Thank you, first of all, for at least clicking the title and being willing to read this post. I know data presentation strategies may not light you up with excitement. But if you are in the placemaking field, it’s an area that you have to be pretty sophisticated about if you are going to tell a placemaking story effectively, whether you like it or not. So in return for you agreeing to read this, I promise to try to not get too convoluted and detailed. Just two quick tips that you can use today to prep for your next place talk tomorrow.
First and foremost, the word “causes.” Don’t use it. Any academic – and many journalists these days – will seize on you using it and make you pay. Because I guarantee you, no matter how great your placemaking research is, you are not justified in saying it.
When you say “causes” using social science data, you are saying that you are able to prove that one thing (or a number of things) causes another to happen. You have:
- rejected other explanations,
- identified all the things that make the other happen,
- studied the phenomena with enough people that you can generalize the finding with relative certainty, and
- this is a biggie for us placemakers – accumulated enough data over time to know the temporal ordering of the relationship – that is, what comes first to make the other happen.
No, you haven’t.
We will never really establish causation in the real world, only in the laboratory if we are really, really lucky and follow the strictest of guidelines and even then some will be dubious of your causal claim. We don’t work in a lab anyway—we work in the real world of place.
Most of the time, especially when we are early on in the research discovery process, we start with correlations. Simply stated, a correlation is a relationship between two things – where you find one (say, community attachment), you find another (say, local economic growth). Does that mean attachment causes growth? Nope. Could there be more to the story? Undoubtedly. Other things about the place could be also be (read as: will likely be) affecting that relationship. For example, cities that have high attachment that are also innovative may experience even higher levels of local economic growth than those that don’t have that combination. Testing this would require more sophisticated research models than a simple correlation.
And we always have to get more sophisticated. We have to remember that correlations should only be a starting point in research. It’s an important step, but a first step just the same.
Yet, even with the most sophisticated models (to find all the variables affecting the relationship) and with years and years of data (to establish temporal ordering of events with enough numbers of people), the best we can really say is that one thing (say, attachment) is the leading indicator to another (say, local economic growth).
We are not there yet.
So if the word “causes” is out, what can you say when you find a correlation? Well, many things. Using the Soul of the Community example, “attachment is associated with local economic growth”. Or “there is a relationship between attachment and local economic growth”. Or “where you find higher levels of attachment you usually find higher levels of local economic growth” (depending on the strength of the correlation).
But as former VP of Communications at Knight Foundation once told me, “That sounds so much more wordy, jargony, awkward and well, frankly, disappointing than just saying attachment causes local economic growth.” Yes, it does. But stand firm. It’s always a balance in what social science research rules say we can say (and not overstate our case) and our exuberance over an exciting new finding in a developing field, when credibility is key.
Secondly, sometimes no change in findings from one year to the next is a huge discovery. Having a finding stand the test of time means you have been able to replicate the finding, even if it’s just a simple, yet all important correlation.
In 2009, when the Soul findings showed that social offerings, aesthetics and openness were most related to resident attachment AND the average attachment levels across the 26 places held, I was thrilled. When we had our team meeting to discuss some asked, “what’s newsworthy about this story when it’s the same as last year?”
Don’t fall in that trap of thinking that something you already told ‘em last year isn’t news this year. Considering what happened to the economy in the places we studied, the fact that those main things held AND that attachment levels didn’t plummet in every place was very important. It provided further evidence that attachment to place was not as much about local economies, but instead these “softer” things about a place.
Gallup said that the 2009 economy gave the Soul of the Community model “its biggest test” and the findings held and held again in 2010. And because we framed the findings as no new news is big news, the story was huge and got a lot of play.
Data presentations in any social science field can be tricky. As placemakers, we have more eyes on us lately as some of our discoveries can be counterintuitive to some and groundbreaking to many. Having a balance of orator, researcher, practitioner and public relations skills helps – so do multidisciplinary teams to provide the checks and balances needed between proper scientific discovery and just shouting “Eureka!”