Research Design Issues

 

I have many concerns about the quality of research conducted in political campaigns, by those governing and by industrialists.  I even see those in the not-for-profit sector spending precious money on unproductive research. 

“Original” research in universities is often only conducted at the doctoral level.  Research that is done often involves relatively unproductive statistical tables or questionnaires that purport to be” scientific”.  Many students find searching through microfilm, microfiche and original texts in libraries to be passé, if they are aware of the technique at all.  This constricted research in universities translates into marginally beneficial or even irrelevant techniques and results in industry and government.      

 

How is it that the best educated generation the world has ever seen is relying on research techniques that would not achieve a pass in a second year social science course in a reputable university?  In government, and in the political campaigns designed to lead to governing, senior managers are making decisions based on flawed methodology.

 

But we are in unstable times when we need excellent public policy and politics.  America is polarized domestically and the European Union is beginning to show signs of eventually having similar economic and political clout in some parts of the world.

 

For those who look to the private sector for leadership and use the refrain of “running the government like a business”—please don’t.  Fully 82% of all mergers and acquisitions in private industry fail to produce new value.  There is a crisis of competence in all sectors, in part because of poor research.

 

Here are the top ten issues and comments on research techniques and challenges faced both in campaigns and then in governing:

 

 

The population is much more sophisticated than they were when the random sample telephone survey was invented.  A telephone call is now an intrusion, especially during dinner time.  Pollsters are experiencing up to 70% refuse rates.  I tell my clients that often the biggest message they are getting is that their constituents refuse to speak to them at all.

 

Compounding the problem is caller ID which tips people off that it’s a pollster calling.  The moment of silence before the questioner begins speaking is a further tip off, as is the robotic reading of questions from a computer screen.

 

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that up to 10% of the population has just one hand-held device or phone—higher in the crucial 18-24 age group.  Many will not participant in phone surveys because they have to pay the air time.

 

People miss-remember dates, events and attitudes—what researchers call “backward and forward telescoping”.   They also tell researchers what they wish had happened, or use answers to researchers’ questions as surrogates for other messages.  The classic example is that far more Americans reported that they voted for President Kennedy after his assassination than could have done so in the closest election the US had had to that date.

 

Social science is too imprecise to determine that 22.3% of people think or do anything—often referred to as “spurious accuracy”.

 

Citizens reserve the right to lie to pollsters and reserve the right to park their votes in the undecided category or tell pollsters they will vote for a party or candidate when they have no intention of doing so, in order to temporarily reward or punish candidates.

 

One joke about polls goes like this:  “If an election were held today, everybody would be really surprised because it’s scheduled for November 4”.  That kind of captures some of the unreality of polls these days.

 

  • Focus Groups.

 

Robert K. Merton is the inventor of focus groups.  He also coined the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”.  He disassociated himself from the way practitioners implemented his ideas about focus groups.

 

The dirty little secret about focus groups is the number of times companies rely on semi-professional attendees whom they know will show up on short notice to fulfill a client’s needs.  Students, the disadvantaged and others who need an honorarium or have time on their hands are often overrepresented.

 

There are ways to make focus groups more reliable.  What the Harvard Business Review calls “empathic testing” involves using a product or discussing an issue in real life conditions.  Putting respondents around a board table and having a formal focus group leader ask questions is not a normal life experience or venue and the results will thus be forced and false.

 

Anamatics is similar and involves making the experience realistic and having participants focus on the element to be tested.  Realism in the venue can be addressed by driving respondents around in a van while they listen to radio ads a politician wants tested.  This is closer to how voters would listen to an ad than sitting at a board table.

 

For TV ads, we have stripped rough cut ads into tapes of the actual TV show in which they will appear.  Testing can occur in shopping malls where hundreds or even thousands of people can view the potential ads and react to them.

 

For print ads and even editorial content, we have mocked up the copy and inserted it into real newspapers to see how respondents react.  We don’t tell them what we want them to react to, we first want to know if they care to look at the ad or story at all.  That’s the so-called “unaided” response.  If they don’t look or read, we have some valuable information.  Then we asked them to review the ad and get more valuable information in their “aided” response.

 

Campaigns and sitting politicians use lots of mail.  Direct mail raises money and mobilizes troops.  Newsletters and political “householders” let constituents know what their representative is doing.  But nobody opens the mail or reads a householder while sitting around a boardroom table.  These items should be thrown on the floor in a pile of other mail and magazines to see if anybody bothers to stoop down and pick it up.  If someone does, the next question is whether the political piece is interesting enough to cull out of the pile and read.  If not, that’s a valuable answer in itself.

