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The trouble with rankings

FIVE THINGS to know when Anniston lands on a ‘10 worst’ list again

Downtown Anniston scenes

Downtown Anniston as seen from the observation deck on the 11th floor of Commerce Towers.


Don Hopper freely admits that if Anniston were at the top of everyone’s “safest cities” lists, he’d make sure industry leaders knew it.

“We would lead with that, absolutely,” said Hopper, director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, which recruits new businesses to the Anniston area.

Instead of a top-of-the-list Anniston, Hopper and other local officials face exactly the opposite problem. The city keeps landing on “worst of” lists that pop up on the web every few weeks, generating clicks for websites and aggravation for local leaders.

In May, the website 24/7 Wall St. named Anniston one of America’s “fastest shrinking cities.”

In February, the same website put the Model City on its lists of worst places to live and of places where workers are most likely to be replaced by robots.

And then there are the lists that name Anniston the “most dangerous” city — most dangerous in the country or the state, or among military towns —  based on FBI crime statistics. Hopper isn’t sure how often the “most dangerous” listings drive potential investors away from Anniston, but he said they don’t help.

“There may be some people we never hear from, because they simply take us off the list,” Hopper said.

Those rankings are a problem for local journalists, too. Readers want to know why national news outlets are referring to Anniston as America’s “ninth worst city to live in” or “16th worst city for nurses.” It would be easy to repeat the results uncritically and watch the web traffic flow in — but that’s not what local newspapers do. And when we do dig deeper into the numbers, we often find that they’re based on research that’s not being used in the way the researchers intended.

       That research takes time. And a “worst of” ranking can ricochet across the Internet in just one afternoon. Here are a few things say locals might keep in mind the next time they see Anniston’s name in a ranking of shame. 

How do you measure “dangerous” or “worst”? Where Anniston is identified as “most dangerous,” it’s typically on the basis of data from the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reports, compiled every year from statistics reported by police agencies across the country.

Violent crime and property crime in the city are significantly above the national average, the FBI statistics show.

But the FBI itself warns against using those statistics to rank cities. Criminologists and sociologists can cite plenty of reasons why. Some cities simply don’t report their crime to the FBI, researchers say. Cities with more police on the street may file more crime reports simply because crime gets seen.

Researchers say the FBI numbers can be useful in looking at crime in a single jurisdiction over time, but really aren’t useful for comparing one city to another.

“There’s some value in looking at the difference between places, but this business of ranking is ridiculous,” said Robert Weisberg, a law professor and director of the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford University.

Weisberg said there’s no way the numbers can tell you whether a city is more “dangerous” than another city — the quality that so many lists propose to measure. That’s more of a leap than most researchers, accustomed to asking fine-tuned questions, are willing to make.

“One of the implications is: don’t go there, because it’s unsafe,” Weisberg said. Much of violent crime occurs between people who know each other, he said. It’s hard to say whether simply being in the city — as a new resident, a guest or a worker — is somehow hazardous.

That doesn’t give Anniston a pass. Weisberg said Anniston’s homicide numbers do indeed stand out.

“I looked at recent numbers, and you are a lot higher than the national rate,” he said.

Fourteen people were killed by other people in Anniston in 2017. By The Star’s count, there were seven homicides in the city in 2018 (FBI numbers for the year haven’t been released yet.) The city has so far seen a single homicide in 2019.

If “dangerous” is hard to measure, “worst city” is even harder. Perhaps not surprisingly, many “worst city” measures start with violent crime rates and poverty. Poverty inside city limits is high, about 30 percent according to the Census Bureau.

Some rankings propose to measure things that are extremely subjective. The website WalletHub last week ranked Alabama as the seventh “least fun” state in the country. Among the metrics used in the study were the number of skiing facilities per capita, the amount of shoreline in the state and the number of restaurants per capita. 

You’re often seeing the same data, recycled. Yes, the FBI crime data is at the heart of many of Anniston’s worst showings in city rankings. That data comes out once per year. But in a given year, it’s likely that multiple websites will pick up on those numbers and spin them into new rankings. That seems to be how Anniston was named one of the most dangerous cities in America, one of the most dangerous in Alabama and “most dangerous military town” all in the same year. Nothing changed in the crime numbers. Someone just applied a new formula to the same numbers.

The listmakers aren’t here. Oxford is the 15th most common city name in the country, according to a list by 24/7 Wall St.

Of the 19 Oxfords in the U.S., 24/7 Wall St. in 2017 chose to illustrate their Oxford list entry with a photo of ... Roma’s Pizza on the Public Square in Jacksonville, Ala.

Mistakes of that sort are probably easy to make when you rate cities across the country without going to any of them. Read lots of these lists, and it’s glaringly obvious that some are missing on-the-ground facts.

Here’s one of those facts: police jurisdiction. Alabama allows city police departments to patrol an area up to 3 miles outside city limits. That’s not true in all states. Anniston police have long complained that listmakers calculate the city’s crime rate by looking at all arrests and dividing by the city’s population of about 21,500. In fact, Anniston police patrol Saks and other areas outside the city — a total of about 43,000 residents.

       Alexander City police Chief Jay Turner pointed to the jurisdiction problem last year when his town was named the nation’s 15th most dangerous city in the country, not so far behind Anniston.

       Turner told the Alexander City Outlook that Safewise, the company that produced the rankings, ignored not only the police jurisdiction but the fact that the lakeside town sees its 15,000 population grow by about 10,000 for about half of the year.

“They can’t be serious,” he told the Outlook.

Not all cities matter to the listmakers. Depending on which rankings you read, you might hear that St. Louis, not Anniston, is the most dangerous city in the country.

That’s in keeping with a long-standing tradition among list-makers: using data from only the top 150 or 250 largest metro areas and declaring a top 10 and bottom 10.

Even when the population dips lower, there’s often a lot that gets missed. That’s apparently what happened earlier this year, when the website Safehome listed Anniston among the top 25 safest cities in Alabama. Yes, the same Anniston that appeared on all those other lists.

It’s always good to read the fine print: Safehome’s list ranked only cities with a population above 22,000 people. (Their population numbers appear to be a few years old.) Depending on which numbers one uses, there are only about 25 cities in Alabama that fit that category. Anniston was No. 24.

It’s likely Anniston will drop off the “25 safest” list in coming years, because current census estimates already show the city below the 22,000 mark.

Rankings are short on solutions. Done casually, city rankings tend to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills are almost always No. 1 and No. 2. in the state. Anniston, Prichard, Selma and Bessemer are almost always on the bottom. One could be forgiven for concluding that it’s better to be rich than to be poor, or even that it’s extra-hard to be poor in Alabama if you’re black.

But those are observations, not solutions. Readers can click through slides of the worst cities in the country, but those slides rarely hold advice on how to make them better.

Again, that’s ranking done casually. For decades, journalists and activists have been doing rankings of cities and states, often as a stunt to call attention to problems like smoking or air pollution. Sometimes, maybe, it has helped.

       “We have a long history of proving ourselves a trusted source of information,” said Rhonda Mann, director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children. Mann’s group takes part in the annual Kids Count rankings, produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For 30 years, the group has been watching roughly 70 different data points to show how healthy kids are in different communities around the country.

The group’s nationwide report comes out Monday. Alabama has never ranked high among states. Mann said she’s less concerned how Alabama ranks on Monday, and more concerned with what the numbers say about Alabama’s progress over last year.

“If we’ve improved our ranking but we haven’t helped children, we haven’t done any good,” she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.