Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Community Indicators in Wenatchee

Dave Meany over at Eagle Wire alerts us that Patrick Jones is spreading the conversation about community indicators. A recent newspaper article begins:

Something fascinating happened at Wenatchee's Confluence Technology Center last Thursday.

A diverse group of more than 40 leaders representing social service agencies, local governments, businesses and education institutions came together to hear a presentation about developing a database of community indicators to help assess how our communities are doing on key economic and quality-of-life issues.

At the end of that three-hour discussion, they passed around a microphone and every single individual endorsed the concept. Getting that much support that quickly is almost unheard of.

The more people hear about community indicators, the faster the movement grows. Let me know about other community conversations around indicators and I'll share them with the larger readership.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Telling Stories with Data - New Tools!

I've been playing around with a new tool I found online at

It allows you to do some really interesting things with words (click on the picture above if the text is too small to read).

When done, clicking "print screen" and then copying the picture into an image editing program (paint, PhotoShop, etc.) allows you to customize it.

The same site has other tools like Document Arc Diagrams, Shared Word Diagrams, Text Visualization Tools, and Topic Flowers.

I'm not sure how to best use these yet for a community indicators project. But they're certainly fun tools to play with, so I'm passing them on to you.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Civic Health Index

I'm a little late bringing you the update to this earlier article. However, better late than never -- and the data are interesting.

From The National Conference on Citizenship:

The National Conference on Citizenship's 2007 Annual Conference on October 4, 2007 released the nation's second Civic Health Index. The principal findings are based on a comprehensive national survey conducted by Harris Interactive and various government data sources.

Our new survey and data collected by the government suggest that there has been no recovery in 2007. In fact, there is evidence of further decline in some indicators, such as trust in other people and levels of charitable contributions. We also know that some of the few hopeful signs we saw emerge after 9/11 and that continued for a number of years, such as a wave of volunteering particularly among young people, have now fallen back to earlier levels. Our civic stocks are low, which is unusual in a time of war.

A closer look, however, gives us a foundation from which to build. This year's report identifies three important points that complicate the story of decline and may stimulate constructive ideas for how to move forward to improve our civic life.

Learn about these signs of hope and more inside this year's Civic Health Index.

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Call for Papers: Performance Measurement

From the Public Performance Measurement and Reporting Network:

On-Going Call for Papers for PPMR newest section:
Emerging Issues in Performance Management

Public Performance and Management Review is pleased to announce its newest feature: Emerging Issues in Performance Management. The goals of this new section are to identify critical issues facing government and nonprofit agencies as they improve their performance and accountability, and to encourage future research on those issues. The manuscripts in this new section are expected to be approximately 4000 words long, excluding references.

We are looking for papers that deal with:

  • performance measurement;
  • performance reporting;
  • uses of performance measurement;

All articles in this section will be peer-reviewed. Please send your submissions for consideration by e-mail to:

Dr. Patria de Lancer Julnes, Section Editor
Patria.julnes [at]

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Regional Equity Conference

Sarah Treuhaft, at PolicyLink, sent this message to the NNIP listserve:

The early bird deadline is fast approaching for Regional Equity '08: The Third National Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice, and Smart Growth, in New Orleans from March 5-7. Hosted by PolicyLink, the summit will gather over 1,000 leaders from the nonprofit, public policy, philanthropic, business, and academic arenas to explore critical issues and trends and share innovative policy and organizing strategies to advance social and economic equity. The summit will also provide an arena for discussing where we are as a field and how to scale up our efforts to have greater impact. Confirmed speakers include Joan Walsh, Van Jones, Tavis Smiley, Manuel Pastor, Gilda Haas, Myron Orfield, and dozens more inspiring leaders and practitioners.

The third summit, like the previous two events, has much to offer to people working within the data and indicators field. Context-setting sessions on major trends in housing, community health, poverty and inequality, development patterns, federal and state policy, and more will provide the big picture. Information-sharing and skill-building workshops will focus on specific topics like transit-oriented development, access to healthy food, and community benefits agreements as well as research, coalition-building, organizing, and policy strategies.

A number of sessions on data, mapping, research, and neighborhood information systems will focus on trends and innovations in the field, including:

- The Latest Research to Make the Case for Regional Equity

- Using Data and Maps to Support Equitable Development

- Show and Tell: Test Drive Neighborhood Information Systems

- Pre-Summit Equity Institute Training on Parcel Data Systems

Please join us at the event! The early bird $66 discount will expire December 17th. Scholarships are available for representatives of grassroots organizations. Go to to find out more, register, and spread the word.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Graphing Tautologies

OK, so it's a little silly.

Let me know if you use the graph in your next indicators report, though.

Special thanks to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics.

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Philanthropic Giving Made Personal

Check out this graphic from

From the article:

If you are still of the opinion that philanthropy is only for big foundations and the super-rich like Bill Gates, check out the pie chart above. According to the folks at GiveWell, “individual donors give over 100 times as much as the Gates Foundation and over 6 times as much as all foundations combined.”

I liked the presentation of the data -- the story it tells is one of citizen efficacy and the powerful nature of individual philanthropic giving. The graph seems to say, "Feel good about giving! You and me together give way more than Bill Gates" (which is true as long as the "you" is highly inclusive and involves a hundred million other people.)

But there's an element of story-telling in the graphic that adds a personalized, recognizable touch to the data -- puts a face and context on a part of the numbers -- which makes it easier to connect to the information. I suspect there's a lesson in this for those of us working with community indicators.

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The Science of Indicators

I'd like you to take a moment and read this article by Mallen Baker on indicators and communication. It comes from a business perspective rather than a community perspective, but the processes and principles should seem really familiar.

In the article, called "Responsibility reporting – Now write a shorter letter, better," Baker discussed how people are determining which indicators to report.

The clincher is found in the last paragraph -- "The question is whether we have been trying too hard to make this kind of communication into a science, when really it is art."

What's your feedback? Are we working on the science of community indicators, or the art? In my experiences, the art of community indicators consists in transforming a largely academic exercise into something that resonates with the community. How have you seen that happen?

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Big Cities Health Inventory

The Big Cities Health Inventory 2007: The Health of Urban USA provides city-to-city comparisons of leading measures of health, presenting a broad overview of the health of the 54 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. Produced with funding from NACCHO's Metro Forum, this report is the fifth edition of a compendium of health status indicators designed to provide usable information for evidence-based decision making.

To download a free PDF of this publication, visit:

From the introduction from NACCHO (National Association of County & City Health Officials):

We are very pleased to release the fifth edition of the Big Cities Health Inventory (BCHI), a compendium of health status indicators produced in a comparative format for the 54 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. This report fills an information gap that, despite great advances in information technology over the past decade, still persists today. Data on the health of our communities are probably more widely available at this time than at any point in the past. The Internet has become a vast repository of statistics on a variety health conditions. But less progress has been made in turning these raw data into usable information, especially for the nation's largest urban areas which face higher rates of poor health status and racial/ethnic disparities in illness and access to health care services.

