Category Archives: Internet & Social Media

Issues and musings about the online world; social media, website design, web content, privacy, interactivity, connectivity and engagement.

Gambling: money and statistics


gambling cartoonNo, I’m not going to write about the morality of gambling.* I’ll save that for another post. This is about money. And numbers.

I attended the OLG four-community presentation in Wasaga Beach, Tuesday, and it got me thinking about what gambling means to the economy, what it means to the government, what effect it might have on things like growth and recession. It also made me wonder how governments became addicted to gambling revenue, but that, too, is for another post.

I also found some of the statistics presented interesting enough to do some extrapolation, which I’ll get to at the end.

What does gambling contribute to our economy? Well, the OLG and the province always like to tout the benefits: the OLG paid more than $2 billion profits into provincial coffers, in 2011. They’ve given more than $34 billion since 1975. That’s an average contribution of $149 per person in the province per year. OLG’s plans are to build that payment to the province up to $3.3 billion by introducing more and newer forms of gambling.

On a very basic level, that looks good. After all, at least some of that money would have had to come from taxes instead, so it can be seen as a user-pay system, or a self-tax system. Of that $2 billion last year, $120 million went to the Trillium Foundation, $10 million for Ontario Amateur Sport, and $41 towards problem gambling programs.

That’s an interesting ratio: four times the amount given to develop sports is given to treating the problems created by gambling. A point not missed by the audience.

The OLG made that profit from revenue of $6.685 billion. That’s a far more intriguing number. It’s just over one percent of Ontario’s GDP in 2011. As a former business owner, seeing a 33% profit margin is impressive. Extrapolating, it suggests OLG plans to increase net gambling revenues to almost $10 billion if the ratio remains the same. It will do this by expanding gaming sites, adding internet gambling, allowing bingo halls to run more games – making more gambling available to more people more often.

That doesn’t sit too well with me. The same people who won’t let grocery and convenience stores sell wine and beer because it might corrupt someone, will make gambling so ubiquitous it will be hard to avoid tripping over a slot machine (real or virtual). Online gambling will offer easy access, 24/7 from your home. Play in your jammies until the early hours. All you need is a credit card. Makes me wonder if the goal is to make gambling mandatory some day in the future, like taxes…

What happened to the rest of the money the OLG took in?

Online gamblingAccording to the OLG’s annual report, operating expenses were $4.975 billion. Of that, $1.835 billion went to payouts to lottery and bingo winners. Commissions ($648 million – this, I assume, was paid to operators ), marketing ($300 million – the amount paid for advertising is 7.5 times the amount paid to help problem gamblers), interest ($32 million), payments to the federal government ($228 million) and amortization ($226 million) gobbled up another 1.43 billion. Paying for the OLG and its 18,000 employees is one of those expenses. Six thousand of those employees got bonuses, too – $11.6 million worth. Not a large slice of $4.7 billion. Horse racing got $345 million; host municipalities got $92 million and First Nations got $117 million.

It almost looks like the OLG is on a drunken giveaway spree, handing out the bucks to everyone except, of course, the gamblers. Nice of them to give us back some of our money, though.

Who doesn’t want to get free money? That’s the attractiveness of hosting a casino: all you need to do is nod your head, zone some land, then sit back and watch the money roll in. Suddenly flush with cash, the town’s taxes plummet, everything gets rebuilt, new sports facilities sprout, downtown gets renewed, sidewalks rebuilt, streets paved with gold and the local politicians get halos.

Well, maybe not.

As an aside, based on media stories, all three seem worried that their slot machines will be removed from the tracks when the agreement ends, sometime in the next year.

The OLG presented the audience with examples from Hanover, Central Huron and Chatham-Kent: all three communities have an OLG money machine in a racetrack. Hanover has 130 slots; Clinton (Central Huron) has 123, and Hanover (Chatham-Kent) 130. All three are currently questioning whether the slots will remain in their raceways with the OLG’s new strategic plan. In 2011, Hanover received about $800,000; Central Huron $641,000 and Chatham-Kent about $700,000. Exuberant endorsements from their mayors, we were told.

Assume we could get, say, $1 million per year as a host community. That translates to just over 2% of our annual municipal budget. Minus, of course, what we would pay to our neighbours as per the memorandum of agreement we signed. We might end up with 1% of our budget as “free” cash. Does this mean your taxes won’t go up? Nope. The extra money would likely end up going to infrastructure improvements and maintenance required by the extra traffic, maybe to extra policing costs too.

Gambling and drinking cartoon
Even if we kept it all for ourselves (as one councillor has suggested), and damn the rest of the region, is that money enough to make us want a casino? If I’m going to sell our municipal soul, I think I want a bigger slice of that pie for the town. As Faustian agreements go, we’re not getting much from our side of the bargain.

Besides, we might think we’re agreeing for “just” 300 slots, but the OLG said it could expand the site’s licence to other games anytime in the future. The demographics change when you have other types of gambling, but I didn’t hear anything to suggest the town will have a say in that expansion.

If the cash doesn’t move me, the opportunity to create 80 to 90 jobs in the area is more attractive. Any job creation is welcome, but I get an uneasy feeling these aren’t the “quality” jobs some folks are expecting.

From what I understand, many of these jobs would be similar to what the hospitality industry already offers – janitorial, serving, cooking,security, valet parking, landscaping, counting cash. Whether these (non-union?) jobs would pay better than the hospitality sector or offer any benefits would be up to the private operator. They aren’t government jobs: the OLG won’t be running these new casinos.

Will a private operator pay more than $10-$12 an hour for someone to sweep the floor and polish the slot buttons? I wouldn’t expect so. Any new jobs are better than no jobs, but my passion to create more McJobs is somewhat less. Would you like fries with those casino tokens?

Back to the money. According to the OLG, the net revenue from adults to the gaming industry in Ontario is $459 per year. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s money that doesn’t go directly into the economy – it doesn’t create jobs outside the gambling sector. It doesn’t buy anything from local merchants or restaurants. It goes directly to the government. Well, okay, two thirds goes to the OLG and its minions, and the remaining third gets into public coffers.

Most economists measure consumer spending as a yardstick to whether we are in or out of a recession – it’s called the consumer confidence index. See here for the Canadian index. It’s a simple measure of consumption – consumers who are confident in the state of the economy buy more stuff. Recessions happen when that confidence falls to a point where we stop buying and start hoarding (okay, it’s one reason; there are others, but it’s a big part of it).

A strong consumer confidence report, especially at a time when the economy is lagging behind prevailing estimates, can move the currency markets quickly. The idea behind consumer confidence is that a happy consumer – one who feels that his or her standard of living is increasing – is more likely to spend more and make bigger purchases, like a new car or home, leading to a stronger domestic economy and consequently a stronger currency.
Source: www.investopedia.com/walkthrough/forex/advanced/level8/consumer-confidence-index.aspx#axzz29kZLXgcV

Gambling cartoonIs gambling measured as consumption? Does the money pushed into slots contribute to the level of confidence? Is gambling measured in the index? I can’t find anything online to suggest that it is. So rather than spending that $459 on, say, a new TV, a shelf of books, a library of DVDs, new skates, skis or a bicycle, a purebred puppy, teeth whitening or any other goods and services – this money is spent on gambling. It bypasses the usual consumer channels. Gambling doesn’t add to the consumer confidence, even though the money is still flowing out of consumers’ pockets.

Yes, there is trickle down and spin-off – some of the money goes to suppliers, some to wages – and thus some gets back into the general economy. But how much? How much just ends up fattening the bank accounts of the operators? I don’t know, but clearly it’s not as beneficial as if it were all spent in a retail store.

Would $6.7 billion have a positive effect if it was spent in retail instead of gambling? Of course, but overall not as much as you might imagine. It’s about 4% of Ontario’s total retail sales (2011 figures). So it would help, but wouldn’t change the world. A few hundred people spending an extra $459 each every year in a local business could make a real difference to the local economy.

As a personal choice, I’d rather buy that shelf of books from local bookstores than pump quarters into a noisy metal machine and walk away with nothing. At the end of the day, I will have something to show for my money, not to mention many more months, even years, of enjoyment from the books.

It strikes me that putting the money directly into the economy helps buoy consumer confidence (thus the economy) better than spending it on gambling, and it might help keep us on the farther side of a recession. The OLG’s own statistics show that Ontario’s gambling revenue didn’t seem significantly affected by the last recession, so gamblers apparently don’t seem to feel the need to hoard as much as consumers when the economy tanks.**

Let me wind up with some thought on statistics. According to the OLG’s own estimates. 3.4% of Ontario residents have a “severe or moderate” gambling problem. In Problem Gambling in Canada (see footnote), the authors quote a 2005 study of Ontario residents by Wibe, Mun and Kauffman, that has a higher number: 5.8% are “at risk of gambling problems,” 2.6% have “moderate problems” and 0.8% have “severe problems” (the latter two combine to make the 3.4% OLG mentions).

We have around 21,000 people in Collingwood. At 3.4%, we expect to have more than 700 people here with “severe or moderate” gambling problems. Another 1,218 (5.8%) are “at risk”. That’s about 2,000 local adults for whom gambling is or may be a problem. These are your friends, relatives, neighbours. That concerns me. These are the people most likely to be found in a casino that’s in our back yard – especially during the week when there are fewer visitors.

We have about 16,000 adults 18 and older here. That means about one in every eight adults who may have or who have a problem with gambling. If the government was to allocate funds to problem gambler programs by that percentage, they would have to spend more than $250,000,000!

Add in about the same number of people from Wasaga Beach, and more from Clearview, Springwater and Town of the Blue Mountains, and we have more than 5,000 people in our immediate vicinity who either have or are at risk from gambling problems. That’s a lot of people in our region who may find a casino an irresistible place to spend their money.

I just don’t see 5,000 people lining up at the problem gambling office to voluntarily disbar themselves from the irresistible urge to push quarters into that hungry metal mouth, while others shove past them to get at the seats they vacated. I guess they’ll still be able to enjoy the province’s online gambling sites, when they are launched. The government may not want you in the casino with your bad habits, but it still wants your money, and won’t even mind if you play in your jammies.

~~~~~

As you might gather from the above, I am less than enthusiastic about having a casino here. I’m still open to debate and to having my mind changed, but it has to be a lot more compelling an argument than what I’ve heard to date.

Worth reading: Public Affairs 101 on gambling
The Walrus: story on Alberta’s gambling
Stats Canada report on gambling, 2011
The Social Effects of Gambling

~~~~~

* In the book, Problem Gambling in Canada (Tepperman and Wanner, Oxford University Press, 2012), gambling is identified as a learned behaviour; like smoking, like watching TV, playing sports or reading. Adults often become gamblers because of how it is portrayed in family or social situations. Because gambling is legal, it gets advertised in mass media, making it appear on the same level as consumer goods and entertainment, banks, and music concerts. From buying lottery tickets to trips to Las Vegas, how gambling is perceived in the home affects how children will develop as adult gamblers; just as children brought up by smoking parents are very likely to become smokers themselves.
** While this was also noted in the UK, in the USA, the pattern seems different. Overall the US gaming industry lost about 5.5% revenue during the recession, with New Jersey reporting a 13% drop from casino revenue. How much of that was caused by an increase in online gaming or in the general increase in gambling opportunities as more and more states legalize it, is unknown. Also, the US was hurt more by the recession than was Canada.

Does product placement run the viewing experience?


Product placement in 24I was watching recent episodes of the BBC series, “Sherlock and Strike Back, this week, and towards the end of last night’s show, I wondered, again, why it was British TV shows were generally so much better than American TV.

Why did do most British dramas seem more realistic, the characters more believable, the sets less artificial? Yes, having a longer tradition of acting, script writing and production plays into it. A robust public broadcasting system that doesn’t have to cater to corporate tastes or duck sticky political issues is another reason. So does not catering to pop fashion trends and using actors and actresses who look like real people (a trend slow to come to fashion- and celebrity-obsessed American culture).

Perhaps, I thought, it’s also because every scene is not liberally peppered with product placement. British shows look more natural and less like set-piece advertising. Viewers are not as often distracted by what are often clumsy and obvious product positionings.

To be fair, in the past decade, American TV has improved remarkably thanks to well-written and well-acted series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The Borgias, West Wing, The Newsroom, and 24. I’ve been impressed by many new series – I even liked the uneven, meandering and ultimately unsatisfying Lost (despite some intriguing threads, it failed to fulfill the promise of its first season).

Before The Sopranos, it was pretty much a given that British TV was light years ahead of similar American efforts. Acting, sets, and writing were generally far superior in the British shows. But that has changed and American TV programming – at least from producers like Showcase and HBO – has shown welcome improvement.

