Americans are a people on the move. We settle into one city only to consider moving to the next. We peer into real estate offices when we’re out of town, and focus on the myriad inadequacies of home. In a sense, this antsiness is the modern iteration of the frontier mentality. The only problem with it is that we sometimes move without understanding what we’re giving up. What’s the difference between life in Palo Alto, California and Vancouver, Canada? It’s not just the weather. It’s opportunity and the cost of avocados. Sten Tamkivi, the CEO of Teleport, which helps people compare the costs of life in different cities, wants to help us make better decisions.

“I’m kind of living the product,” Tamkivi, who splits his time between the Bay Area and Tallinn, Estonia, jokes.

Having a foot in two worlds inspired the creation of the Teleport service. It was also a logical step for someone who helped build Skype before departing for the big-time venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Tamkivi is all about the freedom to roam (Teleport’s twelve-person team is spread out over five or six countries depending on the day) and having that freedom has shown him that every city is different. Every house represents opportunity cost, even if it is a home.

Tamkivi spoke to Inverse about how data helps people make better decisions about where they want to be over the short and long terms.

I just moved across the country in search of professional opportunities, but had no data to prove that it’d work out. Are you trying to get people to articulate the questions they have about where they might move so you can attempt to answer them?

We see people coming in and telling us, ‘I’m looking for a job,’ ‘I want to find a place where I could revamp a new company,’ or, ‘I want to be closer to my family.’ All those requirements go in and then we help them to see the world through those lenses, and to compare different destinations.

Would Boston work better than New York? Or maybe Berlin would actually be better for most of your criteria. We give people enough data that they can actually compare, understand, and quantify the decision that they’re making. Instead of trying to give people one definite answer, it’s about having a very good, explorative process and comparing options.

How did you select the 15 elements that contribute to each city’s Life Quality score?

On the backend of the software, right now, we have about 180 data layers. We cover 150 cities with that data. The Quality score and the indexes that we build are attempts to consolidate and categorize some of those things, because showing 180 things to a user at the same time would get a bit too complex. We pocket a number of different cost items together into Living Cost, for example.

All that data must be hard to compile and access.

Yes, it’s definitely a big part of the business — investing to acquire the data, and setting that up. We have a few people internally who do that every day, and we’ve also built some infrastructure for that. Some of these things are available as open data, from governments and organizations; some of these data sources are about plugging into APIs by other companies; some of them require going out and indexing the way Google does; some of them even require manual work.

Taxes and regulation are good examples. It’s hard to find a good source for which types of Visa programs exist around the world, so we need to do a bit more work there. Between those, we expend quite a lot of effort to improve the quality of the data, normalize it, make it comparable across all these cities, and then show it to our users in an easy, visualized way.

If I had looked at New York’s data, I might not have moved at all.

Yup. That’s something we heard early on. We built our first prototype in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the things we heard from users a lot was, ‘Yeah, okay. I want to live in San Francisco. I don’t want to move to East Bay.’ That’s fine and that’s a decision you can make, but let us just help you understand the scope of the decision. Like, do you actually realize you’re making a 40,000-dollar-a-year decision?

When you put this data in front of users, and make it transparent for them, I think that just gives people better tools and better satisfaction with the decision that they eventually make. If they are still going to move to New York, they are probably going to be much clearer about why, and what they want to get out of that.

Has anyone within Teleport actually used it to move?

Of course. My co-founder, Silver, is a full nomad: He lives in four or five countries every year. Recently, when he moved to Canada for a few months, the reason to do that was actually the fact that Vancouver was popping up high on his search results. He got curious.

How did that work out for him? Was he happy with Vancouver?

He was very happy with Vancouver. Then, he moved on to Calgary and Toronto, then came back and said that he still liked Vancouver best — as our software told him he would.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons