crime, arts, recreation and climate.

While the simplified software allows these factors to be reweighted, the advanced software allows the factors themselves to beredefined. For example: Not only can the "arts" category be given more weight, but movie theaters can be given more weighting than theater, or zoo-haters can strike them out entirely. Likewise, the "recreation" factor could be reconfigured for fans of national parks.

"By making it interactive, you can zero in on the information that's relevant to you. There's a lot of information in the book -- it's nearly a telephone book -- but the software just makes it easier to analyze," said Robert Fulton, vice president of PHH Technology Services, which developed the software over the summer.

Despite these advantages, the book still has features not found in the software. It lists, for example, all the colleges and universities in a region, whereas the software only gives the number. It also has vignettes and commentary on regions.

Like the book, the software displays graphs, charts and maps. The software, however, allows them to be moved to a text document so that a research report on a city, for example, could show a color graph of that city's annual rain patterns.

With a click of the mouse, the book's original weightings can be restored, along with the hotly debated rankings.

Released last week, the Almanac ranks Baltimore 23rd among 343 metropolitan areas. Cincinnati, Seattle, Philadelphia, Toronto and Pittsburgh captured the top five spots.

Appleton ranked 150th -- the book does not heavily weight snow and a high per capita ratio of buses and cinemas.

The book's view of Baltimore is that the city has excellent transportation, arts and educational facilities. Weaknesses are crime and a high cost of living and housing.

But even by using the software to manipulate the factors, it is almost impossible for Baltimore to crack the top 10. The reason is that eliminating Baltimore's weaknesses, such as crime and living costs, also strengthen other cities with similar problems. And overweighting Baltimore's strengths, such as transportation and the arts, also helps out cities like New York, which the book ranked 105th. Mr. Fulton, however, said that by carefully weighting some of Baltimore's strengths (the aquarium, seafood and baseball?) and slightly cutting back on the weight of crime and costs, Baltimore could achieve civic stardom.

One task that the software can easily perform is to compare cities with each other, allowing local patriots to take consolation in Baltimore's higher ranking than expansion rival Charlotte (100) -- as well as two others left hanging by the National Football League -- Jacksonville (126) and Memphis (97).

Maybe prophetically, even expansion archrival St. Louis (22) ranks one notch lower than Baltimore. Its major weakness? Recreation.

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