Several key principles of public health practice depend on having reliable and current information regarding the health status of the community. The most obvious of these principles is evidence-based decision making and the core science of public health, epidemiology, is grounded in the collection and analysis of data.

Perhaps an even more fundamental principle is social justice and the recognition that eliminating health disparities is critical to improving the health of the overall population. For highly diverse urban populations, understanding the root causes of health disparities, including the synergistic interplay of social and environmental stressors that contribute to the erosion of resiliency in many of our nation's urban communities, is necessary to accomplish this goal.

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Globescan Survey Results

In a survey prior to the Beyond GDP conference, GlobeScan asked 1,000 people in 10 countries which of two points of view was closest to their own:

  • that governments should measure national progress using money-based statistics because economic growth is the most important focus for the country; or
  • that health, social and environmental statistics are as important as economic ones and that governments should also use these for measuring national progress.

Here are their results:

Support for the ‘beyond GDP’ statement is especially strong in developed countries. The French and Italians are most enthusiastic, with 85 percent of people supporting true wealth measures from health and social statistics. Only 10 percent support purely economic indices. In the developing nations of India and Kenya, around 70 percent agree with the broader growth measures, but a significant minority of 27 percent still believe in economics alone.

This survey was conducted by GlobeScan, on behalf of Ethical Markets Media, in June to August 2007, and looked at opinions in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Kenya and Russia. Alignment in the United States seems likely. Previous studies (from the Americans Talk Issues Foundation) have shown up to 79 percent approval of a ‘scorecard’ of quality of life indicators in the United States.

For more information, see GlobeScan.

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Corporate Sustainability Reports and Sustainable Investing

I enjoyed the conversation at the Beyond GDP conference on socially responsible investing. If you like the topic, here's a blog you might like.

The KLD Blog is geared towards conversations around sustainable investing, which they call "the integration of environmental, social and governance factors into security analysis and the investment process."

I liked the updates on mandatory CSR reporting in Malaysia and a conversation about putting CSR in a historical context of public purposes and corporations. It's an interesting conversation.

Ron Robins suggested we also look at, which also looks interesting.

My focus is on community-based indicators, and so what I'm more interested in is how the information market is shifting to provide more privately-generated data about social and ecological impacts. If we can find a way to tease community-focused data out of the developing CSR formats, I think we may be able to get something icredibly useful for our community work.

In the meantime, I'm interested in hearing from you if there are other places we should be looking at to understand what's happening in the triple bottom line or corporate sustainability reports movements.

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Using Indicators in Memphis

I ran across this blog article from Memphis and enjoyed its call to action on community indicators.

From A Field Guide to Urban Memphis:

part of the problem is the one of the mosquito in the nudist colony... where to start?

part of the problem is connecting people in need with institutions and programs that work. there are so many good programs - best practices - that we know work locally and nationally. we know that investing in early childhood is one very financially and socially responsible answer to the problems our community faces.

part of the problem is that we have no grasp of what the future holds. we know some trends in our community - decreasing pregnancy rates, rising crime rates, and community indicators (like being the most obese and sedentary city in the country) that show the health and well-being of people here. what's interesting is that we do know what the city will look like in the future if we do nothing. we'll have more of the same. more poverty, increasing disparity between the rich and poor, more segregation, more disenfranchisement, more immigrants, more people with higher incomes exiting the city and county for locations within the MSA... in short, we'll look the same, only worse. if we do nothing, current trends will continue.

however, if we do what we know works, our city can look vastly different in twenty years.

That's straightforward. "If we do nothing, current trends will continue." I like it.

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Gross National Happiness Convention

We've been talking about measuring happiness and Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index. Last week was the Gross National Happiness Convention, and here's what some folks had to say about it.

Besides calling GNH "rhetoric we use to impress foreigners", a local editorial said Bhutan's efforts to concentrate on happiness are critical but incomplete:

As an inspiration it has worked. The challenge is for us to construct the academic structure around GNH and to make it a practical basis for our planning process. As development experts say, we must “operationalise” GNH. Because Bhutanese people in general, and that includes the so-called educated section of society, do not read academic papers, GNH has to be operationalised by the small community of academics and decision-makers.

When His Majesty the King addressed the university graduates of 2007 in October, he said that Bhutanese must not just love our country but love our country with intelligence. That is it.

GNH must stir conscious intellectual thought. It is the use of reason to find reasonable solutions to the problems we face. We are essentially trying to make educated decisions in our policies. We are using common sense and ethics and imagination in our decision making process.

As we sit in an international conference, Bhutanese participants are acutely conscious that we are not going out to preach Gross National Happiness. We are not out there to solve the world’s problems. As much as Bhutan is praised for its enlightened development approach, we are not yet in a position to offer the alternative development paradigm that the world is seeking.

p2pnet quotes Bhutanese prime minister, Lyonpo Kinzang Dorji, as saying, “It is important to note that a considerable space exists between the inspirational ideal of GNH and the every day decisions of policymakers.”

The AFP quotes World Bank managing director Graeme Wheeler in saying, "Other countries need to follow Bhutan's lead in promoting Gross National Happiness as a gauge of national wellbeing."

For some in Bhutan, the key is volunteerism. Bhutan Majestic Travel (what a great name!) reports on a showcase of volunteer experiences, and makes this point:

Her Royal Highness said that Bhutan has always had a rich tradition of volunteerism, especially in the construction and preservation of community lhakhangs and chortens - as people believe in merit earned from such activities. “While volunteerism is not a new concept for Bhutan, the context, in which it can be made more relevant to developmental initiatives, needs to be looked into.” ...

B B Misra, a Bhutanese volunteer, said, “What United Nations volunteers are doing to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals, Bhutanese volunteers do to achieve Gross National Happiness.”

I'm looking for someone who attended the convention to drop me a note (or guest article!) about what they learned. (I've heard from one person it was fantastic, but I need more detail!) Is the GNH concept advanced far enough along to implement in a community indicators report? Why or why not?

Read more ...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Dashboards and Community Indicators

I've had a couple of requests recently for a discussion of community dashboards. We tend to use the term in two different ways. The first is to talk about community indicators projects in general, where the indicators themselves serve as gauges of progress in the community, and the set of indicators is the "dashboard". Under that definition, any indicators project is an example of a dashboard, though not all label them as such.

The second definition tries to get at a functional single-page image-intensive picture of community progress -- sort of community progress at-a-glance. There's some interesting work being done on these kinds of initiatives as well, and I thought I'd share a couple of my favorite examples.