While on the campaign literature theme, there’s always somebody in political meetings showing a mock up of a brochure or householder who points out that the candidate’s picture or name or other important information is off on the right-hand side “where the eye naturally goes”.  By this time in the meeting, I’m too exhausted from trivia and nonsensical issues to point out that we read from left to right in English, Spanish, French and most other languages prevalent in North America, and only read right to left in Arabic, Persian, and some other languages.  (I wonder where these perceived and received pieces of communication wisdom come from?)

 

With regard to video and TV production, audiences are very sophisticated.  Most people own video cameras and watch TV dozens of hours per week.  Research has shown that focus group attendees will review the production qualities of ads, rather than the content.  To counter this, advertisements can be mocked-up by a graphic artist and one can then test the voice-over or content separately.

 

Candidates can test debate one-liners, still pictures for brochures, slogans and any other communication element, without layers of clutter or testing of extraneous elements.

 

  • Graduated Questionnaires.

 

Self-administered questionnaires are not used much anymore, but are a valid technique.  One of the best examples of these is the old Bureau of Broadcast Measurement diaries that were mailed to households to survey radio listening and TV viewing.  People often put down their favourite station, not the one they actually watched most.

 

With telephone or in person surveys, respondents become easily and quickly fatigued with having to choose among:  strongly agree, mildly agree, somewhat agree, agree, mildly disagree, strongly disagree.  What does mildly agree mean, other than the fact that it’s stronger than just agreeing and weaker than strongly agreeing?  How does one compare one person’s strong agreement with another person’s?

 

The best model to determine the weight to put on a respondent’s report is to see if that person actually changes behaviour as a result.  People often report that they will change voting habits, but actually do not.  This makes their threat to do so a surrogate for other matters that should be probed.

 

In industry, it’s the same.  I have a telecommunications client which conducts quarterly research to determine how much its customers like them.  The results show that up to 30% of respondents say they are “agree”, “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the notion of switching service to a new company.  Yet for years the so-called “churn rate”—the rate at which customers actually change telecommunications providers (phones, hand-helds, internet, etc.) is under 3%.

 

It is vital to distinguish between what people actually do and what they say they might do.

 

  • Elite Interviews.

 

It may not sound egalitarian these days, but elites are good respondents because of how they became elites—they know their demographic well.  These one-on-one, in-depth interviews can augment focus groups, polling and other techniques.

 

Who’s an elite?  That’s easy.  Ratepayer groups, condominium boards, religious groups, union leaders and even book club busy bodies all rose to the top of their little heap, in part through knowing what their demographic is like.  They can be a great source of information.

 

 

The term, taken from navigation, stands for gathering data from several different sources, or with numerous methodologies.  Where data intersect, results are more reliable.   

 

Researchers have identified several types of triangulation including:  within-method, between-method, data, investigator, theory and methodological triangulation.  Within-method means two separate polls, perhaps by different companies that say the same thing.  Between method might be a poll and a focus group that produce similar results.  Data triangulation might involve qualitative or quantitative results that are much the same.  If several investigators find out the same thing, that’s triangulation.  Theory triangulation might involve a psychological and sociological explanation of behavior.  Finally, these days, using mixed methods—both qualitative and quantitative—is increasingly the norm to avoid the errors that each alone can produce.

 

  • Mixed methods.

 

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative data has been blurred for at least fifty years.  Few branches of any science have the predictability of Newtonian physics.  Current thinking is to engage in a mixture of methodologies, mentioned above.  So, a reproducible poll with a large sample that claims to be “scientifically” accurate might be cross referenced with qualitative focus groups, elite interviews and such that plumb small samples more deeply.          

 

  • Question formulation.

 

Average People don’t speak the way telephone researchers do, or the way those who write questions think they should.    It’s hard to imagine anyone constructing a questionnaire where a response could be “some good” which is a common expression in the Canadian Maritimes, or “awesome” as is currently popular.  The California “Valley Girl” response of “gag me with a spoon” was probably not used, even in its hay-day.

 

  • Telephone interviewers.

 

In addition to the long pause, script reading and intrusion, some companies balk at long distance charges, skewing data to urban respondents.  For decades, first year social scientists have been warned that telephone surveys obviously only gather information from those with telephones.  Triangulation is the antidote.

 

 

Social scientists are supposed to keep notes, tapes and a reflexive diary to examine themselves as a scientific instrument while they are examining other people or issues.  Commercial researchers would rarely do this.  

 

  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

 

The use of a particular research instrument has an effect on the outcome of the research.  Heisenberg stated, “[o]n the level of molecular research, the presence of the experimenter is certain to affect the results in a way which cannot be measured”.

