Recommendations 2: Part 2 – How to “hide the decline”

Some local agencies and organizations provide some data, and some times, information, on their web sites – but sometimes they practice “hide the decline”. We do not know if this is due to lack of resources, is inadvertent, is an “honest mistake”, is due to sloppiness or carelessness, incompetence or deliberate decision to hide something, or that my common sense interpretation of what I see is just weird. We don’t know.

But if you want to hide the decline, some of the examples may give you some ideas 🙂

These examples involve good to outstanding organizations who are usually doing good to outstanding work. These comments are intended as suggestions for improvement and should be taken that way. They may be embarrassing to a few people – I am sorry if that is the case. The goal is to show how improvements can be made to make these items better!

Spokane International Airport – Lots of Numbers

SIA is a fine airport and has done a lot very good things. But sharing data?  Not where they need to be. I’ve covered this item already and am repeating this here in part to show what it took to get to the actual data and turn it into useful information.

The airport’s long term passenger load has been approximately flat since 1996. But you would not discover this unless you tortuously went through the tables of numbers they provide, but spread across many pages and many links. And you would definitely not know this because the historic data back to 1995 was well hidden on the web site. When you click on a link for the data for a single month, you see a URL like this: http://spokaneairports.net/Pass_stats/12-10ep.pdf

If you delete the filename at the end to leave http://spokaneairports.net/Pass_stats/

you obtain the full file directory of older data going back many years. While painstaking, each monthly report can be transcribed, by hand, into spreadsheet, and turned into a useful chart.

Hidden deep within this file directory is a document named historic.pdf that provides historic data. There is no clickable link on the airports web site to access this data. But the file becomes visible if you use the trick to truncate the URL as shown.

Regardless of the effort to get to the data, it should not be hidden. SIA should have charts up on their web site.  Making it visible would help local leadership make informed decisions.

When this data was combined with a forecast chart in the airport’s master plan (issued in 2000), we saw that the forecast was wrong the year it was issued and deviated further and further away from reality every year since. The forecast part of the chart had to be interpolated from a chart printed in the master plan; the data was not available.

The airport management announced in the fall of 2010 that they would – ten years later – be updating their master plan with a revision expected in 2011.

By comparison, check out SeaTac Airport Statistics. The PDF reports at the top create some nice charts (would be better if they were visible on the web page) and data can be downloaded in .xls spreadsheet files. Here’s an example of how SeaTac makes their data accessible – I just opened their PDF report:

I tried to identify the money spent on infrastructure improvements at SIA over the past decade. That information is not obviously available on the SIA web site. I eventually found it in an EWU study on economic effects of the airport (about $190 million of improvements over the past 8 years). Historic and trend data on revenues and spending should be easily available to the public so we know how our fee and tax money is being spent. This applies to all local governments.

I think SIA is a fine airport – the new airport director and management will likely do a better job of sharing important information with stakeholders in the future.

Washington State University – Funny Press Releases

I am big supporter of WSU; we need more support for higher education in this state, not less. And I will discuss that further in Part 3 and Part 4.

With that in mind, I found the following example to be funny. The following text appeared in the 2010 press release on spring semester enrollment. Similar wording was used in 2009 and 2011. Can you spot the odd one out?

The university’s fastest-growing campus continues to be WSU Tri-Cities, which enrolled 1,508 students, an increase of 160 or 11.9 percent over last spring. Enrollment at WSU Vancouver is 2,892, up 105 students or 3.8 percent over spring 2009.

The Pullman and Spokane campuses, which are considered one campus for state enrollment reporting purposes, showed an overall increase of 1.3 percent or 265 students over spring 2009. The Pullman campus enrollment is 18,629 students and WSU Spokane has 1,311 enrolled for spring.

When the enrollment rose at branch campuses, the enrollment increase was highlighted.  For WSU-Spokane, only an enrollment number is provided. That’s a data point – not information.

The omission of whether there was an increase or decrease made me laugh – this is a press release issue. The local media never noticed the decline in enrollment at WSU-Spokane.

WSU has  an Institutional Research office that provides a lot a TON of data –  on enrollments including in downloadable .xls spreadsheet format.  Charts would be nice but with easily accessible data, we can create our own charts. WSU (overall) and the IR group are doing a great job.