One at-a-glance dashboard I like is in St. Louis with a group called RegionWise -- it’s their Wheel of Progress that I find so interesting. See for how they depict progress in each of their indicator areas in a picture that manages to convey an extraordinary amount of information in a simple design.

Randal Son, of Many Waters in Walla Walla, Washington, has an intriguing dashboard he’s interested in talking to more people about. You can see it at -- I really like how much information it displays with simple symbols.

Our friends at iisd have a free dashboard they’re trying to get others to use. It feels a little jarring to me, unfortunately, but it may be helpful for others in designing their own dashboards. See

Here’s The Florida Department of Children and Families dashboard -- -- it’s the best example I know of that shows what not to do. See The point of dashboards is supposed to be to convey information with more clarity.

A warning note about dashboards -- combining too many indicators into a simple picture can be about as useful as that doggone engine light coming on. You know something's wrong, but don't know what it is or what to do about it besides just hand everything over to professionals. That response, I think, defeats the purpose of a community indicators report, which in most cases is trying to democratize information, not obscure it.

What are your favorite dashboards out there?

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More Fun Maps

There's a link to the Strange Maps blog on the left-hand column. I'd like to encourage community indicators practitioners to take a look at it, if you haven't recently.

Besides an amusing map of Montana (divided into fringe groups), there's this great map about blondness in Europe:

Why do I point out these maps? Because community indicators are about storytelling, and storytelling is often about visualizations, and because most community indicator reports have fascinating information obscured by conventional Excel-created charts and graphs.

I don't have the answers to perfect data display technology or storytelling. Dr. Hans Rosling suggests technology -- the right instrument -- is an important part of the solution.

I just know that sometimes the creative-but-silly ways other people display information can trigger a new way to look at our continuing problem of making data relevant and meaningful in the lives of ordinary people and decision makers in our community.

So take a peek -- it's fun, and I applaud the work they're doing to pull together these maps.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

"Community of Opportunity"

I really liked the description of what the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Indicators Report has to say about the community. The Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council has been using the indicators to promote progress in the region, and asks in this article published by the Michigan City News-Dispatch, November 18, 2007:

Is Northwest Indiana a "Community of Opportunity"? If not, how do we ensure that all residents have an opportunity to succeed and achieve some form of financial well being and security?

The indicator report uses some interesting categories to advance conversation and action in the community, and supports a blog for ongoing discussion about the indicators. Blog topics include everything from income inequality to climate change. It's worth checking out.

The "Community of Opportunity" conversation continues:

The Quality of Life Indicator "Community of Opportunity" looked at issues of income and poverty in Northwest Indiana. It found that we are an area of vast economic contrasts.
The Quality of Life report urged the Northwest Indiana community to reduce poverty by 20 percent by 2010. The report acknowledges this challenge will require the public, private and non-profit sectors to work together on a solution.

Together, we can create a community of opportunity and we will all benefit in the long run. But it all starts with education!

That's a message that I think will resonate with many of us in our communities.

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Japan for Sustainability

While in Brussels, I had a chance to talk with Hiroyuki Tada, co-founder of Japan for Sustainability, I've been a fan of their work for a while, and you remember we talked about them last March.

I highly recommend subscribing to their newsletter, and checking their back issues for any of the articles you missed. The current newsletter discusses Redefining Progress' Genuine Progress Indicator (see, Gross National Happiness indicators in Bhutan, and a Gross Company Happiness measure coming from Japan as alternatives to GDP. It also discusses Eco-City contests, selling sustainability, and more.

Here's how to access the newsletter and subscribe.

The Japan for Sustainability newsletter is a free monthly newsletter tokeep you up-to-date on the latest developments in Japan. Japan forSustainability bears no liability for the newsletter's contents or use of the information provided. This newsletter is sent only to those who have registered for it. We do not rent, loan or sell this e-mailing list to any other party.If you wish to subscribe, please visit

To unsubscribe, please fill in the boxes of "Unsubscribe E-mailNewsletter" at the bottom in the form:

Back issues of the newsletter are also available.

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Call for Papers: Happiness and Capability Workshop

From the ISQOLS Listserve:

I am writing to inform the ISQOLS network about the Happiness and Capability: Measurement, Theory and Policy workshop organized by the Chair in Economic Theory and Policy at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

The aim of this workshop is to provide a platform to debate and appraise these two strands of well-being research in the social sciences in general and economics in particular. The workshop will be held in the former Augustinian convent Soeterbeeck (Ravenstein) and brings together experts-economists, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and policy makers-working on the frontier of the theoretical and empirical characteristics of well-being.

Call for papers:

Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to submit a proposal no longer than 500 words. Submissions for sessions are strongly encouraged. Sessions would consist of three to four papers or a roundtable discussion with 3-4 speakers. A session proposal should contain, in addition, title and description of the theme of the session in up to 500 words, and the name and contact information of the session organizer.

All submissions will be considered for a planned edited volume.

Please send all your queries, abstracts or proposals to


January 31, 2008: proposal submission
February 28, 2008: notice of acceptance or rejection June 30, 2008:
completed paper

Keynote speakers:

Ruut Veenhoven, The Netherlands, (Erasmus University Rotterdam).
Des Gasper, The Netherlands, (Institute for Social Studies).
Jon Hall, France, (OECD).

For further information please see

All the very best,

Ramzi Mabsout

PhD candidate in economics and ethics
Radboud University Nijmegen
Economics Department TvA 5.1.70
Postbus 9108
6500 HK Nijmegen
tel: +31 24 36 115899

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Community-Level Child Indicators

News from Child Trends: November 28, 2007
Fall Newsletter Focuses on Community-Level Child Indicators

The Fall 2007 issue of The Child Indicator focuses on community-level child indicators. It includes articles on:

  • Chapin Hall report on the value of local data for programs and services
  • Mapping indicators with the Reproductive Atlas of Health
  • Updated Vital Stats, Right Start, and American Community Survey websites
  • Child Well-Being Index national and international reports
  • An introduction to the National Infrastructure for Community Statistics website
  • Recently released reports

The goal of The Child Indicator series is to communicate major developments and new resources within each sector of the child and youth indicators field to the larger community of interested users, researchers, and data developers on a regular basis.

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Beyond GDP - Update from Conference Organizers

Dear Beyond GDP Participants,

On behalf of the European Commission, European Parliament, OECD, WWF and the Club of Rome, many thanks to each of you for your participation at the Beyond GDP event. The presentations and discussion amongst speakers, panelists and participants were rich on substance and engaging. All told, over 650 participants from more than 50 nations participated in person, and over 3,700 visitors came to the website during the event, where live video of conference proceedings was available.

Speaker presentations are now posted to the website, and can be found either by speaker name or in the context of the conference and expert workshop programmes:

In addition, Stavros Dimas, European Commissioner for the Environment, has blogged about the event, and invites you to continue your contributions to the Beyond GDP discussion there:

In the coming days, conference proceedings and the full video archives will also be online.

