Focus Groups

 

I’ve written often about the concerns I have with research techniques.  This column was inspired by my attendance at a focus group.

 

I was just asked to attend some focus groups and I was reminded of the dozen or so reasons I don’t like them.

 

First, rich and busy people usually won’t attend, skewing data to a narrow demographic.  This would taint research in a decent undergraduate social science class.  Worse, focus group companies know where they can get repeat attendees on short notice.  These are often students, the unemployed or at least people who live near the focus group facilities.  All of this taints the data, too.

 

In this particular focus group I feel a twinge as soon as the leader walks in the room.  She is too talkative, as if trying to entertain a client, not conduct research.  Conducting professional scientific research is a learned skill.  Notice I use the term scientific and do not make a distinction with social science.

 

About fifty years ago Heisenberg said the instrument used in a laboratory experiment affects the results of the experiment—the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  A thermometer used to measure temperature changes the temperature of the thing it’s measuring.  In 1962, Kuhn pointed out that scientists have a tendency to collect data that supports their views and ignore that which conflicts.  He used the term paradigms to describe this phenomenon.  Merton and Feyerabend discussed how science is a value laden pursuit, driven by those performing the science.

 

So the focus group leader is in a difficult position.  Waltzing in like the star of the show, trying to impress, performing for the client behind the two-way mirror or any other false behaviour can make that position untenable and skew the data.

 

A focus group leader should dress and talk one step up from the subjects in the room.  S/he is there for scientific purposes to gather data, not make friends or entertain.

 

Most focus groups begin way too quickly.  The leader should allow discussion to evolve slowly with open ended questions to see what the respondents want to discuss.  Closed, specific questions, especially ones that can be answered with “yes” or “no” or a short sentence won’t reveal as much as an open ended questions encouraging discussion.

 

Closed questions yield what researchers call an aided response.  The questions tell respondents what to talk about.  Open questions yield an unaided response where the respondents can tell researchers what to think about—the way it should be!

 

In the focus group I was in recently, we were testing confidential matters.  But let’s say it was reactions to Candidate X.  One of the first questions was, “What kind of car do you think Candidate X drives?”

 

This sparks a discussion of myriad types of cars.  I’m reminded that some people follow car models more than others.  Some may name one car thinking it’s the sportiest on the market, while another person may name the same model because it represents fuel efficiency, economy or some other attribute.

 

In the end, without knowing what respondents mean by the car models they name, you end up with a mish-mash of information that could mean anything.  “Cadillac” means luxury, high-price, high fuel consumption and perhaps the ability of American industry to compete with anyone on the planet.  Who knows?

 

But if there really were value in the car question, it should have begun in an open ended fashion such as, ”How does Candidate X get around the district or campaign trail?”

 

Respondents might name trains, boats, planes and cars.  If we find out people think the candidate flies around in a private jet, that could be a problem.  If cars are really relevant, after an open discussion of other types of travel, the closed ended question could be asked about what kind of car the candidate uses.

 

In the focus group I watched, one respondent got up on his hind legs and said he didn’t think the candidate used a car.  It takes guts to challenge an authority figure and say the question is wrong.  If a respondent does that, it’s a very powerful message that you could be on the wrong track.

 

Next the leader held up pages from the candidate’s web page, passed them around and asked for a review.  That’s not how people use web pages, so it’s hard to tell what was being tested.

 

Next, the leader passed around literature that the candidate regularly sends out.  The question was, “What do you like about the brochures, householders and other communication?”

 

I have two problems with this line of questioning.  First, it misses the opportunity to find out if anybody remembers getting anything in the mail from the candidate.  People may feel boxed into saying they received and remembered the material, when the most valuable information might be that they didn’t.  Next, what if people hate the literature?  Asking what they like about it, cuts off the discussion about what they don’t like.

 

People like to be cooperative when being paid, so you have to be careful they aren’t so cooperative that you don’t find out what they’re really thinking.

 

Next came the Barbara Walters question.  She was famous for asking an interviewee, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

 

In this session, respondents were shown pictures of all kinds of people—young, old, various races, both genders and so on.  As they are looking at the pictures, the leader asks, “If the candidate’s campaign were a person, what person would it be?”