At the same time, the quality of American popular TV has fallen into the lightless abyss of self-described “reality” shows replete with thuggish, greedy garbage pickers, unwashed swamp dwellers with bad dentistry, barely literate truck drivers and bottom feeding, irrelevant Jersey-ites. That these have replaced such classic series as M*A*S*H and All in the Family merely underlines the paucity of creativity in American pop TV. And anything that was once launched as a documentary channel (Discovery, National Geographic, History) has descended into trivial silliness with trite, shallow lifestyle pap instead of meaningful content.*

American film, too, has continued its downward trend, riding the wave from grand spectaculars like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia towards the trough of cookie-cutter CGI-driven action films, teen coming of age, predictably violent and ugly slasher flicks, and flaccid, tired comedy films. Yes, there are still good films being made - Avatar was brilliant, Michael Clayton was thoughtful and well-written. The Jane Austen Book Club was a thoughtful romantic comedy. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.

But I digress. I was writing about whether product placement has a role in how viewers appreciate a TV program or movie.

Before February, 2011, product placement was actually banned on British TV. That changed last year, although not without challenges:

The Church of England and doctors’ leaders have opposed the move, saying it could damage trust in broadcasters and promote unhealthy lifestyles.

Even so, there are significant, stringent restrictions on product placement:

Under Ofcom regulations, broadcasters must inform viewers by displaying the letter ‘P’ for three seconds at the start and end of a programme that contains product placement.
The telecoms regulator has said any placement must be editorially justified and not unduly prominent.
It will not be allowed in news, current affairs or children’s programmes – or for alcoholic drinks and foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
And it will continue to be banned for BBC shows.

Get that last one? Even when allowed on commercial channels, England’s public broadcaster will not be allowed to have such placements. Interesting.

Audi on Strike BackOn Strike Back (a Sky production), I noticed the make of the car in one scene – an Audi. And I noticed that the Mercedes Benz logo on a truck had been rather obviously and clumsily (to me) removed (leaving a circular hole in the rusty grill). The shot of the Audi from the front prominently displaying the logo on the grill was pretty blatant. Was this product placement or simply the use of an actual vehicle? The angle of the shots suggests to me the former. However, this page shows numerous, recognizable brands and logos on other vehicles used in the show, so it’s open to debate which were placements and which were simply used for realism.

But in Sherlock (a BBC production), I did not notice any particularly obvious product placements. I tried to see what sort of computer and phone Sherlock was using, but it wasn’t evident. Products appear as they would in real life – logos and brands might be seen, but are not a focal point of any shot. It takes some work to identify anything. But looking at the database of vehicles used in TV and film, I see several brands that are easily recognized. Sherlock should be free of paid product pacement, however, since it’s a BBC production, so one assumes they were used for realism, not profit.

I can’t say I can recall any product placement in my favourite British shows – Doc Martin, Darling Buds of May, Coupling, Downton Abby, Inspector Morse, All Creatures Great and Small, As Time Goes By, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers… so many I can’t recall all of the British shows I’ve watched. None ever struck me as commercial, however. In fact, many British shows actually provide the full 60 minutes per hour of programming – not the 40-odd minutes we get here – because they aren’t interrupted by advertising.

(Sidebar: On average, Canadians watch more than 25,000 TV commercials annually… and there are no limits on the amount of time a broadcaster in Canada can use for ads vs content.)

But does seeing a brand or model you know make a show more or less realistic? Is it realistic to show generic, unbranded products like computers or cars? Or does it contribute to a sense of distance from reality, a detachment from the story?

Product placement on American TVDoes it make the product more or less attractive to be seen on TV? I watched all eight seasons of 24 without once purchasing a Dell laptop. And despite the numerous placements of Apple computers in TV and film, I never bought one of their laptops. In fact, when I bought a new laptop last year, I didn’t look at either manufacturer – I chose one based on price, features and some online reviews. And the fact that the local seller had it on sale.

Although I don’t watch TV shows like the amateur hour contests shown in the image above**, the clumsy product placement of Coke cups doesn’t impress me. In fact, it makes me wonder if their votes are also for sale. Judges should be impartial and product placement in front of them is clearly a signal that impartiality is open to question. Seeing this would definitely affect my viewing experience negatively.

Does product placement spoil or interrupt the viewing experience for others? While I say yes it does if it’s blatant enough to be noticed, according to one poll on YouGov most viewers don’t notice:

Product Placement Doesn’t Spoil Viewing, Claims the Public
Of those surveyed by YouGov in July 2011, 59% said they did not have a negative experience of product placement and claimed that it made no difference to their viewing experience. 33% of those polled disagreed that product placement advertising negatively impacts the integrity of a TV programme.
The poll also showed that young audiences, aged 18 to 34, were the most likely to form a positive impression of product placement, with 25% of those aged 18 to 24 stating their brand perception would become more positive if seen in a UK TV Programme.
So despite it being early days for product placement on UK TV, these positive reactions show it could prove very lucrative for brand advertisers.

But people are aware of product placement, says another poll:

A YouGov poll, taken at the end of February 2011 shortly after the decision was made, found that over one third of respondents had no idea what product placement was. However another poll, taken in July 2011, found that nearly three quarters of respondents (72%) knew what product placement was, with nearly half (46%) stating that real brands placed in TV programmes can make them seem more realistic.
Since February 2011, there have been less than 20 examples of product placement advertising in UK TV programmes. However, despite a slow start, the product placement market in the UK is estimated to be worth up to £120m in the next five years. Adele Gritten, head of media consulting at YouGov, said: “There appears to be a gradual acceptance taking place as people see product placement more and more. We’re all consumers of brands, and as long as placements aren’t too overt, it’s very realistic for us to experience the same household brands in the programmes we watch.”

Ofcom's product placement logoOf course the actual number of people surveyed in either poll isn’t mentioned in these news pieces, so one can’t give a lot of credence to the reports until those numbers are produced. After all, 59% of six people is irrelevant.

The other question this issue raises is about how blase consumers have become to advertising: have we been numbed by so many ads that product placement is invisible to the average viewer? In which case, those megabucks being spent on product placement are being wasted and advertisers need a new venue. Maybe even a new paradigm.

So does product placement make a difference? I don’t know. I do know that my own perspectives and prejudices will affect how I see a product or brand in any context. Just like if I see someone smoking on TV or in a film, it causes me to disassociate from the story and make a mental judgment of the character. If I see someone sipping a soda, I do the same (both negatively affect my viewing experience). But seeing a blender brand? Or a washer brand? It doesn’t affect me. I probably don’t notice it unless the placement is clumsy and too obvious. See a guitar brand? A ukulele brand? A tequila brand or anything else I might have some interest in? I might pay more attention, but it doesn’t sway my consumer soul one way or the other. At least consciously.