 

The mere fact that a pollster calls up respondents has such affect.  Asking about certain topics that the respondent might not be concerned with, puts that matter on the public agenda.  Moreover, researchers cannot control for the myriad other variables in that respondent’s life.

 

In the end, perhaps my premise is flawed.  Perhaps we are not the best educated generation the world has ever seen.  We have more degrees and a multiplicity of choices in methods, but may lack the clarity and professionalism of previous generations.  Pity, we need that clarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anamatics

Competitive advantage can be achieved in a political campaign through the better use of a blackboard and chalk, more phone lines for the phone bank, more volunteerdrivers or better use of new technology.  We’re never sure which technological wave will stick and which one will affect the outcome of a particular campaign.  I speculated about such things after reviewing candidate and party web pages for the network television program “Politics”, hosted by Don Newman. 

 

A recent all candidates’ debate during a national leaders’ campaign got me thinking about one of my pet peeves—research.  Below, I offer some upgrades to the unscientific focus group—a mainstay of modern research.

 

I was just asked to review the performances of 11 politicians in an all candidates’ debate months before voting.  Since anything can happen in even a month in politics, I struggled with what perspective I would offer on a TV show called “Politics”.

 

Issues could change, candidates can drop out, scandals can hit and so on   I saw little point in reviewing content and policy so early in a campaign  I remembered an old technique from focus groups.  It sometimes pays to show a candidate talking on video with no sound and get reactions to the body language only.  It’s revealing the specific information respondents produce based on watching a silent picture of a candidate speaking.  They are reacting to eye contact, facial expressions, speaking vs listening time and intensity in listening, among many other factors.

 

I asked the TV network to pull short clips of all candidates so I could review them in split screen with no sound each was speaking with the audience or debating other candidates.

 

Here’s what we found.  First, several candidates were spending most of their time reading.  If you have to read “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to be here with you”—you have a real problem.  Surely you can remember you’re pleased to be somewhere.  Live audiences and TV viewers will not vote for the top of a candidate’s head while the head reads a speech.

 

The next thing that was obvious was the candidates who did not appear to be comfortable in their own skin.  This seems to be an intangible matter, but audiences know it when they see it.  A stiff delivery, awkward gestures, fidgeting, pacing and other things that would put you off in a party, also put audiences off in large political venues.  Conversely, a candidate who can step to the side of the podium, reach out with a natural double hand gesture look at ease and smile has a huge advantage over those who cling to the podium and script.

 

The value of testing politicians’ performances with no sound is just one way to get more value out of a focus group.  Another is anamatics.  That’s a catch-all word that means make the testing as close to reality as possible.

 

Here’s how it can work in politics.  Most focus groups sit eight to ten people around a board table while a client watches from behind two way mirrors.  Depending on what you’re testing, this can be such an unrealistic atmosphere in which you don’t really learn much.

 

Take campaign literature, householders or direct mail pieces.  People don’t sit around a board table with strangers reacting to paper being passed around the table.  How about throwing the odd-mail piece or brochure on the floor with a bunch of other mail and see if anyone picks it up?  How about leaving a bunch of material on the board room table and leaving the participants alone to see if any of them show any interest in the stuff?  If not, you have a big problem that asking their opinions of the graphics won’t fix.

 

My New York partner, Ken Kansas, helped invent anamatics during decades of high end attitudinal research, directing ad agencies and funding civic arts projects.  He advocates testing a TV commercial in graphic story-board treatment only.  Audiences are sophisticated enough to review production techniques and ignore the content.  What are you electing, a video editor, graphic artist or a candidate?  Story boards cause an audience to review the steak, not just the sizzle.

 

Then, instead of showing test audiences the commercial in a false setting like a board room, how about a room set up like a living room with a couch, newspapers and other distractions normally found in the home. This might test whether people are interested in the commercial at all.

 

How about actually using someone’s basement TV room into which the homeowner invites all the neighbours?  How about stripping the ad into the actual TV show in which it will run and surrounding it with other ads so the audience’s reaction is tested in a realistic setting.  Ken used to take such ads to shopping centres and run hundreds of people through a room over a few days to get a large sample and increase the reliability of the data.

 

Since Ken did his work, new technology presents new possibilities.  Focus group respondents can be picked up in a van equipped with video screens.  As they are being driven to the alleged focus group room, they can be shown a real TV show with the ads to be tested stripped in.  During the drive the people can be watched to see how much attention they pay.  Once in the focus group room they can be debriefed on what they remember.  If it’s nothing, it’s back to the drawing board.  There’s no point in making them look at an ad and react to it if they wouldn’t voluntarily watch at.  The same technique can be used with even better results with radio ads in the van, since it’s more realistic to listen to the radio than watch TV in a vehicle.

