Editorial: Ranking the rankings

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On Sunday we wrote about statistics and the dangers of trying to interpret data. Specifically we looked at a state report that showed a reduction in the number of students disciplined and suspended in Worcester Public Schools and how that could be interpreted multiple ways.

Rankings can also be misleading. Some are based solely on quantitative analysis while others introduce subjective measures. This does not mean rankings can be completely without merit. Even rankings with subjective measures point to perceptions.

The key to using statistics or rankings as they relate to Worcester — or anything — is to be informed by but not beholden to them. In that vein, and with end-of-the-year-lists seemingly ubiquitous, here are 10 rankings to consider.

Worcester is 18th nationally in return on investment on police spending. Last week WalletHub released its rankings of the 104 most populated U.S. cities. It determined rank by “calculating each city’s ROI on law-enforcement spending based on crime rates and per-capita expenditures on police forces.”

Takeaway: This is an affirmation that the Worcester Police Department is using its resources efficiently.

The Milken Institute’s Best-Performing Cities Index, released earlier this month, ranked Worcester 37th out of 200 metropolitan areas. The rankings measure job, wage and salary, and technology growth. Timothy P. Murray, president and CEO of Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, told  golocalworcester.com: “It confirmed some things, but also brought to light — higher ed, health care, financial service, and manufacturing are the major economic sectors, but the fastest growing is professional science and technology — it highlights the growing innovation economy is now the fastest growing sector.”

Takeaway: Perhaps the most thorough and objective study, the Milken Index shows Worcester has performed well both in the short run and long term.

Worcester is the 65th best place in the country to own a home, according to Porch.com. This is troubling because the survey included just 67 cities. It’s particularly telling that within the survey the city ranked 30th in educational opportunity, but 66th in economic opportunity.

Takeaway: To put it mildly, the methodology is dubious. The study included a survey of 10,007 homeowners with input from real estate agents affiliated with Redfin, a Seattle-based company. Regardless, it speaks to a negative perception.

On the brighter side, Worcester ranked seventh nationally in Parenting Magazine’s 2014 Top 10 Best Cities for Families.  The site writes, “selections are based on U.S. Census data, FBI crime statistics, reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and ratings from GreatSchools.org.” Exhibiting our own bit of parochialism, we’re not sure about a survey that ranks Boston the best city in the nation to raise a family.

Takeaway: A nice, subjective ranking with little to no objective substance.

Credit Donkey named Worcester the fifth-best small city in the country to get rich. This study, updated in June 2014, took into account the percentage of high-income households, local economic growth and patents granted. At first blush, this is a questionable agglomeration of valid data. The 8.8 percent of GDP growth from 2008 to 2011 is impressive, as are the 536 patents awarded in 2011.

Takeaway: Beware of rankings that create the appearance of causality that may not be there.

The same website, Credit Donkey, named Worcester the seventh-best small city for college graduates. This study seems a little more telling, taking into account median income, the wage premium for those with a college degree, and the cost of living. The 56.1 percent wage premium is an interesting data point because it was less than the average of 69 percent for cities studied.

Takeaway: The relative affordability of Worcester is a strong selling point. Worcester was nine percent better than average.

WalletHub ranked Worcester 96th among the largest 150 U.S. cities in its study of best places to start a business. The site used 13 metrics to measure Access to Resources and Business Environment. It ranked much higher (67th) in Access to Resources, which takes into account accessibility of financing, office space affordability, employee availability and median income, than it did in Business Environment (140th), which counts among other things corporate taxes, cost of living, entrepreneurial activity, small businesses per capita and something it refers to as a “Small Business Friendliness Index”.

Takeaway: Elements related to business environment can change comparatively quickly, but the City Council’s vote earlier this month to shift a higher percentage of the property tax burden to business owners could undermine other gains from the study that was updated in June 2014.

Worcester came in 51st place when WalletHub rated the largest 150 U.S. cities by how much they have recovered from the great recession. Worcester’s overall rank showed some good; the city ranked 28th in Economic & Earning Opportunities, which measured unemployment rate, inflow of college educated workers, ratio of part-time to full-time jobs, median household income and labor-force participation rate. It also showed some room for improvement; it was 90th overall in Economic Environment, which took into account median home price, foreclosure rate, poverty rate, percentage of households receiving public assistance, violent crime rate and number of businesses, among others.

Takeaway: This is a case where you see a stark difference in data and perception. The Porch study, which surveyed homeowners, had Worcester 66th out of 67 cities. This study has Worcester much higher. This discrepancy is troubling.

Gogobot.com recently ranked the 200 Most Artistict Mid-Sized Cities in America and placed Worcester 132nd. This is interesting in that it tries to quantify art, which seems incongruous to us. It counts museums, art galleries, art schools, art supply stores and performing arts venues. It doesn’t take into account statues and other public displays.

Takeaway: Attempts at objective ranking can be undermined by the subjectivity of choosing criteria.

Worcester topped Zillow’s 2013 list of best cities for singles to move for love. The city was the nation’s best option “for single heterosexual men and gay women” under 35. The rankings consider disposable income, size of the dating pool, “competition,” walkability and transplant rate.

Takeaway: Zillow’s chief marketing officer was quoted as saying, “We took a scientific approach to something that’s typically been assumed more art than science.” Some things are better left to art.

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