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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Statistical Literacy

I thought I'd pass along a couple of interesting sites that deal with the issue of helping people understand numbers and data.

The first site is, which highlights the extent to which people either don't understand numbers or aren't comfortable using them. This problem ought not to be underestimated as we prepare information for community consumption.

The second site is Statistical Literacy. This site provides a series of resources and bibliographic references to identifying, quantifying, and addressing the problems of statistical illiteracy.

Take a look. How do you address statistical literacy in your community? A community group in Sarasota, Florida, called SCOPE, implemented a training program to help the community understand how to use the data contained in their indicators set. On a global scale, this training in Amman, Jordan, is based on a course called "Indicators for Policy Management."

What's your story?

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Adapting to New Technology

As we examine new data display tools and new data sets, we wrestle with the key questions of innumeracy, statistical literacy, and making technology accessible and user-friendly to a broad set of people in the community.

Send me your ideas about helping your community understand and use your indicator systems. I'll share my favorites soon.

In the meantime, here's a quick reminder that the issues we face aren't new:

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Sustainability Blog

Here's a link to a blog about sustainability indicators with a new (and rather long!) post about creating a framework and selecting relevant indicators. The blog appears to be quoting from a report -- does anyone recognize the source?

Let me know if you run across other indicator-themed blogs and we can link them in.

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Measuring Happiness

One of the real treats I get to read is the Journal of Happiness Studies. The indicator set I work with explicitly avoids measuring happiness, prefering instead to concentrate on quality of life as "a feeling of well-being, fulfillment, or satisfaction resulting from factors in the external environments," and then measuring the external environments.

But I'm extraordinarily curious about ways to get at the piece that's missing -- are people in my community happy? I'm not sure that always lends itself to public policy suggestions, though the opposite does appear to be true (plenty of public policies can make me unhappy, for example, but well-written, thoughtful legislation doesn't often put a smile on my face like it should.)

Howard Dratch takes on the issue of measuring happiness, in light of the BBC series called The Happiness Formula. His response is, well, skeptical, but it's an interesting read anyway.

However, he pointed the way to the World Database of Happiness. I haven't run any of the statistics out of the database, but somehow just knowing that it exists makes me happy.

So thank you, Howard.

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Data Everywhere

In early March, USA TODAY ran a story about John Gantz, a tech analyst, who calculated that 161 exabytes of digital data (161 billion gigabytes) were generated in 2006.

Here's what they say that means:

What is 161 exabytes?
161 Exabytes of digital data was generated in 2006, says researcher IDC. That's about 168 million terabytes, or roughly the equivalent of:
36 billion digital movies
43 trillion digital songs
1 million digital copies of every book in the Library of Congress
Source: IDC, UC Berkeley, USA TODAY research

Per person
About 213 gigabytes of information was generated for each person in North America in 2006.
Source: IDC, CIA World Factbook, USA TODAY research

Who generates the most data?
Digital data production, by regions, in 2006:
North America: 41%
Western Europe: 32%
Asia Pacific: 22%
Rest of world: 5%
Source: IDC

161 exabytes is 185,620,362,241,702,000,000 bytes, approximately. That number is big. There are an estimated 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) stars in our galaxy. If we take that number as typical, if bytes were stars 161 exabytes would fill nearly two billion galaxies.

That's big.

What does this have to do with indicators? Here's a lesson I learned from Ken Jones at the Green Mountain Institute for Environmental Democracy:

In the night sky, on a clear day in the country, we can see millions, if not billions, of stars. The sky might look something like this:

Beautiful. Awe-inspiring. But too much to take in.

Until someone connected just a few of the dots to draw a picture. You may have recognized this picture already.

By putting together a series of data points into a constellation, we (or rather the ancient Greeks did) create a sense of order and can begin to tell a story. This constellation is, of course, Orion. And once we begin to tell that story, we can add meaning to those data points.

(For more about the story of Orion, click here.) After someone connects the dots for us and tells us the story of Orion, we then can see it for ourselves every time we look at the night sky:

And that's what big numbers and Greek myths have to do with the importance of community indicator systems. Good indicator sets pull together a set of data points, connect them in a meaningful fashion, and turn them into a story to move the community to action.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Neighborhood Indicators

I just ran across an interesting article on neighborhood indicators on the Neighbourhood Statistics section of the United Kingdom National Statistics page. The article does a good job in providing an introduction into the how's, why's, and terms associated with neighborhood indicators, and then lets you get straight into the data.

In the U.S., the closest thing I know about is the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, which serves to connect communities that are developing neighborhood indicators but doesn't provide the data.

If you know of other resources like the U.K.'s for America (or for other countries), please drop me a line.

