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True to place

Harris Centre appoints Alvin Simms as inaugural senior research associate


By Cathy Newhook and Dr. Mandy Rowsell

The Harris Centre has appointed its first senior research associate.

A picture of Alvin Simms and Jamie Ward
From left are Dr. Alvin Simms and Jamie Ward, circa the mid-2000s.
Photo: Submitted

In the early 1990s Dr. Rob Greenwood, director of the Harris Centre, invited Dr. Alvin Simms to a meeting to discuss local economic regions.

Dr. Simms had been working diligently to bring relevant, local information to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

“Rob was interested in getting more information out to the people — looking at things geographically, spatially — and he linked me up with the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency,” said Dr. Simms, a retired faculty member in the Department of Geography. “We set up a meeting and that spun into all sorts of different projects — almost 30 years ago.”

Data driven

Dr. Simms’s research focuses on the integration of regional economic and geospatial analytics to develop models to aid in the assessment of the sustainability of places, primarily for informing strategies for regional development.

In other words, he engages with communities, combines local knowledge and data, and then provides communities and policy-makers with locally relevant information to help them make better local decisions.

“There is a gap in rural Newfoundland and Labrador . . . to get basic information relevant to the local situation or condition.” — Dr. Alvin Simms

This approach made Dr. Simms’ work a perfect fit for the Harris Centre and led to the creation of the Regional Analytics Lab (RAnLab).

Dr. Simms grew up in rural Newfoundland, in a community that has since been resettled, and worked on fishing trawlers. His family’s history is in the fishery.

“There is a gap in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, and often these small places cannot afford to hire someone, like a private consultant, to get basic information relevant to the local situation or condition. So, that’s where we come in.”

Significant contributions

Harris Centre senior research associates are defined as individuals who provide significant academic contributions to specific Harris Centre research activities and who contribute to building the Harris Centre brand through their work in regional policy and development.

“Alvin is a genuine pioneer in terms of local-scale data analysis, both in N.L. and in the wider community.” — Jamie Ward

Dr. Simms has formally been associated with the Harris Centre for 12 years, 10 of which he was the lead researcher at RAnLab.

It’s now run by manager Jamie Ward, who worked with Dr. Simms as an undergraduate student at Memorial.

“Alvin is a genuine pioneer in terms of local-scale data analysis, both in Newfoundland and Labrador and in the wider community,” he said. “His work is notable for its uncompromising commitment that analysis should be true to place. He was one of the first — if not the first— to both recognize the value of local-scale, socio-economic analysis in this province and to apply the rapidly developing computing power of the ’90s and ’00s to effectively do it.”

In the past decade, Dr. Simms and Mr. Ward have been contracted by many organizations, including Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador; Newfoundland and Labrador’s Community Business Development Corporation; Community Health; Transport Canada; Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; and others on topics ranging from the regional economic impacts of rural enterprises to local skills inventories and demographics.

Uncompromising commitment

“One thing we learned is that the research should be directed from the ground up, from the people that live there: what do they need, what is useful?” said Dr. Simms. “We can provide many examples of how things can be measured, how impact analysis can be done, but what is it that they want to know? That’s what we wanted, and still want, to do.”

During his appointment as senior research fellow, Dr. Simms plans to continue this important work and is excited to work with the recently expanded team at RAnLab.

“We want to move things online and create smart tools so communities can log in and look at what their choices will do for them.”

Integral part

“Alvin has been an integral part of the team for such a long time and his contribution to our understanding of rural Newfoundland and Labrador cannot be understated,” said Dr. Greenwood. “It was an obvious next step for us to recognize that contribution in an official capacity through the creation of the senior research associate appointment.”

“It’s just one piece of the puzzle,” said Dr. Simms. “You can’t replace the ‘get up and go attitudes,’ the pro-activeness of these people. But the mayors and councillors of all those communities are burning the candle in three places at once, fighting for survival. We can’t ignore places in decline, leave them to die on the vine or fade away. This is just one part of helping those folks move forward.”

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