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When You Write About Geographic Areas, Please Be Specific!

by Kurt Metzger, Director

The Census collects data on many geographic levels, and failing to make the distinction between cities and metropolitan areas can create inaccurate or misleading statistics.

We at Data Driven Detroit (D3) take our data and our geographic definitions seriously.  Last year we ranted about Forbes Magazine and their discussion about city crime rankings when they were actually discussing metropolitan areas.  Even within metropolitan areas, they confused metropolitan statistical areas and metropolitan divisions (click on the link if you’re curious about the difference).

Well, another “city” ranking came out last year and we must once again criticize the messenger.  While it didn’t get great play, thank goodness, it did show up in small local articles and the Huffington Post Blog. Men’s Health magazine published a ranked list to help readers find the cities where Americans are the saddest and where they are living with big smiles on their faces.  They called the article “America’s Saddest Cities.”  Detroit came in as second saddest behind St. Petersburg, Florida and just ahead of Memphis, Tennessee.

As they noted in the article, “we aren’t shrinks, so our diagnosis is more statistical than psychological.” While the ranking is clearly not a medical diagnosis for the cities involved, we also have some concerns about their statistics. A brief description stated that editors calculated suicide rates (Center for Disease Control) and unemployment rates (Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of June 2011). Then they tapped SimplyMap from Geographic Research Inc. for the percentage of households that use antidepressants, as well as the number of people who report feeling the blues all or most of the time. 

Thinking about the data sources and looking at the Geographic Research Inc. website lead me to think that we couldn’t be talking cities (these data are not available at that level) but, rather, some kind of metropolitan agglomeration.

I decided to get down to the bottom of this by contacting the writer at Men’s Health to see what he knew about the data in his analysis.  He did not reply, but must have forwarded my inquiry.  My response, which was rather timely I must say, came from Steven Swartz at Geographic Research Inc.  Here it is:

Hi Kurt,
Thanks for your e-mail.  Men’s Health subscribe to our online database SimplyMap which has data by City as well as data by County (including other units of geography such as States, ZIP Codes, Census Tracts…..).  They have the ability to combine geographic areas (such as combining Counties to form larger metropolitan areas).  As a result, we do not know if they are ranking cities or larger metropolitan areas made up of one or more counties when they are conducting their research. 

While the response was timely, it sure didn’t answer the question.  I would guess that the folks at Men’s Health aren’t sure either, since no one there was willing to explain the methodology behind their analysis.

While everyone loves rankings, D3 will continue to push for clarity, definitions and methodology.  Let us make a pact to clearly understand the data before we broadcast the results!