Last week CartoDB had the pleasure of speaking with entrepreneur and real estate map guru Dan (Vadim) Marusin. He is the founder of EstateBlock, a Vancouver Canada based real estate search engine startup powered by CartoDB! Dan discovered CartoDB out of a need to provide easily accessible, high quality, data-secure interactive maps to provide his clients something that had not been done before in Vancouver: provide in-depth and easily accessible insight to home owners and buyers. Below, Dan shares his story.
EstateBlock is an innovative real estate search engine with all MLS listings and all new construction developments in Vancouver, BC and the surrounding area. We started this website a couple of years ago and have become one of the most popular real estate websites in BC, by offering a ridiculous amount of exclusive data to prospective BC home buyers. Data that is not available from any other website.
Like any other startup, we wanted to make a change in the industry. Real estate websites in Canada are usually very simple, and do not provide useful information about the listing and neighborhood, aside from the general MLS information. We decided to step up and gathered as much information about listings and neighborhoods as we could, such as crime rates, comparable listings, school ratings and school service areas, and demographics data for every street in Greater Vancouver, including information on income, education, median age data, transit, daycares, noise from the roads, airports and seaports, electromagnetic fields, pollution from big power lines, and even climate data. We consulted hundreds of sources to give every home buyer a full picture of every property in Greater Vancouver.
"I tried it and totally fell in love with the absolutely magnificent interface, which is very simple, yet extremely flexible, and advanced when you need it to be."
When we gathered all this information, we started to think about the best way to share it. First we tried graphs and charts, but they proved difficult to read, and even harder to consult when comparing data with other neighborhoods. We quickly settled on maps as the best possible solution for working with this kind of data. At a glance, every person can fully understand, for example, the crime situation in their neighborhood and compare it with all other neighborhoods in Greater Vancouver. But there was one problem: nobody in our team had any experience with maps.
I personally downloaded QGIS and started to study it bit by bit. I spent several months creating maps in QGIS and fine-tuning them for our needs. As an example we created hundreds of layers to cover any demographics criteria you could think of. Education, income level, number of kids in the families…you name it! All this information is now available on our website for every street in Greater Vancouver. Being an extremely lean startup at this time, we started to work with Google Fusion Tables, a free option that I found, to display our maps on the internet and for using them on our website as part of the application. But right away I understood that, since these maps are our competitive advantage, they need to be protected and secured from content scraping. Fusion Tables had an option for securing maps, but the cost was overwhelming and I started to search for an alternative.
One of the alternatives I investigated was CartoDB. I tried CartoDB’s free account as a trial and totally fell in love with the absolutely magnificent interface, which is very simple, yet extremely flexible and advanced when you need it to be. The best thing about CartoDB is that you don’t need any coding skills to create stunning maps or to understand any of the many manuals available. The last and most important feature of CartoDB, was the ability to secure maps that I spent months on, to protect them from content scraping. I also love the fact that CartoDB is growing with us and adding more and more features for real time applications.
When we launched EstateBlocks, we were getting calls from users every day to tell us that our heat maps were extremely useful and informative. We decided to go further and we started thinking about how we could use GIS and CartoDB, not only to show heat maps as a layer, but to actually use geographic information systems to filter properties, by proximity to SkyTrain stations for example, so the person who would like to live no more than a five minute walking distance from a SkyTrain station could filter their results and see only the homes matching that criteria. We created a rating for all public and private schools in Metro Vancouver based on exam marks, test results, graduation rates, etc., and collected data about school service areas, some of which required us to go to the school board to scan and digitize paper maps. Now our users can filter homes by proximity to the school and for example, show homes only serviced by good schools.
We work with our clients 24/7, so we know exactly what they are looking for when they search for homes. Many people want to be within walking distance of good schools, while some are searching for a low crime area, and for others it is vital to grab as many sunny days as possible. It was a surprise for some clients to find out that West Vancouver receives three times as much rain as Delta, even though they are only 30km apart. We have lots of people coming to the province for the first time and our heat maps are the best way to find out what neighborhood suits them best. I think it is vital for home buyers to operate with facts and numbers, and not the opinions of realtors or second-hand anecdotes.
One of the main unsolved problems we encountered was figuring out how quiet the area around the home was before going there. For example, when we are showing our clients seven homes a day, usually two or three of them will be too noisy due to nearby railroads, airports, or major roads, and sometimes houses are too close to power lines, which is a deal breaker for clients concerned about EMF pollution. This made it a waste of time for both buyers and realtors to go to these places. We started thinking about how we could tackle this problem with CartoDB. We were researching this problem for at least half a year, and are finally launched a new update with options to filter out noisy homes or homes with nearby power lines, to ensure greater client satisfaction.
The best thing about this is that you can combine all these filters. Instead of going through hundreds of listings that you don’t want, you can fine-tune your search for your perfect home, receive email alerts about any new listings that fit all of your criteria the same second the listing shows up in MLS, and book a showing right away to see the property with one of our realtors that same day, all free of charge of course.
Some of the maps that we produce are finding their way to our blog. The two brightest examples of these maps are the Vancouver land prices map and the Immigrants of greater Vancouver by population map.
The Vancouver land prices map is showing the price per square foot for parcels of Vancouver land. All of the data displayed on the map is from Vancouver’s Open Data Catalogue. We were using 2014 BC Assessment data from tax reports and current parcel polygons. It’s a super simple map to make. I usually prepare polygons and data in QGIS, export it to CartoDB as a Shapefile file, and distribute colors using CSS in CartoDB. If data is good and it matches the polygons, these maps can be done in one or two hours without any coding skills!
This map was the first big success for us in terms of PR. We posted it on our blog, and from there it was picked up by several big Vancouver media companies and became viral on Facebook. Over the course of a few weeks we had 15,000 visitors to our blog, and a couple dozen subscribers. Maps like these are a great, free way to attract traffic, build backlinks for websites, and build awareness about your company and the services you provide.
The Immigrants of greater Vancouver by population map basically repeated the success of the first map, in addition to catching the attention of the worldwide mapping community and becoming one of the most popular maps on reddit.
"...with CartoDB the only limit is our own imagination."
###What’s Next For EstateBlocks? I was asked by one of the clients if we can filter non-feng-shui-friendly homes, and I think we can do this. We will research how interesting this feature could be for our users and implement it using CartoDB.
Every day we are thinking about new ways to serve our clients’ needs, and to make their experience more and more informative and the truth is with CartoDB the only limit is our own imagination.
Happy data mapping!
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