Christ church is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, and the country's second-largest urban area. It is the South Island’s economic hub and is the main distribution point for air, rail and shipping transport.

In September 2010, Christchurch and its surrounding regions were struck by a devastating earthquake. Then in February 2011, another earthquake struck Christchurch’s city center. It suffered extensive damage and now requires almost complete redevelopment. Here we explore the role NVivo played in turning ideas into insight that guided Christchurch’s plan to rebuild its Central City.


Using NVivo 9 and NVivo Server 9, Christchurch City Council and Academic consulting were able to:

Shortly after the February 2011 earthquake, Christchurch City Council embarked on a public engagement campaign aimed at maximizing the community’s involvement in redeveloping a sustainable and friendly city center.

Faced with community involvement on a scale never before seen in New Zealand and ideas that were received in every way imaginable - including comments on the Share an Idea website, sticky notes, video clips, questionnaires, children’s art, workshops and telephone messages - Christchurch City Council looked to what Mayor Bob Parker called a "very smart piece of software" to draw meaning from the data.

This extraordinary project not only called for the analysis of 100,000-plus ideas, but also came with an urgent need to deliver a Central City recovery plan quickly. In addition, it required security assurances for sensitive information and rapid information sharing with planners. What’s more, to save time and share expertise, two teams of researchers based in different cities simultaneously worked on the project.

‘Share an Idea’

With about half of the buildings in Christchurch’s Central City needing to be demolished following the earthquake, the people of Christchurch quickly recognized that the face of their city had changed forever. The level of destruction meant the Central City would need to be completely rebuilt in places, which created the opportunity to redevelop in response to the needs of today’s residents and those of future generations.

While aftershocks continued to rattle the city and its residents were dealing with damaged homes and lack of basic services, Christchurch City Council asked residents to think of their vision for the Central City and launched Share an Idea.

Residents were encouraged to share their ideas with Council through the website shareanidea.org.nz, and at a two-day forum, people were invited to write their comments on sticky notes, make a video clip, build their Central City out of Lego, fill out questionnaires and go online or leave a last thought as they left the venue. In addition, a series of public workshops were held, and there were drop boxes for ideas at local universities and schools, and social media channels, Facebook and Twitter, were also used to seek ideas.

The end result of the six-week campaign was an incredible 106,000 ideas shared – one idea from every 2.2 residents. The level of community involvement was the highest that has ever been seen in New Zealand, and is thought to be one of the largest public consultation projects undertaken in the world.

Overwhelming amounts of data 

The overwhelming response highlighted the commitment by the community to make Christchurch into a great city again, however it also presented substantial challenges to the researchers who were tasked with making sense of 100,000-plus ideas and delivering them to planners as useable themes and topics as quickly as possible.

Patrick O’Neill, Research Analyst at Christchurch City Council commented: “We expected a large amount of public input, but we had no idea exactly how much.  The response was phenomenal and fortunately we decided very early in the project that we needed technical help to make sense of it all.”

“This was no normal research project – it was absolutely massive! The sheer scale of the project and the tight deadline to deliver a draft Plan to the community meant we needed a powerful analysis tool and the support of expert qualitative researchers,” he said.

In addition to the volume of data and short timeframe, the fact that the ideas were received in a variety of formats – including videos, emails, telephone messages and online posts – was also a challenge for the Council.

Delivering the impossible

Realizing they were faced with an extraordinary qualitative research project and knowing it would be impossible to deliver manually, Patrick O’Neill’s first thought was to use qualitative data analysis software NVivo 9. The Council had used the software in the past for smaller projects, including annual residents’ surveys, but delivering the analysis within the restricted timeframe would require more resources and skills than the Council possessed.

The City Council engaged Dr Lyn Lavery, Director of Academic Consulting Ltd. Patrick explains: “At first we asked Lyn to train Council researchers in how to use NVivo, but as the scale of the project became obvious and the tight deadline loomed, we realized it was necessary and would make the project more achievable to involve expert qualitative research consultants directly in the analysis.  In hindsight I am very happy we did.  Lyn’s team did everything that was asked of them, and it was great to be able to bounce ideas to find quick solutions to the challenges that arose.”

The solution was to set up a collaborative project team, using NVivo 9 at Christchurch City Council and NVivo 9 teamed with NVivo Server 9 at Academic Consulting in Auckland, which made it possible to complete “the analysis of initial public ideas of what in normal times would be a two-year scale project, in just eight weeks.”

With researchers working in two locations and sensitive information being transferred, the teamwork solution NVivo Server 9 was an essential tool. It ensured the security of the data through the use of authentication credentials, and allowed for close to real time project updates to be shared across the team in Auckland. The data was also easily exported as a single file, for sharing with the team in Christchurch.

Gaining insight from ideas

Christchurch City Council completed data entry and electronic capture of the raw ideas then sent the data to Academic Consulting using file hosting service Dropbox. This information was then grouped into themes or ‘coded’ by Lyn and a team of seven highly qualified academic researchers.

The coded projects were sent back to Council at the end of each day – to Patrick and a team of four researchers – who then completed further analysis to better understand the emerging themes and topics. The researchers at Council divided the project up into seven core areas and each person took one or two areas, analyzing them to come up with reports and insight about what the community wanted that could be passed on to the planners designing the new city center at regular intervals. The planners were also able to review and analyze the coded ideas.

In Christchurch, the Council was also able to use NVivo 9 to look at the data in ways that simply weren’t possible manually. For example, they completed text searches, and then viewed the results as word trees and tag clouds, to get a quick impression of the most important topics. Patrick commented, “From one query, the word tree ended up being longer than five meters because there was so much data – we had to print it out using several A3 sheets to show the planners. This happened just a few days after the expo and these queries gave the planners immediate insight into the public’s ideas.”

What the community asked for

The following themes emerged from 'Share an Idea' and were incorporated into the draft Central City plan:

If you would like to find out more about the Central City Plan, visit https://www.centralcityplan.org.nz 

The importance of collaboration and teamwork

Effective collaboration between Council and Academic Consulting and also between each of the individual researchers was crucial to completing the project on time. Lyn described “using NVivo Server 9 and working with Council researchers using NVivo 9 was like a well-oiled machine. Their attention to detail was meticulous and it was the teamwork between Christchurch and Auckland that enabled the project to succeed in spite of the odds.”

NVivo Server 9 was also critical because it allowed for central management and analysis of the qualitative research project. It allowed the individual team members in Auckland to work in the same project at the same time, effectively secured the project data, and allowed for regular updates to be easily exported and sent to Christchurch. Lyn explained, “The powerful analysis capabilities of NVivo 9 and the teamwork solution of NVivo Server 9 was what made it possible to complete this project.”

A rewarding qualitative research project

Being able to lend their qualitative research expertise to a project as important and significant as this one was a highlight for both the researchers at the Council and Academic Consulting.

Patrick says thousands of people in Christchurch have done incredible things to save lives and keep the city going, but it was nice to have the opportunity to use his research skills for the good of the city.

Lyn says as qualitative researchers, “we were blown away by the level of detail provided by the participants. You could tell the residents really valued the opportunity to have a say in rebuilding their Central City and it was really nice for us to also be able to make a small contribution.”

John Owen, CEO of QSR International, said: “we are extremely proud that our software was able to play some part in contributing to Christchurch’s ongoing recovery from such an overwhelming disaster. We look forward to seeing the Central City become a vibrant hub once more and a place that is a true reflection of its community.”

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