Product placement may be good business for marketing companies and good revenue for film and TV producers (look up the value of product placement in the ad-dense James Bond flicks). But I question whether they have significant impact on consumers today, aside from distracting us from the storyline.My advice: look for ways to engage the viewers, not simply try to seduce them.

~~~~~
* Looking at today’s listings (your local lineup may be different), I see the following depressingly craptastic shows scheduled for Saturday evening viewing (this partial list doesn’t include the paid programming and infomercials like “Hair Loss News: More Hair in as Little as 4 to 6 Weeks: running on Fox): Storage Wars, Showbiz Moms & Dads, The Real Housewives of New York City, Pick a Puppy, The Great Food Truck Race, Pawnathon Canada, Canadian Pickers, Pawn Stars, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Paranormal Witness, Parking Wars, Love It or List It, Dumbest Stuff on Wheels, Keasha’s Perfect Dress, Impractical Jokers, 1 girl 5 gays, SugarStars, Billy the Exterminator, 30 Seconds to Fame, Cheaters, Punk’d, Buy Herself, World’s Worst Tenants, Cash Cab, Tabatha Takes Over, Celebrity Style Story, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag, Rescue Mediums, Party Mamas, Caught on Camera, Baby First Club, Marriage Under Construction, Swamp Wars, Styleography, Style by Jury, Oh So Cosmo, Fashion Hunters, The Hunks, Playboy’s Coeds and others – more than 800 TV channels and half this drek is repeated over and over, not only on channels, but back to back in time slots.
Thank the gods for CBC, TVO and PBS, which still continue to give us content. Unfortunately, we cannot get BBC America on Canadian networks – we are instead forced to get the generally unwatchable and crass BBC Canada which mostly replays Mike Holmes and HGTV shows, surrounded by dreary “reality” restaurant shows: Jamie’s Meals in Minutes, Restaurant Makeover, Jamie’s Food Escapes, Food Inspectors, Kitchen Nightmares, and so on. BBC Canada is an embarrassment.
** My ability to withstand TV commercials grows less every year. By the second ad, I’ve started to fidget, check the Blackberry for email. By the third I’m surfing to other channels looking for content. At the fourth, I’ve muted the TV and am playing the ukulele parked beside the sofa. More than that, and I’ve lost interest in the program entirely, and have either changed channels, or picked up a book.
We don’t watch a lot of commercial TV for the simple reason of the increasingly longer ad clusters. I will buy a season of a recommended show on DVD, and watch it without ads, however. I would consider a PVR to record shows only if it could edit out the ads and save the result to a DVD or USB drive. As I understand it, the PVRs available from Rogers do not have these necessary features.

Why does anyone need PR?


Flavius AetiusFlavius Aetius. Only a handful of scholars know who he was. You can look him up on Google, but 1,500-plus years later, not many people will find him memorable, nor will they care.

On the other hand, I’ll bet everyone reading this post knows who Attila the Hun was. Or at least you recognize the name, even if you aren’t really familiar with his history. It’s either an insult or praise to be called “right of Attila the Hun” these days, although Attila would not have understood the reference.

Attila’s reputation as a warlord still resonates, 1,500 years later. But his contemporary, Aetius, is mostly forgotten. Yet both men were very similar. In fact, they knew each other in their youth and were likely friends for a while.

Both were born on the “wrong” side of the Danube – barbarians in Roman eyes. While his father was a Roman solider “of Scythian extraction,” Aetius spent many formative years in the court of the Visigoths and then the Huns, a ‘hostage’ under Attila’s uncle, King Rugila. In exchange, the twelve-year-old Attila was sent as a child hostage to the Roman court of the western Roman emperor, Honorius.

Aetius learned firsthand how the Huns lived and fought. After he was released, he even led a large army of Huns during one of the numerous battles of succession between competitors for the position of emperor (in 425 CE). He became the military commander in Gaul and conducted many successful campaigns as general, trying to keep the empire intact, including one in 436 CE when he used an army of Huns to subdue the Burgundians. He was elected consul three times.

Meanwhile, Attila had risen to become the sole ruler of the disparate tribes of Huns, uniting them for the first time under one ruler, and was winning his reputation as the “scourge of God” through a series of violent campaigns against the eastern Roman empire, mostly in the poorly-defended Balkans. Although he terrorized a lot of inhabitants and razed many minor cities along the borders, Attila’s military actions were not as serious or as damaging to the eastern empire as he would have liked. He failed to take Constantinople, twice, although he did force the city to grant him tribute.

Attila’s successes were in great part due to the Western empire stripping the armies from the east to fight the Vandals, who had conquered the Roman colonies in Africa, taken Carthage, and were eyeing an attack through Sicily into the Italian peninsula. Without armies to oppose him, Attila was able to ravage the Balkans with little to stop his rampages. The Vandals, by the way, were not stopped for long, and sacked Rome in 455 CE (under their leader, Genseric, another name that has mostly fallen through the cracks of history into the obscurity below).

Both Aetius and Attila were accomplished rulers and military leaders with a string of successes during their lifetimes. And when they met on the battlefield, in 451 CE, it must have seemed to many as a clash of titans. In fact, the battle of the Catalaunian Plains is considered one the the pivotal battles in the late Roman Empire:

This is considered as one of the most important battles in the history of Europe and Christianity, since if Attila conquered Europe, he could destroy the Roman cultures and potentially annihilate Christianity…

In 450 CE, Attila decided to attack the Western Empire, taking a path through northeastern Gaul with his Huns and a motley collection of some less-than-enthusiastic vassals – Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Scirians, Heruls, Thuringians, Alans, and Burgundians. He was initially successful, and even more terrifying to the inhabitants than he had been in the east.

Aetius, meanwhile, was busy cobbling together an army from a variety of allies, including Franks, the Burgundians, Celts and Visigoths. They moved in front of the Huns at Orléans, and rather than fight, the Huns turned away. Aetius gave chase and caught Attila near Catalaunum (modern Châlons-en-Champagne).

So here we have the battle of the century. If Attila won, there would be nothing to stop him and his army from rampaging through the last bastions of the empire, right to the Atlantic Ocean, and into the heart of the peninsula to sack Rome itself. If he lost, Attila’s reputation as the feared and powerful leader of the unstoppable barbarian horde would be forever damaged; he would be forced to retreat in disgrace.

And guess who won? Aetius. The Huns were driven back across the Danube, and, with his reputation as “invincible” in tatters, Attila’s alliance broke apart (the Ostrogoths even went over to Rome). Attila returned, and raided northern Italy for a year or so, razing some towns, causing damage but not having any real strategic success. The eastern Roman emperor meanwhile decided enough was enough, and had sent his armies into the field to defeat the Huns Attila had left behind.

Attila retired from Italy in 452, intending to turn against Constantinople one more time. But he died in 453 CE. After his death, the Hunnish empire fell apart at the hands of squabbling successors. They disappear from history shortly after Attila’s death.

Aetius, meanwhile, was criticized for allowing the Huns to escape, although he probably wanted to preserve his army to fight the bigger threat of the Vandals. His remaining army wasn’t large enough to crush Attila’s Huns in Northern Italy, and simply kept them from getting too far south. The “last of the Romans” was murdered by his emperor, Valentinian III, in 454 CE.

Aetius, say some scholars, saved the Roman world. Yet I’d bet dollars to doughnuts not even one in ten people know who he is today. Attila’s “brand” remains strong, and his mythology is still great. Why?

Leadership Skills of Attila the HunPublic relations. That’s why Attila’s name still survives. Attila has had better media coverage than Aetius. PR is all about maintaining and fortifying reputation.

And that’s the value of PR. There are books about Attila (including The Leadership Skills of Attila the Hun, which, according to at least this review,has some serious mistakes about Attila’s actual history: “He led his Huns to bring German and Slavic nations under control, defeat Rome and Constantinople, triumph over the lands of Asia, and then conquer Africa. Taking over the world is the ultimate challenge for just about any leader or manager, and barbaric Attila seems to have accomplished it with poise and grace.” Perhaps that just points to how well Attila’s brand was grown and expanded into mythology since he died.*)

Poor old Aetius. The man who defeated Attila and saved the empire – at least for a few more years – is a minor character in the annals of history, mostly forgotten and ignored. His name was never used to frighten children, nor is it ever used today in some political analogy. No one seems to have written books using his leadership skills as a model for modern management.

That’s what happens when you don’t have good PR to save your reputation.

