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The Measure of a Metro

Mary Newsom / Mar 28 2013

For Release Thursday, March 28, 2013
Citiwire.net

Mary NewsomIn January, Charlotte had 1.8 million people. Today it has 2.3 million people. And no, there was no airlift of half a million residents from the Rust Belt. How can a city gain a half-million people almost overnight? How can a metro area vault from No. 33 in population rankings to No. 23?

The answer lies in the way the U.S. government defines Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The two-state Charlotte MSA gained five counties and lost one, and in the recalibrating – effective in February – it grew by half a million people.

Does this even matter to anyone beyond Charlotte’s ever-zealous booster crowd? Consider two other things that happened this week.

The first: A New York Times article March 24, “The Mayor’s Geek Squad: A Group of Number Crunchers Analyzes Troves of Big Data to Try to Solve the City’s Problems,” highlighted how New York’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning is using data from city departments to track such things as where restaurant scofflaws are letting grease clog sewer pipes, where stores are selling bootleg cigarettes and where fires are more likely to occur.

The second: The institute I work for held an inaugural “Charlotte Data Day,” to introduce the public to the growing body of available data sources and show how to explore them. Registration quickly hit capacity.

From government workers to nonprofit advocates to neighborhood groups, attendees wanted to learn how to find and use the exploding amount of information now at our fingertips. That information – from income to commuting patterns to neighborhood ethnic makeup to sidewalk mileage – can be pieced together in new and mind-bending ways, creating complex views of how a city works and, advocates hope, helping usher in more informed decision-making among policymakers and elected officials.
Big Data. It’s all the rage.

“Big data promises big savings in both energy consumption and budgets,” StateTech magazine tells us. Or, as the New York Times put it, “Data – or Big Data, as quantitative analysts will call it – is the tool du jour for tech-savvy companies that have realized that lurking in the vast pools of unprocessed information in their networks are solutions to some of today’s most pressing and convoluted problems.”

But back to those MSA boundaries. While the possibility of putting more data in more people’s hands holds huge potential, remember, too, how tricky it can be to use data precisely and how easy it is to misuse even simple data. A not-so-Census-savvy-person could easily see the Charlotte MSA data and misunderstand the city’s growth. And while data experts are careful to avoid mixing data apples with data oranges, what about the rest of our math-challenged society?

Misunderstanding even simple Census data matters. Those lines carving the country into metropolitan statistical areas (from the federal Office of Management and Budget) create rankings used by all kinds of analysts and academics, writers and bloggers, and economic development gurus. Just this week I spotted a blog with a “statistical” ranking of the “Top 10 Least Hipster Cities in America,” from Movoto.com. It’s a fun piece and got lots of online chatter. But economic development officials in those cities (Charlotte was sixth “least hipster”) are probably fretting over the clumsily calculated insult to their cities. Image does matter.

New Yorkers might not care much about MSA stats, because New York is, well, New York. But if you’re in Wilmington, N.C., and the new MSA lines send a neighbor county to the Myrtle Beach, S.C., MSA, your metro population just dropped by almost 30 percent. Your status just plummeted. The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce was not happy. Chamber CEO Connie Majure-Rhett told the Wilmington Star-News: “The thing that’s going to hurt us is we look smaller. There are chains that look at certain sizes (of locations) and you can drop off their radar.”

With Big Data, I know we’re on the brink of something materially different in the way we can approach, illustrate and use information to create new ways of seeing our world. And that’s exciting. Big Data is, truly, big.

And people who understand this stuff and understand longitudinal analysis and statistical significance know about things like shifting MSA boundaries. But it’s easy to see non-experts patching together poorly matching data and pretty soon we’re knee-deep in misinformation.

So when I hear the paeans to Big Data and the predictions of a wondrous new era of public understanding, I can’t help but remember maybe 10 years back. In the journalism business we were seeing the possibilities of online communication and interaction expanding exponentially. Experts were saying that by opening our news sites to public comments we’d enter a golden era of democratic discourse with civic dialogue blossoming like azaleas in April.

Well, now we know. We learned about ill-tempered trolls and the need for constant monitoring of that so-called civic discourse. We learned that access to information doesn’t necessarily make people any better informed.

So as we welcome the possibilities of Big Data, I have to admit to a Big Hope: That we’ll also get behind Big Education About Data – because even a seemingly simple thing like population statistics can turn out to have some trickiness to it.


Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute where she directs PlanCharlotte.org, a website of news and analysis about urban issues in the 14-county Charlotte region. Views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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