The Beyond GDP conference constitutes a key milestone in the ongoing effort to improve our measures of progress, true wealth, and well-being.
The ideas and initiatives shared at the conference will play an important role in shaping the future direction of research, policy making and public understanding of these issues.

Again, thank you for coming to the event, and best wishes for your future work in this area.


Aaron Best
Project Manager, Beyond GDP
Ecologic gGmbH

Oliver Zwirner
Project Co-ordinator, Beyond GDP
European Commission

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Beyond GDP: Day Two - Business, CSRs, and Responsible Investing

There are a number of reports out on the conference. This one has a number of notable quotes from dignitaries. Here's how Reuters covered the conference. I found the coverage from China gave me hope for a global movement beyond GDP. And the press release (which got picked up by a number of news services) mentions Jacksonville, Florida, which makes me happy.

Here's a blog commentary on the conference (see also Day One to give you a different perspective.

After the opening remarks, Hazel Henderson led a panel of business representatives in a conversation about triple bottom lines, enhanced analytics for investment practices, and other efforts to include externalities in assessments to avoid risks and hold companies accountable for their impacts on People, Planet, and Profit. While this has been an ongoing conversation for years, the information age is now an age of truth, Hazel suggested, making it easier to ask for and receive a broader range of information from companies on their environmental and social impacts.

Carole M. Laible, President and Chief Operating Officer, Domini Social Investments, began by showing that the pressure to meet short-term economic goals often leads to horrible long-term impacts. The wealth that corporations create is more than just their stock price; accordingly, investors need to recognize the intangible costs and the intangible values created. The key is disclosure; what is disclosed is measured, and what is measured is monitored. What we might consider are global investment standards; by using investment standards at Domini, responsible investors have accomplished what many others have not. These standards should examine the companies' impacts on universal human dignity, ecological sustainability, and financial wealth. The standards should include three aspects:

  1. Measurement of externalities, the intangible costs and intangible value-added assets
  2. Incorporation of these externalities into an expanded GDP
  3. Ensure the public understands what is being measured and why

Nicole Notat, President, Vigeo Group, added that we should look to re-internalize externalities. Including social impact and sustainabiity measures provides a more useful analysis for asset managers and investors, and opens up new opportunities for innovation and growth. We need to emphasize that companies who do not pay attention and incorporate these externalities in their reporting are putting both their reputations and legal consequences at risk. We also need to make sure that the standards cover companies that operate internationally so that we can examine the same parameters no matter where they do business. Currently, the legal framework isn't there. ILO, the UN, and the OECD can make recommendations and help with the analysis parameters. We need also to consider the effectiveness of managerial systems in addressing indicators of environmental and social aspects, indicators on the consistency in implementing processes, and indicators of the results of implementation of these processes. The raw material is information, but at some point we will need to create an international standard to make it easier to set up these parameters. The ISO -- the international standards organization -- has been looking at a possible social responsibility standard, but they have been working on this for three years and are no closer to a conclusion.

Lothar Meinzer, Director with BASF, stated that corporate social responsibility means mainstreaming social and environmental concerns into business acttivities for added value. the problem isn't creating the indicators -- the Global Reporting Initiative and the European CSR Alliance have indicators, and BASF reports the data in their annual report. The real question is how to use the indicators in value-based management and to push towards eco-efficiency and beyond to socio-eco-efficiency. Integration is the key word.

Stephen Pursey, Head of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Integration Department, reinforced what Dr. Frey had said about employment, happiness, and well-being -- employment is central to one's identity, self-esteem, and social relations. Work centers are where economic markets meet social relationships. As such, we should include measures of decent work in our efforts to move beyond GDP. In doing so, we should consider the following:

  1. Many developing countries have weaker data available and less capacity to collect data, particularly on the quality of work.
  2. Classical market indicators are created in developed countries are less useful in developing countries. We need a broader measure of labor availability that takes into account the very different labor conditions in different countries, especially as we currently have no adequate picture of decent work conditions.
  3. More and more developed countries are supplementing their data with surveys on perceptions of job security. Few developing nations have this data.
  4. We should focus on national policy makers and the information they need to make decisions. This suggests an approach that creates country profiles with multiple measures that can be useful even if not every country has the data available for every measure. The numerical data usually needs an accompanying narrative.
  5. We need a major transformation in the world of work. We need to be looking at 'sustainable employment', and the industrialized nations need to be supporting the developing world in making this happen. The decent work concept embraces the economic, social, and environmental pillars of sustainability.

Hazel Henderson suggested examining the green jobs initiative and the need to grow a green economy. Once we internalize the social and environmental costs we will have the ability to steer towards building a new sector.

Nic Marks, from the new economics foundation, suggested that while we've been talking about the need to internalize the externalities, what we really should be looking at is how to externalize the internalities. Our economic system itself is the problem -- marketing necessarily creates a cycle of dissatisfaction and the need to produce more and more products, many if not most of which are unnecessary. No matter how eco-efficient we become, as long as we are trapped in this cycle we are not improving our quality of life.

Other important discussion points that followed were:

  • Unless we make change at the macro level, individual business change will always be the exception. This will require global standards and a global framework. CSR is only voluntary.
  • If we are serious about the environmental concerns raised, we need to dematerialize the economy. We need to move toward an economy that focuses on quality, not quantity; services, not products; adding value, not increasing production.
  • To have sustainable development we need different development. We need to recognize intangible goods, not just those classified as intabgible company assets. We need to create a different kind of society that appreciates the immaterial goods. The kind of development represented by the GDP is inherently unsustainable -- we need cultural consensual development, which means indicators on the immaterial or dematerializing society which is more than just companies.
  • We are likely to go down in history as the species that monitored our own extinction rather than doing anything about it.
  • We need to recognize that paying attention to social and environmental indicators may require decreasing economic activity.
  • Indicators have local dimensions and should link up to local frameworks. We have excellent examples of local communities with indicator frameworks that go beyond GDP and should be considering their work -- including Jacksonville. (Amen!)
  • We need a decent work index with true measures of actual work and decent work conditions. However, the problem with an index is making the subjective decisions on how to weight the values.
  • How do we aggregate individual corporate reports? How can we link corporate sustainability reports into a larger global framework? How can we decide how much progress is enough?
  • We should start by ending subsidies to unsustainable practices and begin by leveling the playing field.
  • Companies already plan investment cycles in 20, 30, 40 year cycles. We can get companies thinking long-term rather than short-term. One way to do that is to insist that executive bonuses are received only at the end of a long-term contract to remove the individual financial incentive for short-term thinking.