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Indicators of Racial Disparity

In 1998, The Council of Economic Advisers for the President's Initiative on Race released a report: Changing America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being by Race and Hispanic Origin. The Presidential Foreword stated:

We face a variety of racial challenges in our country, many of them deeply rooted in our history. If we are to harness the great opportunities within these challenges, we must better understand the contours and nature of racial issues.

By providing much needed information about racial disparities, this statistical chartbook provides the basis for an informed discussion about the problems faced by people of different races and backgrounds in America. There is much good news here, with improvements over the past 20 years for all Americans in education, in economic status, and in health. But in far too many areas, there are still troubling disparities between people of color and other Americans. ...

A decade from now, I hope that people will look back and see that this Initiative made a difference by supplying much needed information, encouraging conversation, and inspiring concrete actions to provide equal opportunity for all Americans. I hope that when we revisit the facts and trends presented in this book, we will see much progress in closing racial gaps.

The Initiative was launched June 1997, and a decade later we can examine the indicators to see changes.

One systematic treatment of indicators of racial disparity (at least the disparities between African Americans and whites in America) is The State of Black America, by the National Urban League. Beginning in 2004, The State of Black America includes an "Equality Index," which consists of five weighted indices measuring inequalities in economic progress, health, education, social justice, and civic engagement. The 2004 report begins by making the point that:

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States counted an African American as 3/5 of a person for purposes of taxation and state representation in Congress, an Index value of 0.60. How much progress has been made in the United States in the past 216 years? The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, corrected this injustice, but according to the Equality Index, Black America still only stands at 0.76.

In 2005, the Los Angeles Urban League and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles applied the same metrics to their community, developing The State of Black Los Angeles (PDF) report. They reported an Equality Index of 0.98 for Asian residents, 0.69 for Black residents, 0.71 for Latino residents, and 1.00 for White residents (who served as the benchmark.)

Another effort to measure racial disparities on a local level is the Jacksonville Community Council Inc.'s Race Relations Progress Report. First published in 2005 as a response to a 2002 study, Beyond the Talk: Improving Race Relations, the 2006 update examines progress (or lack of same) towards eliminating race-based disparities in the quality of life across six areas: employment and income, education, health, neighborhoods and housing, justice and the legal system, and the political process and civic engagement. The 2006 report also references a 1946 report (PDF) on racial disparities in Jacksonville, Florida, which provides a fascinating perspective on progress as well as a sobering reminder of the problems that remain.

While many communities have been paying attention to racial disparities in individual fields (indicator reports health disparities or educational achievement gaps are fairly prevalent), a growing number of communities are beginning to document the broader scope of quality-of-life disparities faced by people of color. A fairly new report I recently was given is The State of the State for Washington Latinos: 2006, which takes a detailed look at issues ranging from education and employment to health care, juvenile delinquency, housing and homeownership, and voting rights and political mobilization.

Take a look.

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Edward Tufte

I had mentioned Edward Tufte's book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information in this post. I appreciated the heads-up about his website and the fascinating material on it.

The graph of Napoleon marching on Russia is available in poster size here. I'm looking forward to checking out his other books, including Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations. Can anyone review either Beautiful Evidence or his book on PowerPoint for me? The folks at Amazon seem to be of mixed minds on Beautiful Evidence.


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Public Performance Measurement Reporting Network

I received this announcement that I thought I'd pass on to whomever might be interested:

I am writing to invite you to join the new Public Performance Measurement and Reporting Network that is being launched by our National Center for Public Performance in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Your free membership in the Network will provide extensive resources for public sector performance measurement and reporting. This unique website provides access to performance measures, performance reporting models, case studies, government documents, articles, books, conferences and other resources. A listserv, e-newsletter and national/regional conferences will connect members of the network and encourage queries and ongoing dialogue. Government's stakeholders, in particular managers, citizens and elected officials, as well as academics, non-profit organizations and students of government, will find the Network to be a substantial, timely and dynamic resource.

For more than three decades, the National Center has advocated performance measurement and reporting as the means to more efficient, effective and participatory government. This Network links to all of the National Center's work in this area: the journal Public Performance and Management Review, a Performance Measurement System for Municipalities, books, articles, reports, an Online Public Performance Measurement Certificate, conference proceedings, etc.

Please visit to register for a free membership, and please forward this letter to other interested individuals. (Note: Free membership is not simply an introductory offer. There will never be a charge for membership in the Network.)

