You're on the list: Portland buys the numbers, because rankings pay dividends
PORTLAND — The Portland-Auburn area ranks No. 8 among the nation's "best restaurant cities," The Huffington Post announced Friday. The ranking is based on the area's ratio of restaurants per capita of 23.5 – nearly as many per person as New York City (No. 5), which has 24.4.
The previous week, a City Hall press release announced Portland was No. 10 on a list of the 100 healthiest U.S. cities for women, compiled by Women's Health magazine.
Portland is on more than 20 other similar lists, according to the city's website, including a half-dozen rankings in the past year alone.
They range from distinctions for the city's hipster downtown (No. 11 on Forbes magazine's 20 "hippest 'hoods") to being one of the best places to raise a family (No. 3, according to Parenting magazine).
But what do the rankings really mean? And why does the city show up on so many of them?
"These rankings put us on the national stage. They put us on a platform that is unique for a city our size," City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said, noting that the lists often include cities such as San Francisco and New York.
Some rankings are more significant than others, Clegg added.
A No. 6 ranking for job prospects in 2012, also by Forbes, was "pretty remarkable," she said. And other distinctions tie into specific objectives of City Hall – in the case of the Women's Health ranking, the goal of promoting healthy living and decreasing obesity.
"For me personally, that's pretty exciting," Clegg said. "It's nice to see the correlation."
Portland does not actively seek out the rankings, she said.
"A lot of times, we find out about (the rankings) after the fact, through the media," Clegg said, as she did about The Huffington Post list. And the coincidence of Portland's appearance on so many rankings "all stems from the unique quality of life here," she said.
Clegg called the rankings "tools in our toolbox" for promoting the city. Besides sending out press releases on the accolades, and dedicating two pages on its website to them, the city uses the numbers in other ways. In Mayor Michael Brennan's first "state of the city" address Monday night, he mentioned six rankings.
It's not only City Hall that's poring over the numbers. The website for Portland's Downtown District has a host of them, including the ranking as No. 8 "gayest city in America," according to Advocate.com.
And other cities are touting lists, too.
The Lewiston-Auburn area recently launched a marketing campaign whose website lists the "top 10 reasons why it's happening here in L-A." Among them: L-A's ranking as one of the country's best 100 small arts communities, according to John Muir Publications, a publisher of travel books.
Portland's use of so many rankings may seem excessive. Some may even say a bit silly (a 2007 ranking for being a top resort for people with dogs?).
But when you've got it, the saying goes, flaunt it.
The use of such numbers "is definitely a trend across the country, and understandably so," said Matthew Dean, a management and statistical analysis expert who heads the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine.
In a digital age, where people communicate in text messages and 140-character tweets, rankings provide a convenient "shorthand," Dean said. And the public is eager to see how their home towns stack up against others.
"Some of the reason for the trend is probably psychological," he said. "People want to read good things about themselves. Americans love statistical data, but love it or not, I wonder if they understand the assumptions underlying it."
Rankings are only as good as the data that goes into them, Dean said, and people should ask questions when they see a list of impressive numbers: What is the source of the data? How was it collected? How recently was it collected?
"If a study doesn't explicitly tell you its methodology, you have to be cautious," he said. "I don't know how many people would look beyond the graphs."
And he urged ranking-readers to keep the goals of the ranking-maker in mind, because the same data can be manipulated to support different conclusions.
"You give me a whiteboard," he said, "and I can show you that three equals five."