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Unique data on cities enables world-class research at WSU

Survey data donated to WSU by Seattle-based Leigh Stowell & Co. has given WSU, home of the Thomas S. Foley Institute and the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication, a unique advantage in the area of social capital research. According to WSU researchers, this gift has made it possible to do analysis that could never be done before.

“We’ve had a lot of compelling theory in social science without much data to test it,” said Nick Lovrich, professor of political science and director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services at WSU. “A good theory is still just a plausible speculation if you don’t have the data to test it. The Stowell data set gift has changed that. This is really important.”

Leigh Stowell & Co. is a proprietary market research company that specializes in local media market consumer research and analysis that helps local advertisers more effectively target the customers they really want to reach. Stowell survey data sets are unique because they include a wealth of information such as psychographic characteristics (values, beliefs and attitudes), extensive demographics, purchasing behavior, media consumption, internet use, leisure time activities and zip codes. This type of data allows marketers to link the attitudes and value characteristics of their target customer in local markets with their behaviors and media consumption. Stowell’s method for getting at the attitudes and beliefs of consumers and connecting them to their behavior is particularly insightful.

The data, in its unedited form, allows researchers from a wide array of disciplines to extrapolate information vital to their particular research needs. The data extends back to the early 1990s, is market-specific, and covers most major metropolitan areas of the U.S. and Canada.

Originally a gift from company founder Leigh Stowell to the University in 2002, the project continues to be supported by David Whitlock, current owner and president of Leigh Stowell & Co.

“It’s hard not to share the enthusiasm and commitment that the WSU faculty, students and extended academic community have for this effort,” said Whitlock. “The media property clients that we work with in each market are important partners in this gift and it has been very gratifying to see the early results.”

The WSU Libraries are hosting the Stowell data on a server using software from Nesstar Limited.

“The data have been reformatted to the Data Document Initiative (DDI) format, which is an international effort to establish a standard for technical documentation describing social science data,” said John Webb, assistant director for systems and planning in the libraries. “The WSU library is an active member of the DDI Alliance that is developing the DDI specification.”

Webb said that WSU librarians and staff and graduate students working with Lovrich have added metadata to the Nesstar database that will allow authorized users to search for specific data and retrieve those Stowell data sets from the 350 media market studies that contain the desired data.

Use of the Stowell data sets that are gifted to WSU is not allowed for commercial purposes without Leigh Stowell & C.o’s approval. Users who augment Stowell data with other data from their research are obligated to provide WSU with copies of the added data, which enriches the WSU Stowell database.

Lovrich said numerous publications have already resulted from research utilizing the data.

“We have people at several universities in the United States and Canada doing work in media consumption patterns, economics-based marketing science, political campaign communication tactics, public health administration, criminal justice, political science, environmental science, marketing communication and brand strategy applications. At least a dozen journal articles have either been published or are waiting to go to print,” Lovrich said.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver were curious about the ways in which major Canadian cities are similar to or different from their U.S. counterparts just across the border. For example, how does Vancouver differ from Seattle? In what ways is Toronto dissimilar from Detroit? The Stowell datasets are helping them understand those issues.

Utilizing a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, WSU researchers Mike Hendryx, associate professor and director of the Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research & Training, and Melissa Ahern, associate professor of health policy and administration, have researched the responsiveness of health systems to uninsured people.

These projects are just a few of those that have been conducted and represent a small fraction of the research that is possible. Lovrich is perhaps the biggest champion of the Stowell data sets and is already engaged in an active marketing campaign to WSU professors and their classes to promote student-engaged research.

“I have focused on using the data for the study of political science, environmental studies and criminal justice issues, but the datasets are also a tremendous benefit to those researching business strategies,” said Lovrich. “By analyzing purchasing behavior for durable goods they are able to determine how psychographics influence that behavior.”

According to Lovrich this research puts WSU in a select league with about a half dozen universities, including Harvard, the University of Michigan, UC Berkley and a few others, who have digital archives of this scope and caliber.

“Additionally, the emphasis on building digital archives among university libraries is a relatively new development and again puts Washington State on par with only a handful of the best,” Lovrich said.

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