Understanding the Importance of Context

At CEOs for Cities, we understand that data are only a piece of the city success story.  We feel the need to make some clarifications in light of a blog post published on Gambit, a publication found at, concerning one of many performance measurements found in our report City Vitals 2.0. The blog suggested that our report claimed New Orleans to be “the least cultured city in America,” ranking #51 among 51 metro regions among the country “when it came to ‘cultured cities.’”  That is not what we said or concluded. We have read this post thoroughly, as well as the comments, tweets, and emails that were sent regarding the blog post. We agree that if this was the conclusion our research was making, the entirety of New Orleans should have had the same reaction of disbelief and anger that was being directed at us. There has been, however, some very serious confusion surrounding this measure, what this report is, and more importantly, what it is not.

City Vitals 2.0 is not a collection of “best and worst of” lists, like so many we see on the internet. It is not a set of value judgments. It is not a list of the best places to live. It is certainly not intended to be viewed in a vacuum. This report sets out four areas where cities have to get things right in order to be successful—talent, innovation, connections and distinctiveness—and offers a set of benchmarks to illustrate ways of measuring each of these characteristics. As Nate Berg explained in the Atlantic Cities article covering the report, “Rankings aren't always the best way to understand metropolitan success and vitality, and this report doesn't claim they are. Still it is interesting – and maybe even instructive – to see how metros stack up against one another through these various indicators.”

Culture is not an easily quantified variable, and we wouldn’t dare claim to document such a concept in terms of one number. The benchmark mentioned in the Gambit post was not a measure of how cultured a city is, nor does it claim to be. It is a ratio of cultural events attended to the number of HDTVs owned within the city. This can have a whole host of different interpretations, but clearly the measurement comes down to the definitions and the data available for only two, very clear variables. In 2007, it was unambiguously the case that when we take a look at these two variables, out of the 51 metropolitan regions explored, New Orleans has the lowest ratio.

Anyone that knows anything about New Orleans will associate it with a rich cultural history, including influential music, amazing food, and of course Mardi Gras. There is no denying that this resilient city has a rich, robust culture that is incredibly unique. To claim New Orleans to be devoid of culture would be—as many have pointed out to us—absurd and ridiculous, even disrespectful. We have not, and would never, assert this to be the case. Why, then, does it rank so low? Many have pointed out that Hurricane Katrina made cultural events far less frequent, and that the urgent replacement of furniture, including televisions, would explain this low ratio in 2007, just two years after the tragic event. We couldn’t agree more. Within this context, the small ratio makes much more sense—and that context is absolutely vital for interpreting the results of the analysis.

The intent of our research is not to rank one city above another, but to provide a set of tools for exploring the performance of your city, and how you can work to improve it. We both understand and acknowledge that these indicators are not perfect:

“We have compiled data in each of these four areas—connections, innovation, talent and your distinctiveness—to illuminate and better define the discussion of what it takes to build a successful metropolitan economy. There are, as often is the case, limitations to the data. Our indicators of talent, for instance, are good, general measures of skill but should not be taken to imply that only those with a college degree are talented. Nor do such broad measures capture the highly specialized talents that exist for corporate finance in New York, for movie production in Los Angeles, for petroleum geology in Houston or for logistics in Memphis. But these data provide a means for individual metropolitan areas to assess candidly their relative strengths and weaknesses against their peers nationally. While the data are the best and most recent available, they are still only indicators of the broad subjects we discuss.”

Our world is one that is seemingly driven by numbers. Data allows us to understand and construct in a quantifiable way—which allows us to understand our position, track progress, and articulate measurable goals. It can empower us, help us understand our limitations, and put our focus where our efforts are most effective. All that being said, these numbers are meaningless without context. In order for any data to be useful, it must be framed in a way that is relevant to the people using it. Data are used to support a story, not make one.  

New Orleans’ poor performance on this one measure in one year-–the ratio of cultural events to HDTV ownership  in 2007-- is an indication of how severe and lasting the impact of Katrina was on the city’s usually vibrant cultural life.  We would expect that subsequent data would show an improvement  in this indicator—and when it did, it would be evidence that the city is making progress this area.  And that will be something for the city to celebrate—as it should.

In fact, we believe distinctiveness is one of NOLA's greatest advantages. Our other indicators show that New Orleans ranks in the top five in internet search variety, and above-average for all metros in our weirdness index (#21) and in restaurant variety (#15). Rather than fixating on any one indicator, we think cities should understand in depth their unique characteristics and build their economic strategies around them.

