Matt's blog

September 28, 2009

Thoughts on the findings in Akron

By Vivian Neal.

The Gallup study results for Akron are really not a surprise to those of us who live, work, and enjoy the inviting lifestyle in the Akron community. The study found that our stunning parks have long been a strength for the people of Akron. For many years, we’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where you can hop on the Towpath Trail in Akron and ride one of the bike lanes to Cleveland!

Another strength noted in the study is our top notch higher education offerings at our local colleges and universities that have been recognized at the local and national levels. This month, the University of Akron’s inaugural opening of their new Info-Cision football stadium received recognition in the sports arena and will hopefully help to fortify Akron’s economy. Knowing your community strengths is great, but having them confirmed by the Gallup research is icing on the cake!

Now on the flip side, Akron needs to continue to work on new ideas and hear from our thriving Young Professional (YP) population that is involved in the Greater Akron region in a number of ways. Research shows that economy is not the key factor in residents' love for Akron but the study did find that positive feelings do have some connection to local GDP growth over a long period of time. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how we can attract and retain our young people in our area.

September 26, 2009

The study methodology: sort of like the Netflix Prize

How do researchers determine what ties folks to their community? Turns out it's sort of like how Netflix determines what draws you to different movies.

If you haven't heard of the Netflix Prize, here's a quick synopsis: Netflix, the movie rental company, promised $1 million to any team of statistical wizards that could improve the accuracy of the company's legendary recommendation engine by 10 percent. When I first heard about this prize, I wondered, "Given that movie tastes are so subjective, how could they quantify exactly how accurate their system was?"

The answer is ratings. Netflix users have given the company hundreds of millions of ratings for lots and lots of movies. Netflix knows it's improved the recommendation engine when it can better predict how you'll rate a particular movie. So to test the teams who entered the contest, Netflix gave them access to a partial set of movie ratings by Netflix users. The company held onto another set of ratings by the same users, and the teams competed to see who could best predict what those other ratings would be. To figure out what rating a user might give to a certain movie, the teams had to look for obscure patterns in other ratings the user had given, and try to figure out which of those patterns were most important to the user's overall taste.

To determine the factors that drive a person's loyalty to and passion for her area, Gallup researchers used a similar solution. First, they identified the attachment factor — how strongly a person was tied to her place. Then, they considered the ratings residents gave to different aspects of their communities — things like health care services, housing affordability, and entertainment venues. From those ratings, the team looked for patterns that would best predict the attachment factor.

It turns out that for most communities, researchers need only three ratings — social offerings, openness and aesthetics — to predict much of a person's attachment.

Image courtesy of billaday on Flickr.

September 25, 2009

Why a tanking economy doesn't really affect attachment

When we embarked on the second year of the Soul of the Community study, the American economy was entering a significant downturn, as you know. So one of the questions on the minds of our researchers was whether the economic decline would factor into attachment. Many of us assumed that it would play a part, and that the hardest-hit cities would see a corollary decrease in attachment.

But according to our findings, the economy didn't play a big part in folks' attachment to their communities.

We can't tell you for certain why that would be, but the research analysts I spoke to had some theories. It might be that people recognize the economy as being bad everywhere. Or they might assume that the disadvantages of moving — finding a new job, making new friends — outweigh the benefits. Or perhaps people's reactions to the economy showed up indirectly; for example, several cities saw a jump in basic services as a driver for attachment, which includes factors related to the economy, such as housing affordability and medical services.

What do you think might explain the disconnect?

Image courtesy of bitzcelt on Flickr.

September 25, 2009

What happened to social capital?

If you're like me, the phrase "bowling alone" conjures up vivid memories of undergrad sociology lectures about Robert Putnam and his popular 1995 essay. Putnam traced a decline in civic engagement to shifts in technology, including an increasing attachment to isolating media such as television and video games.

In a study about community attachment, you might expect social capital to play a big role. But two years of research have reinforced the finding that social capital isn't highly important in tying people to their communities. It was one of the drivers Gallup researchers studied, but it was low on the list of factors contributing to attachment.

Instead, researchers found a strong relationship between community attachment and social offerings (which includes the number and quality of local arts and entertainment venues). This means that what most determines a person's passion and loyalty to a place might not be whether they're bowling alone, but whether that bowling alley is a fun place to be.

From my understanding of Putnam's work, this finding doesn't necessarily contradict his research. "Bowling Alone" was less concerned with the relationship between people and their particular geographic communities, and more concerned with people's participation in democracy more generally.

Image courtesy of suzannelong on Flickr.

September 23, 2009

Thoughts on the findings in San Jose

Dave Mills is Knight's program director in San Jose.

The Gallup organization has just released the second installment of a three-year study designed to pinpoint what drives loyalty within a community and explore the potential connection between attachment to place and economic vitality. Last year, we learned that roughly one in four San Jose residents (28 percent) were not attached to this place, 42 percent were neutral and 29 percent were attached.

