Sunday, May 31, 2009

Issues with Quantification

In the email that Ian Moss (Createquity) sent me, he raised one of the obvious problems with quantifying the arts health of the community: how to analyze the data sets. How much does it mean if there's $x or n number of festivals in a city?

Using the process of the Thriving Arts report that I keep banging on about, another problem with that arises. The data can reflect the existence of an arts community, but it doesn't seem nearly as easy to reflect the potential for an arts community.

My original reason for investigating was to come up with something that would let the <100k Project analyze which communities to select for its project--after all, there are plenty of <100k communities in the country: some (like Laguna Beach, or Tracy, MN from the report) already have a thriving arts community; others may have nothing at all to speak of. If there was a way to evaluate candidate towns statistically, it would be easier to use them.

But as I looked at the Thriving Arts Report, the benchmarks they put forward of "background factors" for a potential arts community are even harder to measure than, for instance, the benchmarks under "emerging development. The following are their community-related benchmarks for "background factors":
  • Valuing arts for young people
  • Valuing history and sense of place
  • Tradition of arts activity
  • Artistic expression in spiritual life
This is separate from a number of individual and catalytic events that also qualify.

In my attempt to brainstorm some quantifiable benchmarks for those background factors, it quickly became apparent that the presence of institutions that represent these factors come later in the process. A community can value history long before it creates a Historical Society and before it attracts the money to create a surplus of museums (both of which are listed as later on benchmarks).

What this means that, from the perspective of quantification, it is easier to tell the difference between an undeveloped and developed arts community, but difficult to tell the difference between a high potential community and low potential community. To return to my pet example of Irvine, where I am currently locating, long before we could ever hope to develop an artistic community, there would have to be a lot of work just to create those initial benchmarks. On the other hand, some towns in the early days of development might not have a lot, in terms of institutions, to measure with. In such a case, you'd have to measure with more like census data--trying to isolate informal, unestablished data points.