~~~~~

* That muddled history seems to be the reviewer’s, not the book author’s.

Conducting a survey about a casino


Last night, Collingwood Council debated a motion about a possible casino in Collingwood, made by Counc. Joe Gardhouse that read,

WHEREAS the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (“OLG”) has requested individual Municipalities to respond to their RFP not later than November 16, 2012;
AND WHEREAS Collingwood has been identified as a potential host site for their Gaming facilities expansion within the C-7 zone;
AND WHEREAS the potential monetary and ancillary benefits to the taxpayers and businesses of Collingwood are significant;
AND WHEREAS this opportunity deserves and requires Municipal due diligence and public input as required by the OLG RFP;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council of the Town of Collingwood instruct Staff to identify suitable locations and/or zones for the potential gaming site not later than October 15, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT Council schedule a Council/Public Information Meeting regarding the potential economic and social impact to the community not later than October 30, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT an opinion survey/poll or other public forum be conducted to include a cross-section of citizens and businesses for their feedback on the gaming facility expansion to be completed not later than November 12, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT Council shall notify the OLG of the Town’s position by not later than the November 16, 2012 deadline.

This was broken up into four motions – one about locations (defeated),the survey (passed five-four; I was one of those against this step), the public meeting (unanimous) and the notice to OLG (unanimous).

(The Whereas preamble statements were not voted on. I would have taken exception to the statement there there are significant “monetary and ancillary benefits to the taxpayers and businesses of Collingwood” had that discussion happened. What about the detrimental effects? What will they cost us?)

To put this in context, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission (OLG) has identified this general area as one of the preferred locations for a new casino (basically a warehouse with 300 slot machines – Georgian Downs has 1,000, Rama has 2,500). Collingwood is one of four regional municipalities that signed a memorandum of agreement (MOU) this summer to collectively support a casino in Wasaga Beach, if the Beach wanted one. The Beach would share the revenue with its neighbours in return for our support.

Statistics cartoonThis motion essentially suggests Collingwood would ignore the MOU and apply on its own for a casino without the regional sharing or cooperation. If Collingwood was to get the casino, I would argue we should still share the profits with the other consignees, because to do otherwise would not be honourable.

Let’s look at what’s involved with the survey Council approved last night.

We want to get 400 qualified answers (a qualified sample for a population of 20,000 with 0.95 confidence level is 378. See www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm. Our population with part-time residents is closer to 25,000 according to our staff estimates, and we get many visitors, so I’m rounding up a bit to simplify the math below.

An unqualified response is worthless. And a smaller sample is equally worthless because it reduces the validity of the results. We need a good level of confidence in the results to determine if they actually reflect the community’s wishes.

But what part of the community is bring asked? The respondents need to mirror our own local demographics. What if 75% of respondents are between 18 and 25, and the majority of that group wants a casino… is that more significant that if the remaining 25% unanimously reject it? How do you weight the results?

We also need to know in advance what’s the bar for acceptance or rejection? 51%? 60%? 66%? 75%?

What if it’s a 50-50 split? What is the criteria for saying yes or no? Is a simple majority enough (50% plus one) to decide either way?

We didn’t get into that, last night, but it is a significant topic for heated debate. And we can’t proceed to a decision without having established the criteria.

Someone with experience and education will have to design the survey – establish the methodology, then create the many questions necessary to qualify and quantify the results. You need a professional pollster to do this, probably someone with a university degree in statistics or public relations. It can’t be handed off to someone without at least some experience in poll and survey design and in data analysis.

Demographics cartoonStaff and council will have to be interviewed first to determine the appropriate methodology, the nature of the questions, the sort of result expected, the community profile, etc. And then the designer will need to get final approval for the proposed questions. So say at least a week for the design and interview phase.

Someone will also have to design a template for recording the answers. This is probably the easiest part: we could either buy pre-packaged survey software. We could have a staff or contract person code a rather complex, large Excel sheet, too, or an Access database template.

Based on my experience with Excel and database programming, that shouldn’t take more than four or five days once the questions have been compiled and approved. It’s quicker to purchase something and just enter the questions, and let the software crunch the numbers as they get tabulated. That might reduce the time for the template preparation to a day or two.

Let’s also assume the time per person to identify a potential candidate from a tax list or phone book, call them, ask them the qualifying questions to be sure they are in the target audience (not children, not employed by the municipality or a spouse of such an employee, or are employed by the OLG, are residents not visitors, own or rent property in the town, etc.), ask the necessary demographic questions (age, gender, income bracket, marital status, employment status, etc.), and then ask the actual survey questions is 10 minutes per person.

That’s not very long – about half of what professional pollsters usually allocate per call.

Add another five minutes per person for the caller to fill in the forms on the computer, check the person off the list, record the data in the paper record and so on.

That’s a mere 15 minutes per person now. That may be reasonable time for a survey of this sort, but it leaves no margin for error or contingencies.