Author's comment: I took too many notes, obviously, and am having difficulty not putting some of the information in. I hope you can bear with me -- there's still two more sessions and the concluding remarks to come! I spent the evening after the conference at the amazing Grand-Place and then yesterday traveling. Today is the American holiday of Thanksgiving, which should allow me the time to catch up on these notes to share with the blog readers. I hope you're finding them interesting -- if nothing else, this is ensuring that my notes ae saved somewhere that I can find them again! Now on to the next session ....

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Beyond GDP: Day Two - Opening Remarks

I'm back in the States, and using a standard QWERTY keyboard -- I loved Belgium, but had a hard time using the Benelux keyboard layout. I think I've corrected most of the typos in the previous posts now. Any mistakes from here on out are mine and can't be blamed on the hardware.

Back to a discussion of the conference. They have a video online discussing key issues raised in the conference, and will be posting the archived webcasts soon. We began Day Two with a presentation by Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament. While he said that decisions about which indicators and instruments to use should be left to the experts and statisticians, the implications of the discussion are much broader. He continued:

Recent years have shown us that climate change and unchecked economic growth can have irreversible negative impacts, and it is clear that the GDP as a measure of a nation's overall growth does not reflect the welfare and wellbeing of its citizens. Clearly we need indicators that take a more holistic approach to understanding the economy, social realities, and the environment.

Jeremy Bentham said, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” This demands that we reconsider the measures we use. We need to consider what we want for our future and the future of our grandchildren. Globalization will provide great opportunities for the European Union if we take charge and proceed in a sustainable fashion, but globalization has side effects that we cannot brush aside.

We must move beyond GDP. For too long we have equated GDP and the welfare of nations. We need a paradigm change in thinking. Since the 1950's, economic growth has increased substantially, but so has pollution and loss of natural resources. We need a new leitmotif that we can involve in other policy considerations. We need to build new measures based on shared values with human beings at the center. The European Union is a community of values, among which is concern for a clean and healthy environment.

I fully support the initiative of this conference. We as legislators need a set of indicators for our policy work so we can make decisions based on the right kind of information.

The message started the second day with a high degree of optimism, tempered by the thought that 12 years ago a similar conference in the same place called for the same things -- new measures to understand the social and environmental impacts of policy decisions and new ways to define and measure progress. Perhaps, however, the mood of the world and its priorities have shifted enough to make new national measures of progress a reality.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beyond GDP: Day One, Part Three

Nearly done with my notes. Timo Mäkelä (Director, European Commission, DG Environment) chaired the next panel. Giulio Santagata, Minister for the Implementation of the Government Programme, Italy, spoke first. We need to assess the quality of the growth and the quality of the decisions we are making, which means not simply replacing GDP with another indicator. We need to have recognizable indicators for the environment and social capital. We need to think carefully about the selection of indicators and the number of indicators. We have more and more information coming in -- while we are open to this enriched information environment, we can get snowed under with all of this data.

Be parsimonius in the selection of indicators. Be rigorous in the selection. Be careful about saying "this is the state of the nation." We need the man in the street and the people involved in government to be able to understand and use the same indicators.

HE Chief Emeka Anyaoku, President of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), began by saying that 12 years ago they co-hosted another conference called "Taking Nature into Account." At that time, they said that we needed new measurement tools to chart the path to sustainability. The call is the same now, only more urgent. We need to move beyond conventional economic accounting.

The Living Planet Index is like the Dow Jones Index of nature and reflects the health of the planet's ecosystems. The Global Footprint Network's Ecological Footprint shows the extent of human demand on these ecosystems. Ecological indicators alone do not measure sustainability; you need to include a measure of the quality of life. WWF is looking at both the Human Development Index and the Ecological Footprint together to see if we can have a high quality of life while living within the resources the earth provides. Living within the box of these two indicators is the single greatest challenge of the 21st century. We need to remember that economics are a means, not an end.

Pervenche Berès, Chair EP ECON committee, spoke next. We need measures that get at our use of nonrenewable resources and income distribution. We must begin with quality of life and well-being -- finding a shared definition of these terms is crucial. GDP must be supplemented by several progress indicators. We also need the conviction of policy makers that when they have the right data they will make the right decisions.

Pier Carlo Padoan, Deputy Secretary-General, OECD, added that the OECD saw in Italy and then in Istanbul a world movement around indicators. An essential factor for successful democracies is reliable information. Better information is an essential support of democratic governments. A set of key indicators is the best approach. We need comparability of indicators across countries. Early next year, OECD will publish a book on Measuring Progress and Practice. They are also trying to build an online network and information resource that will serve as a wikipedia for progress. We cannot enforce one single view of progress.

Questions/comments from the audience were:

  • Cities, the civil society, and businesses are developing measures of progress. How can national governments pioneer alliances with the work already being done?
  • The quantity of information is not an issue. We're shifting our discussion to the quality of the information. The is a shift in our notion of progress as we move toward a knowledge-based economy.

Pervenche Berès responded: The Lisbon Strategy tells us GDP is incomplete as a measure - GDP does not evaluate sustainability or the added value of a knowledge society. If we're going to be coherent we need measures that take into account externalities of spending, the environment; public goods, and distribution/social equity.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku added: intangible assets are not the same as public goods. We're discussing these new measures in the context of Europe and the developed world; Some of these theses can be challenged in the developing world. In trying to measure progress and well-being we should be careful in the selection of knowledge on which the indicators are based.

Pier Carlo Padoan said we need to pay attention to all the places where innovative information is being shared. We need to think micro to macro and vice versa; local to global and vice versa. We need to think not only beyond GDP but below GDP. The Lisbon Strategy tells us that knowledge is a powerful driver of growth. This should make us be careful in how we use information and concepts to scrutinize potential indicators.

If you were at the conference, what did I miss? If you weren't, what questions or comments do you have?

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Beyond GDP: Day One, Part Two

The day continued with Professor Bruno S. Frey, Economic Policy and Non-Market Economics, University of Zurich, getting the room fired up about measuring happiness. His message was that happiness is the best measure of wellbeing, and that happiness can be measured with very valid measures. Six or seven years ago, measuring happiness seemed to him like it was impossible to do; today, with the extent of research in the field, happiness measures are more valid than the GDP.

Happiness, or life satisfaction, is a more meaningful measure than national income or the Human Development Index. But government policy should NOT be to maximize happiness; instead, it should be to enable people to reach happiness.

The first surprising result of the research is that most people are happy. When asked the question, "Taken over all, how satisfied are you with the life you lead?", most people answer somewhere between 6 and 8 on a 10-point scale. Happiness (or life satisfaction) indicators are a good proxy for individual welfare (high validity). We have good research fro, the World Value Survey, Eurobarometer, and brain scan research.