The chart above and below are produced by me from the enrollment data provided by WSU’s Office of Institutional Research.

It is hard to see but the blue line, which is Spokane’s enrollment, goes down. I created this chart and an accident of how I made the chart presents an interesting way to hide a decline – just cover it up with other lines on the chart! This is a common technique but blame me for this chart, not WSU!

To see the decline a bit better, here is a chart showing only the branch campus enrollments. The blue line and section represents WSU-Spokane.

WSU provides a lot of great data through their Institutional Research web site. It could be improved with more charts – but they are to be commended for providing the raw data. But the press release wording-that’s just funny!

The WSU-Spokane campus will be revisited in Part 4.

The News Media – Lacking Context

It would be helpful if local news would present trend charts showing how things have changed over time. Typically, they present the raw number someone put in the press release (like the above). Without seeing the historical trend in news reports, the story is just noise and not useful information that the reader can use for understanding.

For example, compare seeing today’s stock report with no knowledge of where the market has been yesterday, last month or during the past years.  Which is more useful? A single stock price quote or a chart? Numbers in most news stories are just numbers and devoid of important context.

When I tracked down the companies that left the area or downsized, it was hard to find out how many employees the companies once had. When a company folded or moved out, and if the closure was even covered (we cover new business openings but sometimes miss closures) some news reported the loss of employees as of the last day. But most of these companies had been downsizing for a period of time. I saw one report that said when Agilent closed, it was the loss of 99 jobs. Really? The company had been downsizing from a high of at least 1,500 staff.  Some old reports said that when contract workers, consultants, on-site vendors and others were included, the site in Liberty Lake might have had nearly 2,000 people total (SR news article quoting former Agilent Human Resource manager). Seeing the total loss in context – from between 1,500-2,000 workers is quite a bit different than reading about a loss of 99 workers (update: the SR, by the way, reported this with the full context).  When Itronix closed, 380 workers were affected. But just before that, the company had 450 workers and may be even 520 said some old news reports.

Seeing the full context helps us understand the overall impact of a business that is growing, shrinking or closing.

With all the cutbacks at the local media, I assume they lack the time and resources to do the job that they really want to do (I think this is the main issue). The problem affects many stories. For example, reports about local and state budgets never show us past budget plans, actual spending or tax revenues or trends in those values.  This is critical information needed for the reader to put the present situation into historical context and see what trends there might be in spending or taxes.

And then there’s the happy talk news – read the comments to this news story – especially the one by “Zelda” … see how leaving out the context creates a “fake but accurate” style of report.

Local Government – More Info Please!

Most local government agencies need to greatly improve their data reporting to the public.  How has their spending changed over time? Their staff? Their revenue collection?  What metrics do they collect to monitor their effectiveness? Do the metrics show improvements over time?

GreaterSpokane, Inc – Pick Cherries!

A time honored technique to minimize a decline is to just move the start or end points of your graph  – delete the data you would rather others did not see.

In 2010, I looked at patent production per 100,000 population, which is a measure sometimes used to indicate a region’s innovation capability.  GreaterSpokane, Inc (GSI), used the following table to show only a minor drop in local patent production:

The “trick” here was to set the start to 2004. In reality, the local patent production rate fell by -75% since the late 1990s. The chart above may have been due to insufficient research, an “honest mistake”, carelessness or that someone else handed them the chart and they just republished it.  They may not have been picking cherries.

GSI’s job is to promote the region. Understandably their focus is promotion and to highlight the positive. However, as a means for understanding our local economy and planning purposes, GSI’s reports can be misleading as they focus on the positive and miss the negative.

GSI’s web site also has a lot of out of date information. They need to audit every page – and verify that every claim is still true or meaningful.  For example, about 25% of their list of top local tech employers are either out of business, not actually tech companies or not local.

Various local web sites also have lists of “awards” or proclamations by magazines about life in Spokane – but most are undated. Tracking some of them down, some are old and no longer mean anything useful about today’s Spokane.

There are other examples but you get the idea.

As we will see in the next two examples, when we see sloppiness, it makes Spokane look dated, quaint and out of date. We can do a lot better than this!

Terabyte Triangle – Spokane is a High Tech Hot Spot!