 

In industry, empathic testing means using a real person in a real kitchen to test a real coffee pot.  There are documented cases of manufacturers learning valuable lessons that save or make them millions.

 

The lesson in politics is surely that the candidate should be tested in realistic circumstances too.  Whatever else motivates voters, they are surely voting to put that candidate in their living room TV sets multiple times per week over the duration of the mandate.  So, it’s in real living rooms, in real TV programs that the candidate should be tested.

 

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On Line At New York

Outside the Helen Hayes Theatre, waiting for the doors to open, a very agitated male teenager passed on the sidewalk.  He was walking briskly and talking in a loud voice with himself.  He was also gesticulating, and in so-doing was using up all the free airspace in all directions.

“What’s the matter with him?” asked the woman on the line ahead of me.

“’T’s an angry young man.  What can I tell you?” replied her husband, as indulgent as he could sound.

This was my introduction to blasé New Yorkers.

Slowly the line shortened and I was up at the wicket at Lincoln Center.  I was mostly interested in seeing the spectacular setting and inside of the 16 acre site—home of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet.  I was ready to listen or watch.  As it became my turn at the wicket, I asked:

“What’s playing?”  

Wicket keeper:  “Joo-lee-us Cee-ah.”

I guess I paused for a New York beat too long, so wicket man added:

“’Ts an Apra”

I bought a ticket and achieved all my goals.  

I would regularly walk on near the Ed Sullivan Theatre, home of the old David Letterman Show.  I watched the show on hundreds of occasions, and was in the studio audience several times.  I’d  occasionally stop in to chat with Rupert Gee, the deli-operator who was also a regular guest on Letterman.  Rupert is as he appears on TV—a little startled with the attention, but sincere.

On one occasion there was a big crowd extending down the block.  I thought perhaps Rupert was having a sale of special deli sandwiches.

No, it was a lineup to see someone coming in or leaving the stage door of the theatre.  This is where the guests came and went.  This time I was the talkative New York street performer:

“Who’s all this for?”

“Wa-keen Phoenix” said my fellow street performer.

This was early in Mr Phoenix’s career.  I guess after all my trips to New York I still paused a New York moment too long, because an older woman in the crowd showed some empathy:

“Ever since Frank Sinatra died, I don’t know any of them.

Way out in the Rockaways, I ran out of gas.  My GPS told me there was a gas station close by and so I locked my wife in the car and began walking.  The GPS was wrong and the gas station had closed.  I thought of lining up at a bus stop, but didn’t know how often busses came or where they went.  I lined up at a red light and thought I’d hitch hike.  Up came a convertible Thunderbird.  I could see inside and the driver could see me.  I explained my situation and asked for a ride.

“Sure” he said as he started moving a mountain of stuff off his passenger seat to the small spaces in the back of the car and between the seats.

“Oh, don’t worry, if you see my gun, I’m a cop.”

I pointed to a spot of blood on my shirt, and said:

“Great, and if you notice the blood on my shirt, I’m not an axe murderer, I just reached into my shaving kit this morning and cut my finger on my razor.”

“No problem.  Get in.”

Unlike so many New York stories, this man was a cop, seconded to the Triborough Bridge, and I wasn’t an axe murderer.  Many people go to the Big Apple to reinvent themselves.  Others remain who they actually are.      

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Boston’s Wake Up Call

Where I live in Canada, Boston is well known for a few things. First, it’s “Maritimers’ Heaven.” Folks from the Canadian provinces bordering on the Atlantic Ocean, think Boston is pretty special and sophisticated. Boston is also known as a tough town.

Boston’s urban emergency plan and the Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change are a couple of tough documents, befitting a tough town. Boston’s not fooling around or mincing words. Alone among the 100 city emergency plans I’ve studied, Boston notes that it only has food on hand for 3-5 days and many facilities are located in a flood zone. So a severe winter storm or torrential rain could cause widespread hunger.

Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

But it turns out that Boston is actually doing something about the weather, and that makes it a leader in urban emergency planning. The Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change shows the way.   

A combination of sea level rising and soil erosion could spell big trouble for cities on water.

What’s the threat? Boston’s excellent emergency plan notes that the weather in Massachusetts may be more like the Carolinas by the end of this century. Since 1991 most of Boston’s emergencies have been caused by flooding.  There’s been a bad winter storm almost every year in Boston and winter precipitation could rise by 16% according to the Mayor’s climate change report.  One hundred year floods could occur every 2 or 3 years by 2050.  