 

Not only is the question a bit odd, it’s hard to tell what people mean when they pick a picture of a fit, muscular looking man.  Does mean the campaign is intimidating, full of thugs or has staying power for the long run?  Next, respondents start answering questions that weren’t asked.  One picks the construction worker because the candidate comes from a part of the district where there’s lots of construction.  Another picks the young Asian woman because the district is becoming more multi-cultural. Some seem to be picking people they find attractive or would like to be with, not who embody the campaign.  This ends in another mish-mash of unusable information.

 

I innocently asked the client where the pictures came from?  It turns out employees of the research company picked them.  They may use them every session, for all I know.  Regardless, it does not make a lot of sense to me to have respondents judging pictures picked either at random or purposefully by a research company to make their sessions go more smoothly.

 

Next, the leader asks what does the person in the picture do for a living, and what does the person do on weekends?  (I assume the construction worker works in construction).

 

Ironically, after going to all this trouble to stimulate fairly irrelevant discussion, the leader cuts off dialogue by asking if anyone has any final thoughts?  When the leader leaves the room to get more instructions from the client, I listen in to the continuing discussion in the focus group room.  It’s actually a better discussion, unaided by the leader.  One older woman began waxing nostalgic about the district, the party and the candidate.

 

So, what’s the right approach?  There are lots of them.  Credible scientists use several different methods and compare them to obtain more reliable data.  Polls, questionnaires, elite interviews with opinion leaders and lay-elite dialogues to see where there are gaps between those in the know and regular folks can all help.  So can old-fashioned research.  Online databases now make is really easy to search everything from newspapers to academic journals.  For all a campaign knows five distinguished academics and journalists have written 10,000 excellent words on the topic over the years.

 

Focus groups can be helpful, if run properly.  But they also need to be augmented with sound, old-fashioned research, preferably in libraries, surrounded by musty books.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.      

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.  

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.  

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.   

Today in History: July 16th

1992: Statistics Canada says inflation dropped to an annual rate of 1.1% in June, which is the lowest in 30 years, since John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister in 1962.

For more on politics: Buy ‘Political Conventions’

1990: More than 1,000 people are killed when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake strikes Luzon Island in the Philippines. Heroic rescue efforts saved many, but some victims who did not die as buildings collapsed were found dead later from dehydration because they were not pulled out in time.

For more on crisis management: Buy ‘An Ounce of Prevention’

1969: Apollo 11, the spaceflight which first landed humans on the Moon, takes off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, crewed by commander Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

See also Canada in Space

Today in History: July 12th

1995:  A heat advisory is issued in Chicago, warning of a record-breaking heat wave. By the time the heat breaks a week later, nearly 1,000 people are killed. Record high use of air conditioning caused some power failures. People opened so many hydrants to cool themselves off that water pressure was lost. The heat warped train rails, causing delays for commuters.

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1990: Just two days after Mikhail Gorbachev is re-elected head of the Soviet Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Republic of Russia, announces his resignation from the Party. Yeltsin’s action was a serious blow to Gorbachev’s efforts to keep the struggling Soviet Union together.

1960: Louis Robichaud is sworn in as Premier of New Brunswick, replacing Hugh John Flemming.

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Today in History: July 10th

1971: Death of Samuel Bronfman, prominent Canadian businessman.

Tough Love at the Table – Pipe Cleaner

1958: Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President Dwight Eisenhower sign an agreement to have Canada and the United States set up a Joint Committee to guide North American defences in the event of enemy attack.

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1887: A dam breaks in Switzerland, killing 70 people in their homes. The water pressure on the dam slowly eroded the concrete. Rescue boats launched to assist people caught up in the sudden flood were ineffective, as some of those on the boats drowned when they capsized in the roiling waters. For more on Crisis Management: Buy ‘An Ounce of Prevention’.

Today in History: July 9th

2010: Prime Minister Stephen Harper appoints legal scholar David Johnston the next governor general.

1991: In St. Lazare, Manitoba, 400 residents flee their homes when a train carrying highly corrosive acetic anhydride derails. The emergency evacuation ends after six days. For more on Crisis Management:Click Here

1960: President Dwight Eisenhower and and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev trade verbal threats over the future of Cuba. The relationship between the United States and Cuba deteriorated rapidly after this exchange. The Castro regime accelerated its program of expropriating American-owned property. In response, the Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.