This phrase “Spokane is a High Tech Hot Spot – Network World Magazine” appears on many local promotional web sites.  Unfortunately, it is not what Network World actually said. What Network World actually said all the way back in 1998 was that “Spokane is not a high tech hot spot, but is warming up“.

Inaccurate claims such as that are sloppy or untruthful. Take your pick.  Who knows where this phrasing first appeared – its on several local web sites and I suspect the claim developed a life of its own.

DowntownSpokane.org

This is a very useful web site with great information about downtown happenings.  But like the above, some pages are hopelessly out of date.

We begin with, oh dear:

  • Spokane is a high tech hot spot – Network World

Then,

  • Downtown Spokane is a great place for high-tech with more miles of fiber per capita than any other city in the nation

The “more miles of fiber per capita than any other city in the nation” is really, really old. No source has ever been provided for this old claim.

This is quote also has a life of its own across many local web sites. GSI quotes IEEE Today’s Engineer for the source of this, giving the claim a bit of authority. But some sleuthing around suggests that IEEE Today’s Engineer lifted the claim directly from a local promotional web site … nearly identical wording appears on other local web sites up to two years prior to the published story. That does not look good … And today, Spokane ranks #17 out of 19 cities in Washington for overall Internet access speed. In other words the above claim, if it was true once upon a time, is doubtfully true today. But what ever …

Going down the page, this claim is  embarrassing:

  • More than 20 Downtown buildings have been rewired to provide easy and affordable access to high-speed—and redundant—internet connectivity

Only 20? Hello? It’s 2011 and this may be a surprise but in many parts of the country, personal homes even have fiber optic connections today!

  • Spokane is already home to high-tech firms including General Dynamics, Cyan, Vivato, Telect and Itron. This clustering of mutually beneficial businesses provides a synergism that attracts businesses providing support services to help high-tech companies grow.

Except that General Dynamics (Itronix) is closed and gone, Vivato is closed and gone and Cyan and Telect have both shrunk their local presence considerably from their hey day.  But other than that …

Always a nice supportive quote:

  • “There are clusters of established companies here that high tech start-ups can draw from, plus a lot of interest in creating business to business relationships.”

Except the quoted CEO was with a start up that is no longer in business. Nice quote, too bad its not quite relevant anymore.

Other pages (and here too) are dated and should be brought up to date. The above is just a small sampling of questionable data and claims seen on local “official” web sites.

Have you spotted a pattern in promotional web sites? They are often old and out of date and say things that are no longer true.  Collectively it reflects badly on Spokane.  Attention to detail? Not here. Inaccuracies and incorrect claims do not help promote the area at all.

I am sorry these observations appear embarrassing to some local groups. Whether I write about them here or not they are out there for the world to see and they are embarrassing. Let’s pay attention to details and fix them and make these web sites even better!

Recommendation 2: Part 2

For what ever reason – honest mistakes, laziness, sloppiness, lack of attention to detail or perhaps  “hiding the decline”, the sort of things described above – and those are only a partial list – suggest “good enough” is common here.  Parts 3 and 4 will address why good enough is not good enough – we need to aim high and seek excellence.

On a brighter note – Good ideas come from other good ideas!

Good ideas come from analyzing, synthesizing and understanding what we see around us. Getting an accurate picture of the situation in Spokane and at local institutions will help all of us know where we are and help us to make better decisions to get to where we want to go!

Local agencies need to be producing useful information, not just data points (see Part 1).

Local agencies and organizations need to making their useful information readily accessible to everyone (Part 2).

Local agencies and organizations need to provide accurate information.

The more accurate data and useful information that all of us see, the better the quality of our decision making!

The Part 2 recommendation is then:

  • Accurate data, portrayed accurately is best for all of us. All of the mistakes above (and that is just a sample) when seen together portray an area that is sloppy or careless. This does not make Spokane look good.
  • Clean up old promotional web sites, audit every page and every claim
  • For those of us who consume data and information, keep your eyes wide open for sloppiness in the data provided to us – be skeptical!
  • If you have responsibility for any of the above – let’s fix these and make them better!

Part 3 reviews the low wage problem and hypothesizes that we’ve been investing in pouring concrete for far too long. For the 21st century we need to invest in people and ideas, not more concrete.

Part 4 follows up with more on our concrete obsession, but adds that we seem to aim low instead of aiming high.

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