Big Data Can Guess Who You Are Based on Your Zip Code

Software company Esri's database files Americans into one of 67 consumer groups.

In the era of Big Data, your zip code is a window into what you can afford to buy, but it also reveals how you spend time—and, in essence, who you are.

That's according to software company Esri, which mapped zip codes across the United States and linked them to one of 67 profiles of American market segments. Here's how Esri describes the "top tier" profile of people who live in 90210 (Beverly Hills), for example:

We've achieved our corporate career goals and can now either consult or operate our own businesses. We're married couples with older children or without children. Every home maintenance chore in our lavish homes is handled by a variety of contracted services. We can indulge ourselves in personal services at upscale salons, spas, and fitness centers, and shop at high-end retailers for anything we desire. We travel frequently, sparing no expense in taking luxury vacations or visiting our second homes in the US and overseas. Evenings and weekends are filled with opera, classical music concerts, charity dinners, and shopping. We support the arts and other charities, read to expand our knowledge, and depend on the Internet, radio, and newspapers for information. Spending time with family and a small circle of close friends is a priority.

The level of detail is striking and—from what I could tell based on cross-referencing some of my own last several zip codes of residence—pretty accurate, too. Anyone can plug a zip code into Esri's database, which makes for an addicting game of "guess my identity." The database is also a way to see how neighborhoods gradually change from one zip code to the next. (Palo Alto's 94301, for instance, has a significantly higher percentage of "top tier" residents compared with nearby 94303.)

But more than that, the database is a fascinating glimpse into how marketers see the world, and how data profiles can link populations in distant cities—or not. Though cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, might be compared culturally, their marketing profiles are fairly distinct. And while the majority of consumers in Beverly Hills share a profile with those on Philadelphia's Main Line, for example, they don't match up with the profile for residents of similarly expensive zip codes on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Here's the write-up for the "trendsetters" of 11222, Brooklyn's Greenpoint:

Believing that 'you're only young once,' we're living life to the fullest, unfettered by home and vehicle ownership, and not ready to settle down. We're young, educated singles with good jobs who spend our disposable income on upscale city living and entertainment—mostly on rent. Even though we're spenders, we seek financial advice and are building our investment portfolios. Dressed head to toe in the most current fashions, we fill our weeknights and weekends with discovering local art and culture, dining out, or exploring new hobbies. We must be connected at all times; texting and social media are essential for communication and keeping up with our social lives. E-readers and tablets are preferred for everything except women's fashion and epicurean magazines which must be in print. We shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's for quick, organic meals.

The "Pacific Heights" residents of 96816, Honolulu's pricey Kahala neighborhood:

You can find us in the urban periphery of metro areas along the Pacific Coast in California, Hawaii, and in the Northeast. A number of us are Asian and multi-racial; many of us are foreign born. We are affluent, educated, married couples with and without children; some of us live in multi-generational households. We own expensive single-family homes and townhouses. White collar occupations in business, computer, architecture, and engineering along with prudent investments provide our income and net worth. Shopping trips include stores for trendy clothes, Costco for bulk items, and specialty markets for food. We go online frequently to visit blogs and chat rooms, shop, watch TV and movies, and trade and track investments. For fun, we gamble at casinos, visit theme parks, eat out at family restaurants, listen to New Age and jazz, and read fashion magazines.

The "young and restless" population that makes up about a quarter of residents' profiles in Grand Rapids, Michigan (49544):

We're millennials and coming into our own. We're young, diverse, well educated, and are either financing our classes or working in professional/technical sales, and office administration support positions. Most of us rent and will move for a job. We live alone or share a place in densely populated areas of large metro areas in the South, West, and Midwest. We can't do without our cell phones; we text, listen to music, pay bills, redeem coupons, get directions, and research financial information. Not brand-loyal; we shop for the best price. We buy natural/organic food but will also go for fast food. We want to be the first to show off new electronics, but we read online reviews before buying. We go online to bank, buy from eBay, access Twitter and Facebook, and watch TV and movies.

And the "laptops and lattes" of Manhattan's West Village (10014):

We're affluent, well-educated singles and partner couples who love life in the big city and hold professional positions in business, finance, legal, computer, and entertainment. Most of us don't home a home or vehicle; we rent apartments close to amenities, and either work from home or walk, bike, and take public transportation to get around. We're cultivating our nest-eggs instead of feathering our nests, investing in mutual funds and contributing to our retirement plans. Physical fitness is a priority, so we exercise regularly, pay attention to nutrition, and buy organic food at high-end grocers. Regular expenses include nice clothes, traveling, and treating ourselves to lattes at Starbucks or treatments at spas. Laptops, cell phones, and iPads are always on so we can stay connected. Leisure time is filled with visiting art galleries and museums; attending the theater, opera, and rock concerts; reading books and newspapers electronically, and going to bars and clubs.

There are the "American Dreamers" in one of the country's most diverse ZIP codes (95834, North Sacramento, California) and the "Green Acres" (02562, Sagamore Beach, Massachusetts) in some of its least. And, bizarrely, unlike in the Census data that's reflected in the database, race and ethnicity are never explicitly mentioned—though there are tabs you can click through to get more information on income, age, and population density in a given zip code.

What does all this say about the extent to which consumer behaviors inform perceptions of a place and the people who live there? From a marketer's perspective, it seems, you are what you pay for. And marketers today know more about American consumers' behaviors than ever before.

In the United States, where there are virtually no regulations on data collection, someone trying to profile you can fairly easily learn how much money you make, your education level, whether you own a home, who you voted for, how many kids you have, how much credit card debt you're carrying, even what you thought of the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.  

The scope of the American data machine is staggering. A Federal Trade Commission report released earlier this year found the firm Datalogix, a partner of Facebook, has marketing data about almost every U.S. household—plus information detailing more than $1 trillion in consumer transactions.

And yet. How much of what a data broker finds amounts to details without nuance, composites without real complexity? After all, just because a portrait is accurate, doesn't mean it's complete. And there's some comfort in the fact that, to truly know a place and its people, there's really no substitute for living there.