There’s no leeway for wrong calls, for answering callers’ questions, for explaining the nature of the survey when asked, hangups, busy signals, no responses, pens running out of ink, computers crashing, invalid respondents, etc.

StatisticsThat’s 6,000 minutes to get 400 qualified answers: 100 hours. At the average 7.5 hours per day, that’s 13.33 days non-stop. Let’s give the caller and extra 1.7 days over that period as contingency for unanswered calls, bathroom breaks, talking to staff and supervisors, making photocopies, getting pens, making backups, getting a coffee… say 15 days minimum for one person, non-stop, to get a reliable sample with any statistical accuracy and validity.*

Four working weeks total time so far. Assuming, that is, there are no delays, and nothing goes wrong, that the washrooms aren’t busy, pens don’t run dry, and there’s no lineup at Tim’s. Plus a week to prepare the survey.

Obviously we want it sooner than that, so let’s triple the number of workers to get it in one week: three people working non-stop for five days, calling residents, asking questions. Again, no contingency or leeway has been allocated – we expect 100% efficiency.

Then, once we have our 400 qualified respondents, we need someone to collate the responses and produce a report on the answers, breaking down the responses by the demographic criteria (are you a full or part time resident, are you currently employed, age, gender, family income bracket, etc.). And get it printed for council and staff, and make a public presentation to council. We may be able to get the report in a week after the survey has been completed, if we push hard.

That report and analysis will require someone experienced in statistics and demographics to analyse and break it down; maybe we can use the same person we used to design the survey.

So we’re at a minimum three weeks from the design stage to the final report, and no time or effort wasted in between. We need at least three full time staff and one professional pollster/statistician/report writer to do it in three weeks.

Who will we use to do the calling and which professional statistician will we get to write the report?

If we use staff for the calls, who trains them and how long will it take to train them? Which three people on staff have at least one week of uninterrupted time they can dedicate to this? (If we do have staff with that much free time, I want to raise this at budget time!)

Let’s say we also want to ask a qualitative, not quantitative question like, “Why do you think a casino would be good (or bad) for the town”? Something that requires more than a simple yes or no answer. That would add another several minutes per caller to take and record the answer. My time estimates above are very, very conservative, by the way. As it says on www.dobney.com/Research/MR_basics.htm:

In terms of cost, most market research is charged on a time basis plus a management/design fee. If you took a general face-to-face population study of 1000 people. You might allow 15 minutes for the interview, 20 minutes finding/contact time, 10 minutes for processing each questionnaire – so 45 minutes per interview or 750 hours of time (100 days), on top of which would be added time for questionnaire design, production and dispatch, interviewer briefing and management, creation of tables, analysis and presentation. Typically on a straightforward survey these elements should add about 15-20 days, although at a higher daily rate.

Can we use internet polls or Facebook instead, as Counc. West suggested? Sure – if you want the results to be entirely meaningless, and statistically and demographically worthless – simply a pointless “feel-good” exercise that gets trashed and humiliated in every media. It would be just as accurate to check the Magic-8 Ball for an answer as to conduct a typical online poll.

(You can read my personal comments on the validity of internet polls here: www.ianchadwick.com/blog/are-internet-polls-valid/ )

T shirtWe could hire programmers to write a secure website that has login and authentication controls on voters, and some data collection and analysis programs. We would still need to have qualifying questions and poll questions written by a professional to be sure people’s responses were valid, and someone equally qualified to write up the report later. It would add time to the exercise and what’s to guarantee that we will get the necessary number of qualified responses within the time frame before the deadline? None.

Or we could simply buy the services of one of the many online survey companies to collect and collate the data for us. We still need the professional to design the questions and create the final report. The disadvantage here is that to get a qualified response in an adequate sample may take months, because there is no incentive for users to complete the survey. Plus we’d have to advertise and promote the survey site to try and get residents to visit it. Radio ads, print ads… the costs keep mounting.

Whatever we chose, it will cost us in both time and money to achieve anything meaningful. To get those results before we have to make a report to the OLG (Nov 16) is unlikely.**