There are already hundreds of deaths per year in the US because of extreme heat and that could get worse as Boston warms up. When the temperature goes up, crime in the streets goes down, but domestic violence goes up. Heat means more danger for the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Heat means more sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and other diseases.

There is an alarming inventory of vulnerable facilities in Boston, including those which will be needed to respond to emergencies — schools, 1500 units of public housing, 430 miles of roads, half the Centers for Youth & Families, one-third of all emergency shelters and more than 900 critical facilities are susceptible to flooding. Many ambulances are parked on streets and thus immobile in a snowstorm. Even the roof leaks in the Emergency Operations Center.     

Flooding is also a major health hazard since it circulates pollutants. Heat brings in new insects and diseases, such as West Nile.  

Somebody in Boston has done world class research, such as noting that the 1929 Newfoundland tsunami which killed 28 people—a fact many Canadians wouldn’t know.

Someone has actually noted the dangers of the weather in outer space. Solar storms could disable 300 large transformers in the US and cut power to 130 million people.  

Here’s where Boston is doing more than talking. A park on “Parcel 5” has been designed to help with drainage and surging tides. Boston’s plan calls for elevating and relocation boilers, electrical panels and computers. There’s also talk of modifying work schedules, spray mists and water stations at outdoor events. It’s not enough to use water pumps to keep roadways open during floods, Boston is talking about using absorbent paving materials.  New types of asphalt will absorb and even filter water so it can go back into the drinking water supply, not into people’s basements.

There’s always more work to be done. More trees and landscaping is a solution to both heat and flooding. About 35% of Bostonians don’t have a private vehicle, 10% are over 65, and 22% have disabilities. How will Boston evacuate neighbourhoods or move people around during an emergency? Where will the food come from?

Boston’s plan proves that simple, innovative solutions can save money and lives.

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First Order of Political Business

Citizens who are hard at work, raising children, going to school and raising social capital might assume that there’s a good division of labour in the community.  They’d be right to assume that the first duty of politicians is to keep citizens safe and thus political leaders have lead the police, fire, EMS, and other first responders to make effective emergency plans.

 

But this isn’t always the case.

 

Many world cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.

 

Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist. Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.

 

Where does Auckland, New Zealand fit in? Auckland’s Emergency Management Group Plan 2010-2015 is a wake up call for the rest of the world. In a study that I conducted of 100 urban emergency plans from the top English-speaking cities in the world, none face up to lack of preparedness the way Auckland does. Auckland’s plan notes that only about 7% of its residents are prepared for an emergency. This means go bags, first aid kits, stiffening up homes for high winds, preparing for floods and so forth. For a city built in a volcanic field, this may seem alarmingly low, but it’s the truth.  Some Ontario response officials claim that 50% of the population is prepared, and I don’t believe it.

 

Knowing the impact of a disaster can be a good first step to preparing for it. So Auckland’s plan also notes the economic consequences of disasters. The estimate is that a severe natural event such as a volcano could have a catastrophic economic impact. Page 8 of the plan notes that there could be a reduction in GDP of 47% in the city of Auckland and 14% nationally. This is double the impact of the Great Depression.

 

Compare this to San Francisco’s plan, for instance, and you’ll see what an improvement Auckland’s plan is. San Francisco’s Hazard Mitigation Plan includes a section on “seismic hazards.” Surprisingly this is mostly about distinguishing among earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis. A brief history of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the event of those emergencies, nor any assessment of the effect that they might have.

 

Why don’t cities in California note the potential negative impact of an earthquake? How about American cities in Tornado Alley? What about the impact of climate change on cities everywhere?

No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take. Auckland’s plan rightly notes that “it is not possible to completely remove risk.” It’s important to be flexible and realistic.  Too few cities use pictures to show the risk the way Auckland does, and I don’t recall one that speaks of the “emotional, social, economic and physical well being of individuals and communities.”  There might be one other city that notes the danger from solar winds.  The right kind of storm can knock out power to 131 million Americans, but I don’t see Americans particularly worried about this.

There’s always room for improvement in evacuation, shelter in place, emergency kits, and so on.  But Auckland is on a better track than the vast majority of plans I’ve seen.

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For Safety’s Sake…Think Again

We often assume the police, fire, EMS, mayor, and other first responders are fulfilling their duties to keep us safe.

 

But according to my studies of plans from the top 100 English-speaking cities in the world, this isn’t always the case.

 

Many of our cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.

 

Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist.  Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.  Contra-flow for evacuations, with all roads leading out, has been called potentially life-threatening by researchers.  

 

Where does San Francisco fit in?

 

San Francisco has two main emergency plans: the All-Hazards Strategic Plan and the Hazard Mitigation Plan

 

The biggest strength of San Francisco’s All-Hazards Strategic Plan is the emphases on a comprehensive training program for city workers, the use of volunteers, and social media.

