Sometimes I worry about colleagues that get too caught up in metrics and data. There is a way in which mathematical abstraction can be such a powerful narrative that it actually changes the questions to ask so as to be answerable by what you can measure. In truth, most of what makes church holy is simply not quantifiable in a helpful way. So I'm always cautious about approaches to mission that don't begin with questions before looking at data. The other problem with "big data" is that having too much information can be as detrimental to good decision making as having too little data, as many studies have demonstrated.
(A classic example of this is how Doctors can make a more accurate differential diagnosis between stroke and heart attack if they are only given five pieces of information than if they are given an entire chart's worth of test results.)
In our case, we have some questions in mind. Questions like, "What sort of people are near our church during the day time?" and "What are the most important social values to the people who live within a 5 minute walk of the church?" There are many ways to find out, but one of the best (arguably) is simply to hire a company to do some serious data mining.
The company we have chosen to work with is called Environics Analytics. They are a market research firm that provides data and analysis to support decision making to companies and other groups. I chose them based on the recommendations of two priests whom I trust. They did a lot of work for St. Paul's Bloor Street, and the staff there was thrilled with the results. Since then, Environics has done an extensive, long-term project for the United Church of Canada.
When Catherine, the company rep, came to the church, I was impressed by how thoroughly grounded she was in the culture of church and the sorts of questions we might want. In fact, she is a church-goer herself, so she has an inside perspective from both worlds. She discussed in detail the sorts of products available from her company, and after two hours walked away with a plan. She is writing a proposal that will go in stages, which means that we will have time to digest one chunk of data before we commit to the next piece we wish to investigate.
That's important, because we don't need every piece of data at Environics disposal. It would be overwhelming, and might even lead to a kind of paralysis. Better to have the questions, first, and then seek the answers.
Nor will this be the only tool we will employ to understand the neighbourhood. I definitely want to do some other research. Wandering around with a camera and taking interesting snap shots be a start. So would sitting in one place and making notes about everyone who passes. I'd like to do some traffic and pedestrian counts. I already have a volunteer who has promised to look into some of the nearby coffee shops and see how much they actually charge for coffee, among other things. I don't think we are in direct competition with them, but it is useful to know what they are up to (just like I think it's important to know what other Anglican churches are trying).
So "with the blessing" I'll write more about the experience of using this demographic tool as the process unfolds.