How can you present data in a way that enhances the understanding of a topic, rather than simply raising more questions? Last month, the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) attempted to answer this question by publishing an article that responds to Steven Johnson’s New York Times Magazine article “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” (which EMSI summarizes here).
As the developers of Creative Vitality Suite (CVSuite, a tool that provides high-quality creative economy data and reporting to arts nonprofits), WESTAF uses its expertise to outline four challenges that made it difficult for Johnson to tell the story of the creative economy with data:
- Undercounting informal creative endeavors
- Defining a region’s creative economy
- Using earnings vs. sales
- Defining a region
In addition to offering other tips, WESTAF emphasizes how EMSI data—which Johnson also used in part for his article—has helped the organization curb some of the difficulties of traditional data sources.
Read below for some of the article’s key takeaways.
Undercounting Informal Creative Endeavors
WESTAF notes that artists are getting creative in the ways that they make money, often undertaking informal endeavors that fly under the radar of some national employment tracking systems. Thus, the ability to capture freelance and self-employed artists is necessary to understanding and analyzing the complete creative economy. WESTAF writes,
While no single national source captures all creative workers, some data sources are significantly more effective at capturing them than others.
The methods used by Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), CVSuite’s primary data provider, on average, capture 30-50% more creative workers than other data providers. They do so by more effectively capturing self-employed and freelance workers. Use of EMSI data remediates some of the issues related to undercounting creative jobs that are found when researchers rely solely on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages labor data.
Defining A Region’s Creative Economy
While the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), the North American industry Classification System (NAICS), and the National Taxonomy of Exempty Entities (NTEE) are all used in CVSuite, WESTAF notes that these sources present difficulties because their classification codes change over time and sometimes lump together creative and non-creative jobs.
WESTAF uses NAICS industry code 711510 (independent artists, writers, and performers) as an example—a code Johnson used in his article. This code includes performers, which are sometimes creative performers and in other cases are athletes. If used to measure the creative economy, this grouping increases job counts and also affects earnings information.
Sales Data: Using Earnings vs. Sales
WESTAF highlights that Johnson’s way of measuring economic impact (by noting that self-employed independent artists, writers, and performers experienced a 60% increase in revenues between 2002 and 2012) is not the most accurate method. Instead, WESTAF recommends using earnings information to measure economic impact in communities—a suggestion that EMSI fully endorses (see our article on the rights and wrongs of economic impact analysis).
WESTAF details reasons why earnings are a superior indicator of impact:
In many instances, revenues captured in a region are expended in other regions for services not related to creative industries. Thus, although revenues may be attributed to a geographic area, if they are not spent there, they have limited economic impact… In economic circles, earnings are viewed as a better indicator of economic impact. Earnings report the compensation of workers in a community and more of the earned income is expended in those communities.
How is the Region Defined?
In economic circles, earnings are viewed as a better indicator of economic impact. Earnings report the compensation of workers in a community and more of the earned income is expended in those communities.
What data is most actionable? According to WESTAF, the answer lies in community-specific data.
WESTAF warns against the dangers of national data: “National level data, such as those reviewed in Johnson’s article, cast a very broad net merely providing a possible sentiment for the industries he reviews. Many times, when this sentiment is applied to the local level, it’s inaccurate.”
WESTAF’s article also cautions against data that is viewed too narrowly, noting that data at the census block or individual ZIP code level can also be misleading.
EMSI data allows researchers to build a full picture with many layers of geographic detail. To do this, you can group ZIP codes together to create custom geographic areas and also view data from county, MSA, state, and national levels.