 

But the All-Hazards plan was last updated six years before I studied it, and the plan has not followed the maintenance schedule set for it. Moreover, when I studied it, I found myself wondering whether anyone is really safer as a result of reading San Francisco’s statements describing how the plan was developed or what the visions, missions, and guiding principles of it are. It’s hard to see how these help anyone prepare for an emergency, but they take up about a quarter of the plan.

 

The Hazard Mitigation Plan is different. It’s newer that the All-Hazards plan. But it has some of the same problems.

 

The Hazard Mitigation Plan is full of very general statements and is often overly preoccupied with semantics definitions. The section on “seismic hazards,” for example is mostly about distinguishing earthquakes from landslides and tsunamis. A brief history of the effect of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the even of those emergencies.  How does it help  victims to be absolutely sure they are being swept away by a landslide versus a tsunami or earthquake?

 

It looks as though San Francisco’s plans were not intended for the general public. They offer hardly any information on individualized, micro-level measures that citizens can take to prepare themselves to deal with emergencies.

 

No city’s crisis plan is perfect. But a good plan can mean the difference between a well-handled crisis and disaster which can cost lives.

 

Some other cities’ emergency plans do have something serious to say — Boston’s climate change study, Kansas City’s dealing with pets, for whom residents will risk their lives, and Richmond, B.C.’s links to great information on personal preparedness. These are just some of the elements that stand out and which could be duplicated by other cities.

 

If San Francisco or any other city lacks the money or time to write a better plan, the best advice from publicly available plans could be cut and paste it into a better document than is on most websites in North America.

 

Some of the plans, including San Francisco’s may have been updated in the months since I read them. No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take, so it’s important to be flexible and learn from the experiences of other cities.  But the main focus should be on useful, clear information for the average citizen.  

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The City of the Future

 

I’ve always thought of Seattle as a symbol of modernity.  Growing up in Vancouver, I viewed the Space Needle as an example of American prosperity and progress.  It reached toward outer space while the monorail sleeked along the ground toward the future.  I now live in Toronto, but visit Seattle when I can, to keep in touch with the future. 

  

The world almost missed getting these two lasting symbols from the 1962 World’s Fair.  The Fair was originally going to be called The Festival of the West, as hard as it is to mix cowboys and technology—Broncos and Boeing.  More futuristic heads prevailed and the fair became known as the Century 21 Exposition with the motto “Living in the Space Age.”  The Fair turned a profit and left a legacy of civic amenities and revitalization. 

 

Edward E. Carlson, one of the great civic boosters of any time and any city, extracted a victory within a victory.  He famously drew the Space Needle on a napkin, obtained funding for the project, started it a little late, but finished on time.  The Space Needle retired it’s debt in 18 months.  It now has a new pod for more weddings and parties.

 

My book Safer Cities of the Future is a study of better urban experiences through better design.  I began the book with a picture of the Space Needle and the Seattle skyline.  I recounted the story of Mr Carlson and the world’s fair as an example that we get things right occasionally.

 

It’s a lifetime later and Mr. Carlson and Seattle should be remembered for success and foresight.  But now we have new challenges — terrorism, a sluggish economy, severe weather events and little faith in space, the future, or in anything.  This is where Seattle can lead the world again.

 

Seattle’s All Hazards Mitigation plan is one of the best I’ve studied. It offers a very realistic view of the risk of floods, earthquakes, and terrorism. The plan notes, for example, that 32.75% of Seattle’s housing stock was built before 1939, an astonishingly high percentage considering that the seismic building code dates from 1992. If there were a serious earthquake, the damage could be enormous and could come at a very high cost. Seattle’s plan notes that property damage claims against the city have totalled as much as $12 million since 2006. In the event of a serious storm or earthquake the cost would be exponentially higher.

 

Seattle’s plan also includes a detailed summary of activities to mitigate the impact of earthquakes. These include upgrades to buildings to correct structural deficiencies, disaster recovery needs for all IT systems, and replacement of older underground cables. And the plan notes that city departments, the police, and public utilities have all received briefings and training in order to prepare them for seismic events.

 

These are all steps in the right direction. But Seattle’s plan could be improved by including specific instructions for residents on what to do or where to go in the event of earthquakes, floods, or other disasters; what to take with them; and even how to ensure the safety of their pets.

 

Don’t get me wrong: no plan is perfect, and there are some very good plans out there that Seattle could borrow from. Auckland, New Zealand, for instance is the only plan I’ve seen that precisely quantifies the economic cost of a volcanic eruption. Kansas City has a unique plan for rescuing citizens’ pets. And Boston’s plan for dealing with climate change is an excellent example for all other coastal cities.
Most plans leave much to be desired.  But Seattle’s is a template for progress.  