In the meantime, ,any of our "objective" measures are not very good. 50 to 60 percent of national income is attributed to government activity in many countries, which may have little to do with well-being. HDI is not good -- life expectancy is good, but only if the added years are happy ones. School enrollment is not an output. Income per capita is not an indicator of well-being -- he showed here a graph contrasting real GNP increases over time against a static happiness measure.

What does this mean for public policy? Government should NOT try to maximize happiness. We cannot be naive. Government will try to manipulate the measure. In addition, it draws attention away from the things that should matter to governments -- justice, responsibility, solidarity. Government SHOULD enable people to reach happiness, by focusing on education, general economic conditions (unemployment is the worst thing for unhappiness), environment, political conditions; Citizen participation rights and decentralization are important -- the more people participate in politics, the more satisfied they are with their lives.

Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health, Karolinska Institute, Sweden, presented next. If you haven't seen him present, go right now to to see him in action. Still here? Dr. Rosling began by showing sheet music from Chopin, and asked if we could tell how beautiful it was. A composer, who specializes in this, can look at the notes and see the beauty. We couldn't, because all we could see were the notes -- we needed an instrument and someone to play it. Even an electronic keyboard, would help -- they're inexpensive and a child can play them. Too often we get excited about statistics, but all we present to the public are the notes, not the music.

There are two major target groups for Gapminder -- children and heads of state. Analysts play the music in their heads already. He showed the gapminder tool, which is tremendous, then offered these points about what the world needs in a data tool:

  • Unified format is very important
  • Search function
  • Design
  • Interactivity
  • Storytelling

How do we get there? Innovation, which requires many ideas, new technology, investment, and data access. The problem isn't the ideas, or the technology, or the funding. It's access to data. We need to develop a standard data access license so that the data can be available. We get too caught up in DbHd -- Data Base Hugging Disorder -- if we can solve this, we can get the data out.

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Beyond GDP: Day One

The conference so far has exceeded expectations. As we enter into Day Two, I thought I'd share some of my notes from the first day's sessions. If others have more to add, please comment on this post. (You can still catch today's sessions via live webcast at )

The day began with a technical workshop. I was setting up our display booth, so I could not attend, but it was summarized as follows: About 120 people examined the utility of the GDP as a measure of progress, and reached these conclusions, as reported by Anders Wijkman, MEP, Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee:

  • GDP is an insufficient measure of progress. The group examined the possibilities of using composite measures or integrated measures. They didn't choose one approach over the other, but wanted to ensure that whatever plan they reached allowed for parallel efforts to develop better indicators, and also allowed for specific indicators to address specific problems -- for some problems, the more precise the indicator, the better.
  • How to define well-being differs from country to country. For example, in Rio de Janeiro security may be a critical measure of well-being, while it may not be such an issue in Stockholm. The group would perhaps be better served with several parallel definitions describing a basic set of assets that are indispensable.
  • Efforts to "decouple" economic growth from resource use aren't helpful -- we need efficiency gains (in several orders of magnitude) but resource use and economic gain are tied together.
  • We have lots of data. Economic data is currently produced monthly or quarterly; environmental data may have a 2-year lag time. Certain areas need more or better data. These include ecosystem accounting, ecosystem services, natural capital degradation, interlinkages, and more. Care should be taken to merge the Lisbon strategy, sustainability strategies, and climate action strategies into one strategy. We also need to increase information to consumers to help spark change. We need more information about living conditions at the parcel level, about the trade-off between work and leisure time, and to better understand human capital and investments in education. We also need to understand taxation systems, which are based on increasing revenue growth.
  • Science and education are not optimized. We need better information to the public and to policymakers. It needs to be easily understood, and travel both from the top down and the bottom up.
  • We are in a real hurry. Externalities overwhelm us.

The opening session began with remarks from José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. His theme was that global governance needs new data and new analytic tools. GDP alone is insufficient for the policymaking of the 21st century.

Joaquín Almunia, Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, said that statistics are indispensable. The GDP measure was developed out of the Great Depression in the 1930s and is now the foremost measure of economic activity. Developing something new will be difficult. Because composite indicators require weighted values, they are not seen as objective or transparent. He prefers a system of environmental accounts like the European system of national accounting. The new challenges of this century require a new statistical instrument.

Rui Baleiras, Secretary of State for Regional Development, Portugal, EU Presidency, said we need consensus on sustainable/social welfare concepts in order to develop the tools to measure them. New tools have a double role: (1) to help the decision-making process, and (2) to help government and the people understand the new challenges we face. Progress, in a new paradigm, should include economic prosperity, social cohesion, and environmental sustainability. It is more important to have a picture of the overall forest than the individual trees. It is too difficult to have too many indicators all moving in different directions. We should restrict our efforts here to developing a few, high-level indicators. We need to think of the work as a cycle: (1) define progress, based on research; (2) develop progress measures; (3) produce and present indicators of progress; and then cycle back to (1) continue clarifying our definition of progress based on research with the policy makers.

More on the next post .....

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blogging from Belgium

Hello, blog readers! I'm in Brussels, Belgium, for the Beyond GDP conference ( I had a chance to explore the city yesterday, and now we're getting ready for the Indicators Expo the conference is hosting. (For those in Brussels, I'm over at the First Euroflat Hotel, if you want to drop by and say hello.)

For those who can't be here, I urge you to check out the conference site. They will be webcasting many of the speakers as they wrestle with ideas on how we can better measure the progress of nations. You'll get a chance to hear more from Hans Rosling, Enrico Giovannini, Hazel Henderson, and others that should be familiar to follower of this blog.

In addition, the site link to a number of different indicator projects and tools, some of which we will be highlighting further in future entries.

I think we all agree that the gross domestic product is, of itself, an inadequate and misleading indicator of progress. What are your thoughts about what we should be measuring instead?

ETA: Here are my notes from the conference:

Beyond GDP Day One
Day One, Part Two
Day One, Part Three
Day Two, Opening Remarks
Day Two Continued
Update from Conference Organizers

See also the September 4, 2009 announcement here.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Social Indicators and Public Policy: Call for Papers

Here's a call for papers, courtesy of the ISQOLS listserve. If you're interested in subscribing to the listserve, the information is provided below.

Dear Colleagues,

Today I'd like to draw your attention to the next activity of the ISA - Working Group "Social Indicators", which will be part of the 1st ISA World Forum on "Sociological Research and Public Debate," taking place in Barcelona, September 5-8, 2008. The Working Group "Social Indicators" is organizing a conference track entitled "Are Things Getting Better or Worse, and Why? The Role of Social Indicators to Inform Public Policy."

A call for papers is published at the following website:

You'll find more information on the ISA Forum at the ISA-website:

The deadline for submission of abstracts for our conference track is December 31, 2007.

Looking forward to your applications!

