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Is Chicago No. 1 or No. 23 among most livable cities? It all depends on how you look at the numbers

CHICAGO -- It_s a bird. It_s a plane. No, it_s Chicago, the supercity that_s able to leap over 22 other metropolitan areas in a single statistical bound to become North America_s most livable area. Well, maybe. Where Chicago belongs on a list of the continent_s best places to live is a matter of statistics and how they are compiled, according to Geoff Loftus, a University of Washington psychology professor and co-author of the 1996 edition of _Places Rated Almanac._ Loftus, who devised the rating system used to crunch a sea of statistical data for the book, will describe how Chicago could surge to the top of the livability rankings at 1 o_clock this afternoon in a talk at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. In the almanac, which was published last December, Chicago was tied with Miami at No. 23 among the 351 cities and metropolitan areas that were rated. Orange County, Calif., was the surprise best place to live. But a statistical case can be made for the Windy City to be in the top spot. Cities in _Places Rated Almanac_ were rated in nine categories -- cost of living, crime, weather, higher education, job outlook, transportation, the arts, recreation and health care. The cities were given a percentile score in each category on a scale of 0 to 100 with 50 being the average and 100 the ideal. A city_s overall score and ultimate ranking was its average or the mean of its scores in all nine categories. Under that system, Chicago_s mean score was 69.67, well behind Orange County_s overall score of 78.30. But, there_s another way to look at the numbers, says Loftus. "Big cities like Chicago do well in many categories such as education, transportation, the arts and recreation, but they also tend to be bad in a number of areas such as crime and cost of living,_ he explains. _So if you take their median scores -- or the middle score among all of their categories -- and ranked cities that way, Chicago comes out at No. 1. Six of Chicago_s scores were above the 90th percentile and five were above the 98th percentile. Chicago_s median score was 98.19, which is astronomically high._ Using median scores, North America_s five best places to live would be Chicago, Los Angeles-Long Beach, New York City, the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Only fourth-ranked Washington, D.C., made the top five in the almanac. Alas Chicago, Loftus says the mean scores, the ones used in the almanac, are the standard and the easiest for people to understand. _The means actually provide more information than the median because a median score throws away too much data._ ### For more information contact Loftus in Chicago at the Palmer House Hotel (312) 726- 7500 Saturday night, Aug. 16 through Tuesday morning, Aug. 19. In Seattle, he can be reached at (206) 543-8874 or