Sincerely yours,

Marc Holzer, Ph.D.
Dean, School of Public Affairs and Administration Rutgers University- Campus at Newark

When I visited, I found a number of useful resources, including this article: "Comparing Measures of Citizen Trust and User Satisfaction as Indicators of Good Governance: Difficulties in Linking Trust and Satisfaction Indicators." It's worth checking out. (I haven't gotten the registration to work yet, but we'll see if time helps.)

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Indicators of Cultural Vitality

Andrew Taylor has a blog entry on Measures of Cultural Vitality. In it, he discusses the Urban Institute's Cultural Vitality in Communities: Interpretation and Indicators. (A presentation about the report by the authors at the Community Indicators Consortium conference is available here.)

A good data source for information about the arts is Americans for the Arts, with several interesting data sets to choose from. FedStats suggests using IRS data to explore data about arts organizations. The U.S. Census Bureau's Local Employment Dynamics has interesting data for many states about people who work in the arts. There are also interesting information available through the National Endowment for the Arts and useful indicators from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Outside the U.S., a fun site is Singapore's indicators from the National Arts Council.

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Sustainability Indicators and Climate Change

I just got an interesting newsletter from Japan for Sustainability (JFS). Their set of sustainability indicators (and the process they used to select their "headline indicators") is quite interesting, and their graphical display of the changes from 1990 to 2005 is clear and concise.

Compare that to the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project. The Central Texas report is bigger (surprising neither Texan nor non-Texan) . But the subjects covered are similar, though not identical -- while both are concerned with the natural environment and climate change, Japan's project measures greenhouse gas emissions per capita, while Central Texas examines energy consumption, renewable energy production, and total CO2 emissions (see page 88-89 of the 2006 Biennial Report (PDF file).

The Australian Government has an interesting Headline Sustainability Indicators report that also approaches the same sustainability concept. Their climate change value section measures CO2 emissions (though the data needs updating) but also suggests measuring land and sea temperature change.

If you're looking at climate change indicators, this report from the U.K. is colorful and interesting. Be sure to check out the sustainable development strategy indicators measuring greenhouse gases from international aviation and shipping bunkers.

For a local sustainability indicators effort, however, is a per capita measure of CO2/greenhouse gas emissions better than an energy consumption/vehicle miles traveled per capita measure? Which is more likely to encourage individual behavior change? Which is more likely to influence public policy? What do you (or would you) measure?

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Mainstreaming Statistics

The National Infrastructure for Community Statistics (NICS) project had a conversation in 2005 about becoming a "Google" for community indicators. Now Google has apparently decided it wants to be the Google for statistics.

A Swedish newspaper is reporting that Google is buying Trendalyzer, says Where Most Needed, a charity industry blog. (Thanks for the heads-up!) Google's announcement says:

... we are excited to announce that we have acquired Gapminder's Trendalyzer software, and we welcome the Trendalyzer team to Google. Trendalyzer generates moving graphics and other novel effects in the display of facts, figures, and statistics in presentations. In its nimble hands, Trendalyzer views development data—such as regional income distribution or trends in global health—as literally a world of opportunity. Like Google, Gapminder strives to make information more useful, and Trendalyzer will improve any function or application in which data might be better visualized.

Gathering data and creating useful statistics is an arduous job that often goes unrecognized. We hope to provide the resources necessary to bring such work to its deserved wider audience by improving and expanding Trendalyzer and making it freely available to any and all users capable of thinking outside the X and Y axes.

Adding Gapminder to a set of free tools that includes Many Eyes and Swivel is exciting, and should lead to much more interesting data displays.

For those of you who are old-school, or who want a thorough grounding in how to display statistical information, I heartily recommend Edward R. Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The nifty bells and whistles technology can provide us today require judicious use (has PowerPoint really made presentations more interesting? It can, but in the wrong hands ....) Plus, you can see what charts and graphs looked like when scratched on a stone thousands of years ago. The representation of Napoleon's march on Russia is one of the most amazing visual displays of quantitative information I've ever seen.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Indicators of Older Persons

The National Association of Planning Councils, as part of their Leading Social Indicators project tried to find a local --> national scaleable indicator on elder abuse. They couldn't find one, reporting instead the following:

"Despite being of significant concern, no reliable national measures of elder abuse exist. The Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics in its report, Older Americans 2004: Key Indicators of Well-Being, calls for a national study of elder abuse and neglect, pointing out “the growing number of older people, increasing public awareness of the problem, new legal requirements for reporting abuse, and advances in questionnaire design” which should help in creating a national indicator set."Definitions in state law vary considerably from state to state in terms of what constitutes abuse, neglect, or exploitation of the elderly, which make comparisons at the state and national level difficult. Among the varying definitions to describe and study the problem are three basic situations of elder abuse: domestic, institutional and self-neglect. Within each situation are the categories of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Evaluation of the effectiveness of local efforts in elder abuse prevention depends on the development of a consistent definition of elder abuse and the ability to track reliable data."

