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Monday, January 24, 2011

Readers question Free Press online poll

I read the headline; I read the story; I read the online poll. I  shook my head. Then I saw the tweets posted on Twitter by The London Free Press reporter Jane Sims. The paper was apparently taking some heat for an online poll associated with a recent story.

A couple of Londoners, Clara Madrenas and Jeff Preston, disagreed with the poll and were fighting back with logic and humour. The two publish the online comic Cripz.

The Free Press headline read: "$12M for city crossing overhaul." The story went on to inform readers that almost 400 intersections and pedestrian crossings throughout the city are slowly going to be upgraded in the coming years with the addition of auditory signals to assist the visually impaired crossing the city's busy streets.

I thought to myself, "About time." I saw these signals in use many years ago in Slovenia in eastern Europe. The Slovenes were very proud of their little country and liked to boast that in many ways they were far advanced compared to countries like the United States and Canada. I smiled, "Finally. London is catching up with Ljubljana ."

The paper followed the story with an online poll asking: "Spending $12M on London crosswalk traffic-light buttons is: Ridiculous or Reasonable?” 86 percent voted “ridiculous.”

It was this poll that got the attention of Madrenas and Preston, inspiring the following online cartoon.

To see clearly, please click on image. It should enlarge.
The online attack grabbed the attention of the paper and reporter Jane Sims interviewed the two for Monday's paper. Priming the pump for her story she tweeted late last week:

"Just had a fun interview with Clara Madrenas and Jeff Preston about their web strip Cripz. Check it out — you'll learn something! . . . I interviewed them because of this week's strip taking a shot at the Free Press question maker for web poll without depth."

The Free Press response failed to address the major questions raised by online polls such as the ones run by the paper. As Jeff Preston pointed out when interviewed, on the surface a poll such as this one "appears to be pretty damning evidence that Londoners don't want this." Is this true? Is this poll accurate? 

This is not a new issue. Almost five years ago The Rothenberg Political Report ran a piece entitled: "It May Look and Smell Like a Poll, but Is It?" Stuart Rothenberg wrote:

"Why would a media Web site run polls that most polling experts call unreliable and unscientific? . . . generally, I suspect that part of the answer is ignorance, and some of it is sloppiness. Most of it is simply about business — putting up “content” to draw page views.

Many reporters and editors simply know little about methodology, and I expect some of them regard talk about such things as arcane.

But I also suspect that some don’t really care about whether the numbers are entirely reliable or whether they meet some standard that they don’t understand. Media Web sites and 24-hour cable television networks consume a great deal of information, and for some, it doesn’t matter whether the data is right, only that it exists."

In Monday's Free Press, reporter Jane Sims tells us that Madrenas and Preston called the newspaper's poll “brutal” saying the question was too one-dimensional. What the paper failed to say was that the two Londoners were right. The poll was brutal.

Jeff Preston said this about the online poll: "The way you word it is everything." The $12 million charge is not due immediately, and the cost may not be at the discretion of city council. At some point in the future, there may be provincial legislation demanding the installation of Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS).

According to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), APS is a system providing audible cues and vibrotactile signals to ensure the same level of pedestrian crossing information is provided to everyone. APS devices meet the accessibility needs of those with disabilities other than visual impairment.

With the estimated $12 million dollar cost spread over a number of years and shared by all Londoners, the actual amount added to any individual's tax bill may be very small. And remember, many benefiting from APS devices are also taxpayers and they've been quietly footing the bill for our present inadequate traffic signal system for decades.

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