(Two brief research caveats here: "San Jose" for this study means the San Jose MSA, which comprises all of Santa Clara County. The Gallup organization uses a composite measure that includes loyalty to place and passion about the place to derive "attachment.")

Anyhow, between last spring and this spring, the data were collected. Between late February and April of this year, we experienced the great recession. So, what impact might that have on the results? The answer, surprisingly, is very little. Indeed, 32 percent are not attached this time around, 40 percent remain neutral, and 29 percent are attached.

What does this all mean? Well, the fun in any study of this nature is in interpreting the findings. My interpretations are grounded in understanding the critical issues. Last year, 22 percent cited affordable housing as the most pressing issue facing the community, 15 percent said traffic and congestion, 15 percent mentioned the cost of living, and 13 percent cited gangs and violence. Nothing else was mentioned by more than 10 percent of the respondents.

So what about this year? The percentage of residents citing lack of jobs as our community's most pressing issue jumped from 4 to 17 this year. Not a surprise, really, but certainly supporting evidence that Silicon Valley is not immune from the national employment malaise, and that we feel every bit of the record unemployment rate in the state of California. Aside from jobs, the most frequently cited issues remain the same. I infer from this that with or without a job, most of us feel this is a great place to be.

How does this compare to other places? Well, the study was conducted in 26 communities across the country and for comparative purposes Gallup looks at San Jose in the same cohort as St. Paul, Minn., Palm Beach, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. Statistically speaking, there are no differences regarding attachment to place between us and the aggregate of those other three communities.

One detail I find particularly interesting concerns the elected leadership here. Last year, just 8 percent of respondents "agreed strongly" that elected officials represent their interests, and only 10 percent gave a "very high" rating to the leadership capacity of our area's elected officials. These numbers are virtually unchanged this year (9 and 11 percent, respectively). Is this good news or bad? Neither, I think. I often wonder if it's possible that in Silicon Valley we don't expect the government to improve our situation? I certainly hope that's the case.

Finally, community engagement is something we talk about a lot at the Knight Foundation. While there are thousands of viewpoints about what this means, the implications of more- or less-engaged communities, and how we will know when we get there, I choose to believe we're attached to this place - at whatever levels we are - because of the aesthetics, the opportunities, the people, and yes - even the weather. Some of the data support these points, but even when they don't, I still believe that regardless of cyclical swings in employment, crime, traffic, or the cost of housing, we're here because we want to be. In my mind, that's a good thing and is as it should be.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to share them below.

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September 22, 2009

Thoughts on the findings in Myrtle Beach

Susan Patterson is Knight Foundation's program director in Myrtle Beach.

The Gallup study results for Myrtle Beach show that residents love their community. And, how can you not? The wide, sandy beaches along the Grand Strand continued to draw vacationers in good numbers this summer, even in this tough economy.

An interesting result in this year’s survey was a significant spike in those attending local public meetings. The bike week debates probably contributed to that finding, but I think it gets at the passion for the place as well. Those on both sides of the issue, it seems to me, were voicing their desire to keep the area as they like it. Their visions might be different, but their passion certainly was shining through.

Myrtle Beach has got what many other communities would love to have: Residents who are passionate and loyal to the place they call home.

September 22, 2009

Thoughts on the findings in Columbia

Susan Patterson is Knight Foundation's program director in Columbia.

The Gallup study results for Columbia indicate that residents see education as a community strength and a primary reason for their passion for the place they call home. That’s hardly a surprise. USC dominates downtown, and Benedict, Allen and Columbia College add more students to the mix.

On the flip side, however, is the perception that the community is not so welcoming for young, college graduates. So, that raises questions for me: What would change that perception? How do community employers connect to the colleges and universities? How should community leadership respond?

I see these higher ed institutions as great resources for the community, but surely Columbia doesn’t want to lose the intellectual capital of grads moving elsewhere. Surely.

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September 22, 2009

Thoughts on the findings in Charlotte

Susan Patterson is Knight Foundation's program director in Charlotte.

Reading the Gallup study results for Charlotte, I was not surprised that the area’s physical beauty is one of the reasons people are so attached to this place. Whenever I fly in and see the green carpet below, I instinctively sigh in contentment.

I fear, however, that we’re taking our tree canopy for granted. Twenty years ago, Hurricane Hugo did a serious pruning job on many of the oaks in our oldest neighborhoods. Now, drought, old age and development pressures are taking their toll as well, and the city’s tree-planting efforts can’t keep up.

I can’t imagine Charlotte without towering oaks arching over streets and backyards, but it takes years to grow them. We need to be planting trees now so we don’t lose the beauty that fuels our passion for this place. Just imagine what would happen if we all decided to plant a tree today. We’d be green today and tomorrow.

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