Why is it important? Older adults are the fastest growing segment of our population. The well-being of our nation's seniors is important to society, as they present innumerable opportunities to contribute with their skills, knowledge and wisdom. While preventing elder abuse is not the same as ensuring a positive quality of life for seniors, it is a necessary precondition for elder well-being. Sadly, many abuse cases never come to the attention of the many agencies and community-based organizations whose goals are to assist the elderly. Often the victim depends on his or her abuser for basic necessities and care, and the abuse goes unreported. Other victims fail to seek assistance because of fear, shame or embarrassment."

Older Americans Update 2006: Key Indicators of Well-Being is now available, updating the 37 indicators identified in the 2004 report. While the report continues to be a useful source for demographic, economic, and health information, it still doesn't address safety or quality-of-life issues for seniors.

On the local level, several communities have been looking at ways to measure the quality of life of older persons. The Center for Community Solutions is one example -- see Older Persons for details.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported an effort to develop indicators of "elder-friendly" communities, and came up with 33 indicators they tested in 10 communities. Their list of indicators is instructive and survey-based. The survey instrument and more information is available at The AdvantAge Initiative.

As the Baby Boom population ages, and advances in medical care increase life spans, the percentage of the population over age 65 continues to grow. Finding the right indicators to measure how well communities address the needs of older persons and, perhaps more importantly, maintain or improve their quality of life, appears to be critical to creating better communities.

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Affordable Housing Indicators

Housing prices have been skyrocketing, far exceeding growth in median household income or average annual wage, and affordable housing has become a key priority for many communities. Finding a good indicator to express the complexity of the problem in affordable housing has been difficult.

The Brookings Institution's Urban Markets Initiative has developed The Affordability Index for certain metro areas that tries to combine the cost of transportation with the geographic location of housing. The formula is [(Housing Costs + Modeled Transportation Costs)/Income]. For areas where infill development and gentrification have pushed affordable housing farther and farther away from job centers, the index does a pretty good job of capturing the cost difference of housing near work v. far away.

A number of housing data clearinghouses, like The Shimberg Center in Florida or DataPlace nationwide, provide a great deal of useful data and information about housing. Don't forget to check out the national Affordable Housing Resource Center. I look to the Florida Association of Realtors for housing sales data in Florida, as well as interesting national comparatives.

But the debate over what affordable housing is has been shifting. We're starting to hear more people talk about "workforce housing" as well as or instead of "affordable housing", and shifting the focus of public policy and debate. A recent article (March 17) in the Sun-Herald in Charlotte, Florida, discussed a North Port housing study:

For the purpose of the study, planners identified three types of housing -- affordable, workforce and market.

Affordable is defined as housing for those earning less than 80 percent (of median area income) or $46,720. There are also three affordable housing types -- extremely low, very low and low.

Workforce housing is defined as affordable for housing for those making between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income, or between $46,720 and $70,080.

The last category is market, which is deemed housing affordable to those earning 120 percent or more of the area median income -- $58,400 is median income for the area, so that's the number we used. Most state agencies say households should not pay more that 33 percent of their income for rent, utilities and mortgage.

Those categories -- affordable, workforce, and market -- are still measured by the ratio of household income to housing cost -- purchase or rental price. But a few new variables are starting to impact heavily the notion of housing affordability.

The rise in the number of households using sub-prime lenders for conventional home purchase loans creates housing affordability problems that aren't necessarily reflecting in the purchase price of the homes. Post-Katrina (and in Florida, post-2004), the rise in the cost of homeowner's insurance also impacts housing affordability. Florida is also debating at the state level some measure of property tax relief, because property taxes also impact affordability. Utility costs have been increasing, but aren't often included in housing affordability discussions.

Census Bureau reports aren't current, but provide useful background information. The Census also provides monthly mortgage costs as a percentage of household income, and gross rent costs as a percentage of household income. The American Community Survey provides data on the percentage of the population that is housing cost-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing (rent, mortgage, or owners without a mortgage).

These options measure the housed, however. And it is still difficult to extract from the indicators some sense of how many households need housing more affordable than they currently have.

Are there better ideas/data sources for measuring housing affordability?

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Indicators of Sustainable Cities

The Sustainability in Hawai'i Blog has an interesting post on indicators of sustainability (and unsustainability) in cities, commenting on the work reported by Corporate Knights: The Canadian Magazine for Responsible Business. Measuring sustainability is critical, and there's some interesting tools and help to do that.