So I ask what I asked last night: does anyone have the slightest inkling of how much will this survey cost the municipality and how much staff time will be put into it? What if it cost taxpayers $50,000? $60,000? Or more? Will it be worth the money?
~~~~~
* Say one in two people who answer the phone proves to be unqualified (i.e. a child or non-resident) and it takes five minutes to determine that and do the paperwork to record that call. That would add another 2,000 minutes to the total time to get 400 qualified respondents. Or 33.33 hours (another 4.4 working days). If only one in four is unqualified, but one in four is a no answer or busy signal (1 minute to record this), then it would add 22.8 hours or just over three days of work.
** I have already expressed my opposition to the process – I believe we should follow through with the MOU and support Wasaga Beach’s bid to be the host community.

Are internet polls valid?


Internet pollHow valid are internet polls? Are they credible for making serious or significant decisions, or merely as general – even vague – indicators of intent? Are they equivalent to paper (and phone) surveys?

No. At least that’s what many experts say. Yes, they can be cost-effective, and good tools to engage the community. But like online petitions, they seldom have sufficient controls that restrict access to the relevant respondents. Anyone with a basic knowledge of how the internet works can easily bypass the limited security and vote numerous times. Often all it takes to get another vote is deleting cookies in your browser tools. More sophisticated users can create voting bots that automate the process.

Time poll hackedYou can read many articles on how to easily hack polls and cheat them. Some poll hacking is actually quite entertaining and imaginative, like the hack of the 2009 Time poll on the most influential people. The point is that polls are vulnerable to a variety of techniques. As one programmer noted about the Time poll:

“I took a look at the process of voting with a very basic set of tools on Firefox: Firebug and LiveHTTPHeaders. What I found is that when you submit the rating, it calls another page and passes a key, the rating, and the poll information through the URL to the page, like so:

http://www.timepolls.com/contentpolls/Vote.do?key=eba3a55e955bc93ade4fc820649cde04&rating=9&id=1857552&pollName=poy2008

Theoretically, then, you could hit this page as many times as you wanted with any rating you wanted, and drive up a candidates’ score. Though one would expect that Time would have figured that anyone could game the system, it’s easy for a programmer to forget that what they don’t intend for public viewing may still be visible, and that they always need to check to ensure that the data they expect is the data they are getting.”

Generic online polls are easy to create and many are free – this makes them attractive to businesses, media and political groups that don’t have the resources to do phone or door-to-door surveys. How many of these instant polls are actually mining participant data can’t be determined, but you have to expect the companies to get some return for a “free” service. Some media clearly use polls not as a count of anything specific, but rather as a measure about how engaged people are on an issue – and how much attention they are paying to that particular media’s coverage of it.

As one Australian study concluded,

“…online polls cannot be considered as an alternative to using paper based surveys. The independent sample t-tests results obtained for the questions administered using a paper based survey and those through an online poll showed that in the majority of cases that there was significant difference between the means. The implication is that online polls cannot be used to survey a cohort of people replacing the more costly paper based survey.

Online polls and surveys are generally open to anyone with an internet connection. Similar to clicking the Facebook “like” button, most online polls simply count clicks, but don’t qualify them by demographic – gender, region, sex, age, income or anything else that might matter. While some may believe 12 and 13-year-olds should be able to vote for any issue, they are not really old enough to appreciate the many facets of any political or social issue. But how do you tell if a vote was cast by a child or an adult?

Unless you have qualifying questions that ask personal information to identify the participant as belonging to the target demographic you need, you can’t distinguish between valid and invalid votes. That makes them all invalid.

Everyone on Facebook knows that the count of “likes” is irrelevant because Facebook lacks a corresponding “dislike” button to provide balance. Without that, the number of likes or followers has to be measured against Facebook’s almost one billion subscribers. Having 1,000, even 100,000 “likes” is a small percentage of the total possible. But even with millions, you have no way of qualifying those “likes” by any meaningful categorization. Yes, Facebook can do it, but they’re not giving the important data to users free. Besides, when it comes down to it, “likes” may make the user feel better and more popular, but they don’t add up to much else than self-importance.

It used to be the count of page hits that people boasted about. That quickly ended when website owners started putting “counters” on pages that faked the numbers, or started with high numbers. To get a real picture of website use today you need sophisticated tools like Google Analytics that identify time spent per page, whether the page was visited by a search bot or a human, whether the user went to other linked pages within that site, the search terms used to land on that page, etc. Online surveys without that sort of statistical analysis are much like the old page count numbers of the 1990s.

Some online petitions and polls even allow the same person to digitally “sign” or vote more than once. Some petitions allow participants to be “anonymous” to others (which clearly defeats the purpose of a petition as a tool of democracy). Again, that opens questions about validity and credibility. Anonymous online comments or petition signatures have no credibility in the democratic process.

Because these petitions invite comments, it’s not uncommon for people to use them as sounding boards for comment and griping, rather than for their intended purpose of gathering support for a particular position. Bitching about the state of government may be stress-relieving, but it is not relevant to the petition and dilutes the intended message.

Any online petition has to be carefully combed for duplication and repetition of names. Even once these are winnowed out, how can anyone determine the age or location of the signatory unless that information is required when signing and provided as part of the presentation? How do the presenters insure the remaining names are valid in respect to the subject of the petition? This is one reason why paper petitions still have considerably more validity than online ones.

Crazy pollsI have voted in online polls and surveys about American politics and presidential races. I’m a Canadian so my vote, my choices should be meaningless, yet there were no qualifying questions posed to restrict access to Americans of voting age. What if the Chinese government took a serious interest in the American presidential race and used US online polls to sway the results towards Chinese goals? Why not? If a poll by one of the two parties asked whether the US Army should be disbanded, wouldn’t it be in the national interests of, say, Iran, China, North Korea, Russia or Syria to push the poll numbers up towards yes and get that onto the candidate’s platform?

Could US policy be shaped by such polls? Not yet. At present there’s a good level of skepticism about online polls among politicians and their strategists. Making a claim that “70 percent of Americans want to disband the army” based on an internet poll would be not only incorrect, but stupid.

Similarly, if we run a poll asking if school should be two hours shorter and we get 12,000 yes votes, and 3,000 no, should school boards seriously consider reducing school hours? What if you found out 11,000 of those yes votes were cast by students under the age of 18? Would that affect how the poll was perceived by educators and administrators? Of course. Qualifying data is always necessary to validate the results.

Have an opinion on something? Anything? There are

On Sodahead, a popular opinion site, here’s the latest series of polls you can vote on, taken from the front page:

Do Father-Daughter Dances Promote Gender Discrimination?
Arnold Schwarzenegger Releases Book Trailer: Are You Interested in Reading His Memoir?
Will J.K. Rowling Find Success Beyond ‘Harry Potter’?
New Studies Cite Stronger Link Between Soda and Obesity: Do You Drink Soda?
KFC Closes Restaurants in Pakistan Amid Protests: Should U.S. Retailers Get Out of the Middle East?
Is Vogue Featuring Domestic Violence On Its Cover?
Which Show Are You Rooting for to Win the Emmy for Best Comedy Series?
Are Celebrity Video Games Awesome or Annoying?
Which News Anchor is Least Likely to Lie to Viewers
What were you most excited to leave behind after high school?
Do You Multitask at the Movie Theater?
Does Kanye West Have a Sex Tape?
Are These GPS Shoes Wonderful or Weird?

Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I visit this site, I keep asking myself “Who cares?” Were these questions created by bored 15-year-olds? Any number of irrelevant, pointless, puerile polls are available online to people who want to express an opinion, but face it: the results aren’t going anywhere because NO ONE CARES about the results. They’re just there to make you feel engaged, let off steam, and think you’ve contributed to something.

For any opinion poll to be valid, it needs to meet certain crucial scientific criteria, including sample size. Most online polls don’t meet any serious selection criteria at all, which means they’re simply for entertainment, like horoscopes.

What is a valid sample size that gives a result meaning? One percent? Ten? Twenty five? What is the effective sample size for, say, Collingwood, with a population of 20,000?