With best wishes,
Heinz-Herbert Noll
Dr. Heinz-Herbert Noll
Director Social Indicators Department
Postfach 122155
D-68072 Mannheim (Germany)
Phone:+49-621-1246-241; Fax: +49-621-1246-182/100
email: heinz-herbert.noll [at]
ISQOLS LISTSERVE: ISQOLS listserve is an electronic bulletin board established to help quality-of-life (QOL) researchers post messages and announcements that may be of interest to QOL researchers.

How to Subscribe to ISQOLS Listserve: All you need to do is send a message to and indicate in the body of the message: SUBSCRIBE ISQOLS-LISTSERV.

How to Post Messages on ISQOLS Listserve: The listserve is moderated. This means to avoid SPAM, all messages have to be approved by the moderator. The moderator is Joe Sirgy. Send your message to Joe at or . Address the message to ISQOLS Listserve Members, and the message will be posted on isqols listserve if it is found suitable and of interest to QOL researchers. It is that simple.

How to Unsubscribe to ISQOLS Listserve: If you don't want to receive any postings from isqols listserve, all you need to do is send a message to and indicate in the body of the message: UNSUBSCRIBE ISQOLS-LISTSERV.

ISQOLS Listserve Archive: To access ISQOLS Listserve Archive visit the following website:

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Training Opportunity: DataPlace


Join Us for Advanced DataPlace Training in Portland, Dec. 12

Have you attended a DataPlace demonstration, and want to learn more about how to use DataPlace in your work? Join us in Portland, Ore. on December 12 for a full day advanced course, Working with DataPlace Maps and Data to Make Your Case. Learn how to show funders and stakeholders where the greatest need for your services is in your community, and how to demonstrate where you've had the most impact over time. DataPlace™, a free online data and mapping system, assembles in one place a variety of housing and demographic data at geographic scales ranging from the neighborhood to the nation.

This new course is for participants who are already familiar with DataPlace and want to improve their skills at using this powerful tool on issues they are facing in their work. You will analyze use cases from other community development organizations and consider how they might apply to your own situation. You will also work with DataPlace via the Internet during the course to create maps, charts, etc., and be able to retrieve these documents back at your office for your use.

For more information, and to register online, visit:

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Monday, November 12, 2007

MacArthur Foundation's New Directions in Community Change

The MacArthur Foundation just published a newsletter called New Directions in Community Change. It begins with a President's Message that highlights the importance of looking at the overall quality of life in urban renewal, in this case in Chicago, and the need to track progress through a series of broad community indicators.

The newsletter continues its conversation about the use of data to spur and measure community progress. Articles like Measuring for Success, Community Mapping Comes Full Circle, and Bridging the Information Gap in Urban Markets add depth to the discussion.

For community indicators practitioners and neighborhood indicators advocates, this is an amazing effort. Bringing residents and volunteers together with smart phone technology to provide accurate, on the ground measures of neighborhood conditions is really quite exciting. Data partners assist revitalization efforts in understanding potential markets. Composite indicators measure neighborhood progress.

Some of the data partners in this effort include the Metro Chicago Information Center, the Urban Markets Initiative, and the National Infrastructure for Community Statistics.

Let me know if you've got examples of this kind of collaboration with your community indicators efforts. I'd love to highlight the work.

Read more ...

Friday, November 9, 2007

Quote of the Day

Heard on NPR this morning:

"The devil's in the disaggregations."

Anyone catch the name of the speaker? Let me know, please.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Training on Using Community Data

I enjoy hearing about how other communities help people use their indicators reports. If you do community training on how to use data, please tell me about it and we'll see if we can start a conversation on tips, techniques, and traps in helping improve statistical literacy.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Obesity Statistics

I saw this chart, found at, to be a powerful way to display data in ways guaranteed to spark conversation. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

The execution is brilliant in its simplicity. Once again, the challenge for our community indicators projects is to display the data in ways that provoke conversation and promote understanding. I think this chart does that.

What other examples do you have that we can share?

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Engaging Citizens in Public Performance Measurement

Here's a heads-up from the Public Performance Measurement Reporting Network (PPMRN). A new report has been released which you may find useful in your own community indicators efforts, especially in trying to integrate community indicators with government performance measurement systems.

Engaging Citizens in Measuring and Reporting Government Performance and Community Conditions: -- A Manager's Guide

Alfred T. Ho
Associate Professor
School of Public & Environmental Affairs
Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis

Report link:

This report presents specific guidelines to local public managers as well as nonprofit leaders on how they can work with each other and with citizen representatives to use public input to guide government performance and community conditions reporting. This report challenges the traditional notion of "performance management," in which public managers dictate what indicators should be used and how data should be analyzed and presented and suggests that citizen engagement should play a larger role in the process.

Two models of public engagement are recommended in this report. The "partnership" model emphasizes equal sharing of power between citizen representatives and public officials in deciding what and how performance indicators should be used. This model is illustrated through a case study of the Des Moines "Citizen-Initiated Performance Assessment" project in 2001-2004, which was a partnership between the city government of Des Moines, Des Moines Neighbors, and several universities in the region. The second model, which is the "community indicators" model, gives even more power to the public by empowering and supporting nonprofit organizations in a community to measure the quality of life and policy outcomes through self-organized efforts and collaborative partnerships between government, nonprofit and business organizations. This approach is illustrated in this report through a case study of the Boston Indicators Project, which just released its 2004-2006 report in June 2007.

From the Des Moines and Boston experiences, the report provides specific recommendations on the following aspects:

  • how to prepare government and community leadership to engage the public in performance measurement and community conditions reporting before the project launch;
  • how to solicit public input and engage the general citizenry effectively in designing performance indicators;
  • how to report community conditions and program results effectively to citizens so that the content of the report, whether in paper or in electronic media, is meaningful, understandable, accessible, and credible to citizens;
  • how to engage the public in follow-up after the release of a performance report so that the analysis can be used to empower policymakers, community leaders and public managers to take responsive action.

Read more ...

Arizona Indicators Project

The Arizona Indicators Project "is a collaboration of Arizona State University, the Arizona Republic and the State of Arizona. The project seeks to build a shared, community-focused data repository for the Phoenix Metropolitan Area and for the State." That's the description given on the front page of the Project, and it already has two important lessons for us: (1) thank your sponsors early and often, and (2) especially thank media sponsors, and you might get press like this.

The report itself lets you browse five content-specific dashboards (economic indicators, quality of life indicators, sustainability indicators, education indicators, and innovation indicators), as well as a dashboard for "comparing Metro Phoenix". It also has two sets of interactive maps, economic and sustainability.

If we click on the "innovation indicators" section to see what they're measuring, you can see the lessons in design continue. The different sections on this page are useful for explaining what it is the user is about to see. They begin by identifying their collaborative partners, explain the purpose of the section, link to more information, and provide an opportunity for feedback.