Redefining Progress has an on-line ecological footprint quiz that can help you see your own impact on the planet. They also provide (with the help of an Office Footprint Calculator. The Genuine Progress Indicator from Redefining Progress is helpful as well.

Also take a look at the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators for their look at equitable ecologically sustainable human development. is the home of the International Sustainability Indicators Network. They're also part of a Sustainability Web Ring that I've only started to explore.

And Sustainable Measures provides some welcome introductions to understanding and developing sustainability indicators for your own community.

Perhaps the best resource for understanding why measuring indicators of sustainability is important to a community, and what you can do once you start tracking these indicators, is Sustainable Seattle. One of the great pioneers of the Sustainability movement, Sustainable Seattle remains a vibrant force for good in the Pacific Northwest. (And they're good people, too!)

If you have some interesting links to sustainability tools or more information you'd like to add about sustainability indicators, please let me know.

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Community Indicators Consortium Conference

The Community Indicators Consortium held its Fifth International Conference in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, March 7-9, 2007. The conference program and many of the presentations are available here, with more presentations and a write-up of the conference proceedings to follow.

This was an exciting time to catch up with what was happening with the American Community Survey, Key National Indicators Initiative / State of the USA, and the upcoming World Forum of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It was also a time to learn from other communities and build/strengthen a network and community of practice among indicator practioners around the globe.

One highlight was the presentation of the CIC Innovation Awards, sponsored by the Urban Markets Initiative of The Brookings Institution. Winners of the award respresented communities that used indicators to measure both need and progress, and then used that data to make substantive improvements in the quality of life of people in their communities. A list of the winning projects is available at -- be sure to check out what these groups are doing.

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Data Display Tools

The buzz is growing about some new websites with interesting tools for sharing, displaying, and talking about data. is in "alpha version" but is already a fascinating place to upload data and use one of their many tools to display the data and invite conversation. See their new "tag cloud" function display word frequencies in the screenplay for Monty Pyhton and the Holy Grail, check out the scatterplot of 40,000 years of CO2 and temperature data, or map per capita personal income by state. Lots of fun display options. provides a different set of display options and discussion opportunities for your data. The addition of pictures with the data make displays like this one on foreclosures or this one on shark attacks much more eye-catching. has incredibly robust data sets already uploaded, and now allows you to upload your own data and discuss it in groups. You can tailor your own geographies by building them from the census tract up, choose your indicators (or add your own data), and then create charts, graphs, and maps for discussion. Fewer pretty pictures but the strength of available information (2,000 plus indicators with solid trend line data available) make this a must see.

More data display and discussion tools are expected to be announced soon. If you know of any other useful, fun, or interesting data display tools available, please let me know.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Indicators of Civic Health

In 2001, the National Civic League invited Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Yampa Valley, Colorado, to participate in a project to enhance and measure the civic health of communities. The hope was to develop and track over time quantifiable indicators of civic vitality. Since I'm in Jacksonville, this is when I started to pay attention to civic indicators.

The results were mixed. Jacksonville developed a civic indicators report that outlined current and prospective indicators, and then incorporated some of those indicators into its annual Quality of Life Progress Report. Yampa Valley continues to track civic indicators as a separate section of its Community Indicators Project. The National Civic League published a handbook, which is no longer available on its website (unless I just didn't see it -- correct me if I'm wrong, please.)

Recently, however, two initiatives are raising the level of conversation much higher, and it's time all communities paid attention. The National Conference on Citizenship released its first national Civic Health Index at its annual conference in September 2006. And the Colorado Civic Canopy in February 2007 held a fascinating discussion on civic indicators that shows the art and science of measuring the civic health of a community is coming a long way.

Robert Putnam's work has added richness to this discussion as well, as has the work of a number of other folks I'm forgetting right now but I'm sure some of you will remind me of.

Data sets for your community are available here. Are you measuring the civic health of your community? Do you know someone who is? Can you share that information as we move the conversation forward?

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Blogging about indicators

Data are exciting.

If you don't believe that, this may not be the right blog for you.

Finding the right numbers and putting them together in trend lines or maps or scatterplots or charts and seeing the picture that emerges can be amazing. And putting a set of those trend lines or charts or maps to work in a community to galvanize action or shape policy or direct funding or support action is exhiliarating.


And sometimes it's just putting a whole bunch of numbers together in the hope that data-driven decision-making will create better community outcomes than anecdote- or influence-directed politics.

As more and more information become available, and new and better technology to sort, display, and analyze the data are developed, I'm going to try to capture some of that here and share it with those that are interested. Please join me in pulling this stuff together.

Because data really are exciting.

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