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Stirred, not Shaken

 

Every now and then the topic of earthquakes comes up in Vancouver.  The most recent event was the 4.8 quake on 29 December, 2015.  I have worked on the topic of earthquakes for federal authorities for some years and continue to follow the issue.

Vancouver’s emergency planning documents put the risk of an earthquake in perspective.  They note that 60% of Vancouver’s building stock was built before seismic building codes.   There’s been no damaging earthquake in modern times and so all these buildings are vulnerable. 

Interestingly, my father was partly responsible for construction of one of the first earthquake resistant buildings in Vancouver — 200 Granville Square.  I remember first hearing about earthquakes when I lived in Burnaby in the late 1960s.  I was a young teenager and my father was General Manager of “Project 200”, an early attempt to revamp the waterfront.  Nobody played nicely, not even consortium members Woodwords, Canadian Pacific, Grosvenor Lang, or Sears.  City planners didn’t react quickly or lead the discussion, and neither the federal nor provincial government seemed interested.  Project 200 is another story—a missed opportunity.  But the earthquake resistant building is highly relevant today.

 

There was a lot made about Granville Square.  It was among the first density transfers of its kind in North America with my father having to help obtain a mortgage for the air above the CP railway tracks.  Usually mortgages are for land and buildings, but this building was built on stilts above the CP railway tracks. 

While this deal was being done and the building designed, my father would regale us at the dinner table about his day at work.  One day it was the promotional copy that told of the “giant pedestrian mall” that would abut Granville Square.  “And where will you find the giant pedestrians?” I asked.  Another night my father toyed with some promotional copy that would tell the story of Granville Square being the only building left standing after a major earthquake.  He thought it would be fun to tell potential tenants that they’d be able to work in peace, quiet, and safety, if only they could climb over the rubble of all the other buildings in the city.

 

In those days, earthquake-proofing a building meant constructing sockets, lined with neoprene on which concrete pillars stood, which in turn held up the building.  My father said he had no idea what neoprene ended up like after he’d put a building weighing many hundreds of tonnes on top of it.  He certainly had no idea how to perform maintenance on the assembly after construction.

 

Now, Vancouver’s plan goes well beyond building materials. Memoranda of Understanding with other Canadian cities are now part of the plan in order to ensure rapid deployment of resources after a disaster.  Similarly, the Vancouverites are recommended to reduce dependency on electricity and natural gas grids and develop back-up power sources. Even if buildings are still standing after an earthquake, supply lines and energy infrastructure might be severely damaged or destroyed.

 

Even the best-designed earthquake-proof building might need to be evacuated in case of fire or other emergency. This is why Vancouver’s plan requires buildings’ structural drawings and fire plans to be copied and stored centrally in order to speed-up assessment of complex and high occupancy dwellings.

There’s more to be done in Vancouver and neighbouring cities.  Some have designated disaster routes (DDRs) and others don’t.  Some link to useful provincial government preparedness documents, and others don’t. We’ve never sure how many individual citizens are well prepared and would rather not find out after an earthquake.   

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Flight Out of Danger

It’s hard to warn people to stay clear of dangerous situations. Motorists will remove road barriers and drive right into danger. They’ll even use logging roads to get around road closures. Vague direction to “be aware” or “take shelter” may be misunderstood or ignored by many.

 

For the most part, urban emergency plans are dominated by vague jargon and buzzwords. Aspirational statements about emergencies abound, but few plans offer real solutions to crisis situations, or even realistic language.


But thankfully, Jacksonville/Duval County has taken a few steps in the right direction when it comes to public safety. Instead of vague directions to stay safe, Jacksonville provides vivid descriptions of the danger. A hurricane is described as “…a bulldozer clearing everything in its path…” Flying debris in a windstorm is called “…a battering ram destroying objects in its way…”

 

This sort of language is a wake up call for people who have not lived through a serious storm and just think of high winds or a big wave of water as good fun.


I might need similar creativity to help Floridians understand the danger in a Canadian snow storm. I wouldn’t want people thinking of big fluffy flakes of snow, as in a Disney cartoon. I’d want them to think about thousands of pins and needles hitting their faces, flesh freezing in minutes, and air so cold it’s hard to breathe.


There’s another reality check in Jacksonville. The plan notes that “temperature-related deaths in Florida exceed those caused by hurricanes and tornadoes combined.” For all those who go to Florida for the warm weather, this is a useful alert.


