Bert Sperling: In Search of the Best

For more than 20 years, data researcher Bert Sperling has been creating lists to help people find their own best places to live, work, and play.

April 1, 2008

How did you become a professional list maker?

SPERLING: It was accidental. I was writing software 25 years ago and a book came out then about how Pittsburgh was the best place to live. I thought, “Well, Pittsburgh may be very nice, but surely it can’t be the best place for everyone. Wouldn’t it be great if we could let people find their own best place?” So I did research to create some software, which took about a year. The work was an early example of what later became termed as artificial intelligence or expert engines.

Lists are ubiquitous in the media these days in print and online. Why is this format so popular?

SPERLING: Today there’s so much information out there, people get overwhelmed. It’s like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose. So lists are a way to tap into someone’s knowledge and expertise and get just the facts. People are so busy they can’t possibly consider all of the things that go into a decision like finding the best places to live, picking the best neighborhoods, finding the best car, or whatever.

Last year, you chose Gainesville, Fla., as the best city, succeeding Charlottesville, Va. Is this evidence that no top city can rest on its laurels?

SPERLING: They’re like organisms that grow and change. Sometimes attaining popularity increases the cost of the housing, which drives out families, and then school enrollment declines. But then those places become popular with young singles and retirees. These changes pose challenges for cities.

Your books, including The Best Places to Raise a Family, unavoidably incorporate your preferences. Doesn’t that contradict your goal of empowering people to choose their own criteria?

SPERLING: Ironically we’ve found that people want the lists that my co-author and I create even if they include our biases. Perhaps because there is so much information on the Internet, people want the fruits of our expertise. They want us to tell them what we know. People don’t have time to do their own research. The same is true for real estate practitioners who become even more valuable despite there being so much information out there. People still want to be able to pick up the phone and ask specific questions of someone who really knows about an area.

Companies hire you to create lists that aid their marketing. What have been some interesting requests?

SPERLING: We did the “Best Cities for Sleep” list for Ambien. Minneapolis was No. 1 based on information from the federal government about sleeping habits and general factors that make up a good night’s sleep, like freedom from job worries and other stress. Keri Lotion wanted the “Best Cities for your Skin” list. At the top was Portland, Ore., due to the incessant drizzle, low altitude, and cloud cover that protect people from ultraviolet rays. When we did the “Most Fun Places for Families” for the game maker Cranium, the mayors of Las Vegas and New Orleans complained that they weren’t on it. The way I see it is they’re perhaps the most fun places to lose your money or take your top off, but not for families.

What’s the greatest value of the “best places” lists?

SPERLING: They get people thinking about places they haven’t thought of before. I would never want anyone to pack up and move based on one of our lists. But when a place that a person hasn’t heard of before appears on the top 10, hopefully, that person will get a newspaper from the area and do more research.

What do you say to critics who think it’s presumptuous for anyone to declare that certain places are “the best?”

SPERLING: I understand that. I don’t think any city is a dump. Every city has something special about it. Even for a city going through rough times, that doesn’t mean there aren’t wonderful things about it. No one city is going to be best for everyone.

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.