The Kind Of App Experiment You’d Only Find In NYC

As the technology scene grows in cities like NYC and L.A., we’re going to see all kinds of experiments that solve those cities’ most acute problems–but which also have much wider implications.

The Kind Of App Experiment You’d Only Find In NYC

Life in New York can be a lot like the life of one of those trees that attempts to grow into a cliff. Unlike the Bay Area, with its downy-soft incubators, people here invent a lot of things based purely on creative desperation. One such early-stage web experiment is this: “Help Jeremy Find An Apartment.”


To anyone who has YouTubed “lean product,” this should look familiar: It’s an extremely simple way to test a concept. The idea here is that paid referral businesses–not some fancy listing aggregator like Trulia or Airbnb–is the way to find a place to stay.

Here’s how it works:

My landlord is raising my rent. So I’m looking for a new apartment: a studio within a 45-minute public-transport commute of Rockefeller Center, for less than $1,400/month, ideally available July 1. I’m checking out Craigslist and StreetEasy. But I figure that, somewhere out there, a friend of a friend probably knows of a much better apartment than I’d ever find online. So I’d like to try an experiment:

  • I’ll give you $60 if you point me to a great apartment that I eventually rent.
  • I’ll give you $30 if you point me to someone who points me to that apartment.
  • And I’ll give you $10 if you point me to someone who points me to someone who points to that apartment.
  • Or the charity of your choosing.

Jeremy Singer-Vine, the creator of this little app, is a reporter and computer programmer at the Wall Street Journal. (The apartment bounty project is a personal side project.) He’s also a co-organizer of Hacks/Hackers NYC. Here’s how (and why) he built it:

It’s a really simple Python/Flask/Postgres app running on Heroku’s free tier. I mostly built it over the weekend while, yes, becoming a little desperate in my apartment search. I’ve lived in 4 apartments in my 3.5 years in New York, and was really hoping that this might be the first year without a move. Alas.

If it actually works, it might be worth expanding into a web app anyone can use. But for now, SInger-Vine says, he’s keeping it as barebones as possible.

I didn’t add any sort of login/user system, in part because that would have been more work, in part because I loathe unnecessary signups, and in part because I wanted to make it as easy to use as possible. I also wanted to make sure that people could remain as anonymous as they’d like. Somewhat relatedly, the Flask-SSLify module was super handy in making sure that connections to the site go over HTTPS.

As New York’s technology scene grows, along with other fast-growing spots like L.A., we’re going to see all kinds of experiments that solve those cities’ most acute problems, but which also have wider relevance. If the core concept works for apartments, it might work for anything, which is always a promising sign in an Internet tool–it indicates you could scale it to enormous sizes. Singer-Vine says he’s particularly interested in how it could work for information:

And though I built the site specifically for my apartment search, I’d been thinking about this sort of referral system for a few years now — though more in the journalism/reporting context. (Rather than pay sources, you might give them formal thanks at the end of a piece, in the way Slate’s Explainer column does.)

He says he’s tinkering with a more generalized version of the referral app now. Follow him on Twitter handle @jsvine for more updates, or on GitHub.


[Image: Flickr user Horia Varlan]

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.