They then explain that the innovation indicators are provided in two sections: inputs to innovation and outputs of innovation. The next section is interesting:

Rationale for Innovation Indicators: In modern economies, innovation and new technologies lead to economic gains in the communities in which they are adopted. A good economic foundation nurtures innovation, and innovation is necessary if an area wishes to be an economic leader. Once an area decides it wants to be a leader, the challenge is to develop a business and socioeconomic environment that promotes innovation. The innovation indicators contained in this dashboard assist individuals and policy makers to assess the local innovation environment and to make policy decisions that would allow Arizona to better compete in this environment.

They then provide navigation tips, usage notes, and a caveat.

So I click through the inputs to innovation, and then click the research and development link, and then click through to patent applications -- and finally I get to the data. The site is well organized and pops up quickly, and I suppose five clicks to get to the data isn't excessive -- but the number of steps makes it really hard to get a quick overview of the data sets provided.

The good news is that the data are provided in side-by-side maps and data tables, with opportunities to select the comparison years and the raw data in front of you. I really like that. You can save it, download it, print it as a PDF, and more. In addition, each indicator has an "information" icon, which provides an indicator description, its classification within the set (its category and subcategory, the definition, data sources, rationale for inclusion, and comments on the quality of the data. As nearly perfect a data site as I've ever seen, and I highly recommend that you check it out for your own community indicators efforts.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Mashups and Data Visualizations

Three recent presentations and one announcement may be of interest to community indicators practitioners. The first is from the recent InfoVis conference where folks from Google, Swivel, and Many Eyes shared their perspectives on the impact of social data visualization.

The second came from a librarian, Darlene Fichter, sharing how to do mash-ups and data visualizations using available (as in free) tools on the web, with lots of examples. This is where you use existing data from other places with some sort of data visualization tool, such as mapping technology, to create something new and informative that displays data in a way that makes more sense to the viewer or illustrates connections not otherwise as readily apparent.

The third is from the IEEE international conference on data mining, where the folks from Swivel shared their perspectives on "motivations and challenges for technology in collaborative data analysis and visualization".

The announcement (sort of a pre-announcement of an intention to try to do something worth announcing later) is that GraphWise and Swivel have begun talking together, which can only be good news for those of us who want information easily available and compellingly displayed.

(Side note: I'm looking for someone who attended the Public Performance Measurement Reporting Network conference this past weekend to share a few words on this blog about the highlights of the conversations. If you're interested, e-mail me.)

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Happiness, Gender, and Statistics

Over the past month or so, there's been a series of articles in the traditional media and the blogosphere about a couple of papers suggesting a "happiness gap" between men and women. I won't re-hash the arguments, though I will link to some of the more interesting articles at the end of this post. What is of interest, I suspect, to community indicators practioners is the potential pitfalls in telling stories with data.

The controversy began with this New York Times article that attempted to tell the stories behind this article (PDF) and this one. It quickly spread to a couple of my favorite blogs, Language Log (for those of you who like linguistics) and the Freakonomics blog (for those who, like me, are easily amused by data.)

The core of the issue is that a small change in a trend line led to some strong statements generalized about the relative quality of life of men and women in America. There might be a need to make such statements, and the statements might in and of themselves be true (note how carefully I'm weaseling out of this particular debate in hopes of maintaining some sort of personal happiness!) The problem was, however, that the neither the data nor the trend lines appear to support such sweeping generalizations. Here's the lesson learned.

In 1999, we did some work locally on adult literacy. In that report, we used some synthetic estimates of adult functional literacy developed by Stephen Reder using a comparison between the 1990 Census and the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) conducted at the same time. Using those two sources, and finding the correlations between the NALS scores and Census responses, he could estimate adult functional literacy rates for every county in the United States. So as part of our project, we duly reported that an estimated 47 out of every 100 adults in our county could not read, write, and perform math skills at a 10th-grade level in 1990. (This was better than the state average, which had 51 out of 100 adults at levels 1 or 2 on a five-point functional literacy scale, meaning they had functional literacy problems.)

You'd have thought the sky fell in. For the next six years, our "horrific adult illiteracy" was the talk of the town, and that $%^&$#! 47 percent number was used to mean anything the speaker wanted it to. We did have a problem in preparing our workforce for higher literacy skills. We just didn't have the kind of sky-is-falling problem that started showing up in the media over and over again.

The moral of this story that I learned is to be careful telling stories with data. You want to draw community attention to a problem. You don't want to overstate or exaggerate the problem, however. That's when the data start to lose truthfulness and become less helpful in making community decisions or setting priorities.

That was our story with literacy. Here's a new story on happiness and gender, and I suspect the same lesson applies. I think you'll enjoy reading these -- the first two are the technical articles, and the rest are reactions and story telling.

Mark Liberman provides a timeline of articles here that I thought you might appreciate:

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Happiness, Quality of Life, and What We Measure

We've been discussing happiness and economic prosperity and the different kinds of happiness and misery indicators we could be measuring. Now Newsweek explains why money doesn't buy happiness and sets up an interesting question for community indicators practitioners.

First of all, the research suggests that happiness buys money, but not the other way around.

The True Ancestor blog puts it this way:

... [In] Stumbling on Happiness, [Harvard psychologist Daniel] Gilbert notes that "wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter."

The Gross Domestic Product in the U.S. has nearly tripled since World War II, ... but people's sense of well-being has stayed virtually unchanged. Economic indicators turn out not to be such good predictors of happiness.

Interestingly, young people who are happy go on to earn more throughout their lives than do their unhappier counterparts. No chicken-and-the-egg conundrum here: the chicken that is happiness lays the golden egg that is economic well-being.

With the upcoming international forum on gross national happiness coming up, the question of why we're measuring what we're measuring is an interesting one. Legendary indicators guru David Swain frames the issue this way:

What intrigues me the most about the comparison of QOL [Quality of Life] and GNH [Gross National Happiness] concepts of measuring is the difference in the understanding of “happiness.” As I’m coming to understand it, in Western QOL thinking, from a community/national perspective, happiness is concerned with matters “external” to the human mind/spirit. Business oriented marketing/happiness measurement is concerned primarily with material goods and services, what people want and will buy. Community oriented quality of life issues are concerned with what groups of people can do collectively to improve the external environment, excluding “internal” issues such as faith and spirituality. Again, as I’m coming to understand, Eastern, specifically Buddhist GNH thinking makes no such distinction between external and internal, between material and spiritual. So, measures of happiness are defined quite differently.

Many, if not all, of our community indicators reports measure economic indicators. Sustainability efforts describe the intersection of people, place and prosperity (or economy, environment and equity or whatever the latest alliterative formulation might be with a Venn diagram thrown in). But while we keep getting more and more creative in our development of measurements of the external environments, few (if any) community-level indicators reports seek to measure happiness.

Is that by design, or oversight? How would you respond?

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