A Carto Apartment Hunt


Last fall, we worked on a mapping project that gave me an opportunity to try out a product we’d never used before: Carto Builder. The application - accessible through a browser - processes, analyzes, and visualizes geo-located data.

Carto Builder works very similarly to other GIS programs. It has dual sides: one the data, the other the map. Data sets can be uploaded (as .cvs, zipped .shp, and other formats) or created by annotating the map side directly. When a data set has been loaded into a map layer, it can be further number-crunched through an Analysis or a Widget. Analyses manipulate the data to create new geometries (e.g., an “area of influence” can be constructed radially from a point on the map; I did this to represent the walksheds shown below). Widgets, on the other hand, filter and sort the visible data.

We didn't end up using Carto Builder for the project we were working on, but I became quickly enamored with its capabilities. So I found a use for it in my private life! I’m planning to move in the next four months and I’m already chomping at the bit to begin apartment hunting. I knew Builder would help scratch that itch in the intervening months...whether it’ll make the hunt more efficient, who’s to say! To create my apartment hunting map, I input data about MAX stations (yellow), grocery stores (blue), and parks (green) along I-84 and in Portland’s inner eastside. Builder then processed this geometry through an Analysis, producing 5- or 10-minute walksheds around those amenities.

My take-aways from this exercise with Carto Builder:

(1) The application is VERY user-friendly. I found working on both sides of the interface—data and map—a breeze. Carto provides some lovely base maps, and geometries are all highly customizable. If you can’t get your data to behave exactly as you want, Builder gives you the option to hack it yourself and code your own solution.

(2) Carto is marketed as a means by which to “escape the GIS handcuffs”, as an alternative to the weighty and institutionalized ArcGIS. (Carto entered my own awareness thanks to a friend who thinks of themself as a GIS anarchist.) There is a free version of Carto Builder, but the next-lowest plan option starts at $149/month—I wouldn’t consider that accessible. The handcuffs aren’t gone, they’re just cheaper, like the ones that come with a dollar store Halloween costume.

(3) As Jannine aptly put it, Builder helped me create “a giant, map-based Venn diagram” of what I value in my environment. This exercise (in combination with many hours perusing Craigslist) has taught me a good bit about where to look for an apartment in Portland. So where are those sweet spots of transit+groceries+green space? The image at the top of this post shows the relevant intersections where I'll find the apartment of my dreams. Realistically, though, I probably will need to widen those walksheds to give myself more options.

Yana Stannik was a Designer and Senior Designer at Fat Pencil Studio from 2017-2022.