Let me quote at length from an answer on how polls have to be conducted and what sort of sample size is relevant:

You have a two part question – but you didn’t realize it. The question, which you asked, is: “What should my sample size be for this test?”

If you go to the Sample Size Calculator website (www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm), you can find this:

The parameters you are setting are:
1) Population – the number of people in the world who will be seeing your website. Let’s assume that your population is “everyone in the world.” So, if we use a very large number, say, 1,000,000, we will calculate the maximum sample size needed.
2) Confidence – this is how sure you are going to be that the results of your sample reflect the true population. The higher the number, the larger the sample size. This is the “certainty” of the results. Customarily for most marketing work, 95% confidence is ample. The default in the website is set at 0.95.
3) Margin – This is how much error you are willing to allow. If you allow 5% error, that means that in a sample size of 100, if the results are 50 clicks, the true number of clicks could be between 45 and 55 clicks. This is the “precision” of your test. The small this number, the larger the sample size.
4) Probability – this is the value of the result you expect to get. For instance, if you expect to get 50 clicks out of 100 views, this value is set at 0.5. Of course, most of us don’t know this value. But the good news is that setting it at 0.5 yields the largest sample size. If the number of clicks is 20 or 80, the confidence increases for the same margin or the margin decreases for the same confidence. And this is a good thing.

Sample size, of course, determines cost of the test. In your case, this is time. If we use the parameters of a population of 1,000,000 with 95% confidence for 5% margin of error with a probability of 50%, then the sample size is 385. For a 1% margin, it’s 9517. You are at about 1.45% now. That means that you are within 65 of the true population result. Additionally, assuming the number of views are pretty close, this means that if the results of your test can tell the difference between the two websites as long at the results are different by more than 65.

The second part of the question – that you didn’t ask – is how do I determine if the two results are really different. For this, you do another test – a Chi-squared test. You have a hypothesis that the two results are the same versus the alternative that they are different. For the test, we look at the observed values versus “expected values.” Expected values are what we’d get is we added the total clicks for both tests and divided by total views and then multiplied by the views for each:

3760/9060 = 0.415
Expected values
4550 * .415 = 1888
4510 * .415 = 1872

Divide the difference of the expected values squared by the expected value and add the two values:

(2010 – 1888)^2/1888) = 7.883
(1750 – 1872)^2/1872) = 7.951

Sum is 15.834. Using a Chi-square table like at: http://www.richland.edu/james/lecture/m170/tbl-chi.html

If we set our confidence at 95%, we use 1 – .095 = 0.05. Our degrees of freedom are calculated by subtracting 1 from the number of proportions in our test: 2-1=1. So, for 95% confidence, we test the value of 15.834 against 3.841. Since 15.834 is larger, we reject our hypothesis that the two results are the same and accept the alternative hypothesis that they are different – with a much greater than 95% confidence.

So, as Nelson (nelsonm) stated in about 20% of the space, you’re done. Looks like version A is the best with a greater than 95% confidence.

Using the sample size calculator mentioned above, here’s what I calculate for a reasonably accurate survey for Collingwood. Based on a population of 20,000, a confidence level of .95, margin of .05, and probability of .50, the minimum sample would be 378 to get a reasonably accurate assessment.

That’s a fairly small number. But how can one determine the numbers to be punched into the various parts of the equation? What’s the confidence level, margin of error? Change the margin of error to 0.01 – a mere 1% error of margin – then you need a sample size of 6,491. Which number do you change to account for duplicates, outside (irrelevant) votes or votes made by children?

And let’s not be fooled: online polls can be and have been the target of special interest groups who want to express their own agenda. Election polls are particularly vulnerable to this sort of nefarious activity.

Journalists have to be particularly suspicious of online polls. The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) provides 20 questions a journalist should ask about poll results. Among these is:

How were those people chosen?
The key reason that some polls reflect public opinion accurately and other polls are unscientific junk is how people were chosen to be interviewed. In scientific polls, the pollster uses a specific statistical method for picking respondents. In unscientific polls, the person picks himself to participate.

In other words, self-participation is unscientific. A bit further down the page, it notes,

But many Internet polls are simply the latest variation on the pseudo-polls that have existed for many years. Whether the effort is a click-on Web survey, a dial-in poll or a mail-in survey, the results should be ignored and not reported. All these pseudo-polls suffer from the same problem: the respondents are self-selected. The individuals choose themselves to take part in the poll – there is no pollster choosing the respondents to be interviewed.

Governments cannot govern by poll. That’s not leadership. But attempting to govern by internet poll is not merely foolish but potentially dangerous. There is little if any way to determine the source of the votes. You might as well govern by magic ball or coin toss.

So when I read a statement like, “A community poll has shown that 7 out of 10 residents support the one community centre concept” I have to ask, who did the poll, where, when and how was it conducted? That statement turns out to be based on the results of an Enterprise-Bulletin online poll, which had approximately 200 results – 200 unqualified, unscientific results. As pointed out in the quote above, a sample size for Collingwood to get a reasonable assessment of public opinion would be at least 378 QUALIFIED votes. Qualified means a resident or taxpayer, of majority age, who understands the question being posed.

Ipsos-Mori research
Who conducts the poll and who provides the results is also important. Voters on the left don’t trust polls produced by voters on the right and vice versa. Some media are trusted to be objective, others – Fox and Sun News, for example – will always be suspected of having a bias towards their particular political slant. And the majority doesn’t trust the government to accurately and objectively present figures.

My final point has to do with the questions themselves. Asking “Do you like ice cream?” is asking for a general personal opinion and really doesn’t need more choices than “Yes, No, Sometimes.” A more specific question would be, “Do you like butterscotch ice cream?” Ice cream manufacturers are not going to change their business plans based on these rather vague questions, however. They might pay more attention to a question asking participants to select from a list of flavours not currently made, but one which they would like to see available.

Asking “Should we build a new town hall?” is an iceberg question: it hides a larger mass of questions below it: “What will it cost?”, “Will it raise my taxes?”, “Who will benefit?”, “Why do we need one?”, “Can the old town hall be refurbished?”, “when will it be built?,” “where will it be built?”and so on. Participants need answers to all those hidden questions before they can properly answer the seemingly simple question posed about building a new town hall. Otherwise, the answers on that poll are essentially meaningless.

A more reliable question might be, “Should we build a new town hall on the western side of town away from other municipal services, if it will take five years, disrupt some municipal services during construction, cause intermittent road closures, raise your taxes by 10% a year, have it located at the edge of town, result in hiring more staff, and incur greater operating costs when it opens, despite staff recommendations that we just refurbish the old one?”

Even that doesn’t include all of the factors necessary in the decision making process: what to do with the old town hall, should local contractors get preference in the tendering process, will there be local jobs created, can we get support funding from other governments, is the building “green” or LEEDS certified, do we have to buy or expropriate property, is the site currently zoned for it?

Most of all it doesn’t answer the biggest question: why do we need one now?

Perhaps, if you can vouchsafe that the participants in your poll have all paid close attention to the debate about building a new town hall, that they have attended council meetings to watch the debates, have read all the staff reports, have listened to the treasurer expound on the financial implications, have read and watched the local media to gain insight and understand the differences of opinion – they might be able to answer “Should we build a new town hall?” without further refinement. Good luck finding enough people in that category to fit the necessary sample size to validate the results.

Even if you could find such a group, the results can’t simply be reported in terms of yes and no votes. Demographic breakdown of the results is important, too. Politicians should be told the geographic location of the participants (how many west-end participants voted no compared to the east-end, for example), their age groups (are working parents more in favour than retirees?), gender, whether they live in town full-time or part-time, whether they own a vehicle or use public transit to get around town – all become parts of the decision-making milieu.

Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.