Most of the 100 urban emergency plans that I studied don’t have Jacksonville’s creative and effective way of describing a threat.

 

Some use Quantitative Risk Analysis (QRA) with complex formulae 
and decimal points. These are lost on most people, including me, and I’ve been trained in QRA. Others have the useful direction to make sure your drinking water isn’t poison after a flood, but no indication of how to do this. Jacksonville is a leader in plain speaking and simple warnings.


It’s also smart to use the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Dora to remind people of the danger and pictures to tell the story, including vividly showing a storm surge.


No plan is perfect. There’s work to be done on Jacksonville’s plan too. The public doesn’t need or understand the pages of legal authorities, information on appeals to FEMA, 18 pages of civic boosterism, and less than fascinating acts. Is the public any safer reading that “…the PW goes to the FCO for approval. If there is a disagreement on the PW, it is returned to the applicant for resolution of the discrepancy. The second review, conducted by FEMA staff, is done before final approval of the FCO. If the PW is approved, it is forwarded to the ECO for approval.”

 

The language here could be simplified, but I wonder if that information is really necessary at all.


Official responders don’t need their own job descriptions in a plan. Nevertheless, the Jacksonville plan includes these. Jacksonville’s plan also includes something that they call the “Planning P”: an informational graphic designed to explain how to assess and respond to a threat. The “Planning P” may be good graphic art, but it’s unique in the emergency response field and not easily understood. Best to stick with plain English.

 

Windshileld surveys (driving around) and flyovers are out of date now that drones have been invented. If wedding photographers can benefit from drones, so can 
emergency responders.

 

The high points in Jacksonville’s plan are a reminder that those dedicated to saving lives can never stop putting better systems in place.  

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Houston Has Solved a Problem

 

The communications component of a crisis is often as much of a challenge as is the crisis itself.

Former Exxon Chair, the late Larry Rawl, was famously told in a congressional hearing that if the Valdez oil spill had happened in Japan the entire management team would resign to let others take over.

Mr. Rawl snapped back that the Japanese also kill themselves and he refused to do that. BP’s Tony Hayward, trying to manage the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and fire in the Gulf of Mexico ironically said he wanted his life back. This was a thoughtless comment given that eleven of his colleagues had actually disappeared in the disaster and were never seen again.

These unfortunate remarks happened on the international stage, but the same insensitivity can sink response to a local event too. Although there’s little advice on public communication in most of 100 urban emergency plans that I’ve studied, but Houston’s plan sets a very good tone.

“Be courteous and don’t play favorites…” is a solid start. Newsmakers say the darndest things to reporters, calling them left or right wing, saying their questions are stupid, or that they’ve asked the wrong question. This kind of abrasive behaviour would get you ostracized at a dinner party, and why some newsmakers think it will help the relationship with reporters is unfathomable.

Courtesy doesn’t cost anything and takes less time than discourtesy. The advice not to play favourites doesn’t work.  A newsmaker does have to deal with reporters on deadline ahead of feature writers whose magazine will publish a month later. But with all reporters on the same deadline, they should all be treated much the same.  One confusing matter these days is that most media also have websites with print, audio and video on them—so determining deadlines is tough.

Houston’s plan goes on: “avoid ‘off the record’ remarks…Never say anything you would not want to see printed or broadcast…” This sounds obvious, like not volunteering to a traffic cop what’s in your glove compartment if it’s inappropriate.

Many newsmakers think they will ingratiate themselves with a few juicy “off the record” remarks. But this raises a question.  What does it mean to have a remark “off the record…on background…on deep background…not for attribution…”? There’s no consistent definition among reporters, news outlets or spokespeople. Oh…except that what’s off the record is what you didn’t say.

“Listen to the reporter’s questions” is good advice in an emergency because if reporters have to make a public point of repeating the same question, it sounds as if you’re being evasive.

“Don’t accept the reporter’s definitions of what happened…Pause, think; take more time if you need it…” is logical advice from Houston’s plan writers, because by definition you, the expert, know what happened, what the issue is, and what can be discussed better than a reporter who has just arrived on the scene. If you don’t know, say so and also say when you might know.  You can also say that one of your colleagues might know.  Or you can say that no one may ever know.  What’s the truth?

“Respond only to the question you’ve been asked. Don’t speculate. Stick to the core message” is even more powerful advice if you recognize that the reporter might not be on the right track and adding safe, rehearsed, powerful information can be a good upgrade. But this can’t be done on the spur of the moment.

All cities need pre-written messages, policies and fact sheets to give reporters the ammunition they need to fill pages and newscasts in an emergency.

No urban emergency plan is perfect, but Houston’s sets a high standard for communication policy.

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