In thinking about the “A Tale of Two Cities” article on the home cities of the two Super Bowl teams, the question naturally arises: What do we mean by ‘San Francisco’ and ‘Kansas City’? As always, the answer to a seemingly simple question is rarely simple.

Are the San Francisco 49’ers really even a San Francisco team?  After all, they fled the windy Candlestick Park to a new facility some 45 miles south in Santa Clara, often thought of as a suburb of San Jose rather than San Francisco. Should they not be the Santa Clara 49ers?

Kansas City is in Kansas, right? Yes, it is. But then again there are actually two cities, and Kansas City, Missouri is the much larger of the two. In the metropolitan area, the Missouri part is much more populous than the Kansas part.

And what about the New York Giants? They play in East Rutherford, NJ. At least a fair proportion of people would have heard of Santa Clara, and some may even know its location relative to San Francisco and San Jose. But East Rutherford?

Ask someone who lives in the City of San Francisco if Santa Clara is part of the city, and they will say no. Ask someone in Santa Clara if they live in San Francisco and they will say no.   And yet if they are talking to someone from Boston, they will likely say they live in “The Bay Area”. The Bostonian will naturally translate that to San Francisco, and the Santa Claran will most likely not be visibly offended.

Place, then, is a relative concept.   The further away you are from a place, the broader its definition will be. In conversation, we can usually adapt fairly well to the fluid concepts of place. For AGS, however, place must be defined in absolute terms since we are attaching specific data to it. San Francisco could mean the city, the county (which in this rare case is the same geographic area), the urbanized area, the metropolitan area, or the consolidated metropolitan area.   Each of these definitions is valid in different contexts. And completely different.

For the data user, definitions must not only be precise, but must be clearly communicated. Metropolitan areas can be particularly troublesome to use, and we suggest reading Why I Dislike Metropolitan Areas, a rant from a few years back.