The great amount of feedback that CEOs for Cities has received in response to the blog post shows just how passionate the residents of New Orleans are about their home.  Not only do they feel connected to the city, but also proud of its history, impressed with the strides it has made over the last seven years, and optimistic about the future. We  apologize to anyone who  feels that including this indicator in our report somehow  disrespected the legacy of the city of New Orleans in our research. We’re excited to see all of the progress as New Orleans rebuilds from this challenge.  Your story is an inspirational one that deserves all credit due. We hope that you channel that passion into action and use the entire scope of indicators in our report (within context) to support you in the development and implementation of your goals.


Since the preview edition of City Vitals 2.0 was being misinterpreted, we feel it is necessary to publish the disputed measures in their entirety in order to help explain our methodology and evaluation.  As explained below and in our full City Vitals 2.0 report, the Culture/HDTV report uses data drawn from SRDS marketing data (SRDS/Equifax, 2008).  It measures the relative consumption of mass entertainment and local culture by computing the “culture/HDTV” ratio: the percentage of persons reporting attendance at local cultural events divided by the percentage of households that had a high definition television receiver.

Your Distinctive City

One of the paradoxes of globalization is that as the globe has become more closely connected by commerce, communication and entertainment, the distinctive differences that distinguished one place from another have been muted by shared global commodities and multinational brands. Despite, or perhaps because of, the increasing sameness associated with globalization, the remaining local distinctiveness plays an increasingly important economic role. As Jane Jacobs said, “The greatest asset that a city or a city neighborhood can have is something that’s different from every other place” (Jacobs, 2006).

Local differences in tastes can give rise to new ideas and new products. The insatiable fascination of Japanese and Korean consumers for ever smaller, more capable electronic devices (cameras, phones, computers) gave rise to clever and innovative new products that eventually paved the way for worldwide distribution of products with similar capabilities (Porter, 1990).

The insights and original ideas behind many breakthrough business models emerged from practical experience gained in a local marketplace. In the 1960s, at a time when it was rare for most adults to exercise publicly, many people in Eugene, Oregon, took up the hobby of jogging and running. A small company formed to sell them imported sneakers. That company eventually became Nike, the world leader in shoes and sports apparel (Cortright, 2002).

There are many dimensions to distinctiveness, and because each community has its own special strengths and characteristics, no single measure or set of measures can capture this adequately. Effectively measuring a community’s distinctiveness requires different measures for each city. Every city should look to recognize the ways in which their city is “First, best, or only” in some category (Waits & Fulton, 2003). Recognizing this limitation, we’ve compiled a broad set of measures that begins to assess how much metropolitan areas differ from one another, and identify which urban areas differ most from U.S. averages in a series of key behaviors, including consumption, culture, food and Internet searches. These indicators signal the ways in which communities can begin to measure and validate their distinctiveness.

Culture/HDTV Ratio

Ratio of persons that reported attending a cultural event in the past year to the number of households with high definition televisions, 2007.

Individuals have substantial choice over the types of entertainment they enjoy. Residents of every metropolitan area have wide access to mass entertainment, like television, as well as a broad range of cultural events. One aspect of community distinctiveness is the extent to which people participate in local cultural activities (which vary enormously from place to place) as opposed to the passive consumption of electronic media (which offer the same set of choices everywhere).

We measure the relative consumption of mass entertainment and local culture by computing the “culture/HDTV” ratio: the percentage of persons reporting attendance at local cultural events divided by the percentage of households that had a high definition television receiver. These data are drawn from SRDS marketing data (SRDS/Equifax, 2008).

Overall, Americans are much more likely to report that own a high definition television than attend cultural events, such as theatre, concerts and museums exhibits. The ratio of attendance to cultural events to cable subscriptions is highest in San Jose, San Francisco, Rochester and Miami. In each of these cities, about a third as many households have attended cultural events as own a high definition television. The metropolitan areas with the lowest patronage of cultural events relative to cable viewing are New Orleans, Las Vegas and Louisville. In these cities, the ratio of households attending cultural events to those owning a high definition television is less than one in four.

If you have any additional questions pertaining to the indicators, please feel free to leave a comment below and we will answer them as quickly as possible. Additionally, we are always open to suggestions that you have for improving our indicators in the future.

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