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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Super Crunchers: Book Review

I picked up the book Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart at an airport bookstore and was entertained for nearly the entire trip to Chicago. I thought community indicators practitioners might be interested in Ian Ayres' book, and so I'll share my thoughts.

Please note that this is coming from the perspective of someone who has been trying for quite some time to increase the use of data-based decision-making, particularly in public policy. The chapters on public policy -- especially "Government by Chance" -- were especially interesting to me, but I was predisposed to accept the author's arguments from the outset.

The book begins with a discussion of the incredibly large quantities of data available now. He points out that "a terabyte is the equivalent of 1,000 gigabytes. The prefix tera comes from the Greek word for monster. A terabyte is truly a monstrously large quantity. The entire Library of Congress is about twenty terabytes of text." He tries to get us used to the idea of huge amounts of data and increased cheap data storage and powerful processing capabilities, which allows for "super crunching" of data. (He doesn't mention the rumors of a terabyte ipod, however.)

(For another perspective on the amount of data being generated, see this earlier blog post from last March. It has pictures. And a discussion of exabytes, which are way cooler than terabytes.)

With that amount of data, and that amount of processing speed, amazing things can be done. 100,000 lives saved with simple changes in medical practice. Effective policy demonstration practices replicated quickly. Airlines and booksellers and grocery stores tailoring their pricing structure to extract as much money as possible from you.

Wait, that last part didn't sound as exciting. But that's the downside of this data explosion -- along with the lack of privacy, the notion that business can use data to your personal dollar pain threshhold and come as close to it as possible.

So how do we counteract these trends? Increased public availability of data. Community access to information. Put the data in the hands of the consumer or voter and see what kinds of revolutionary changes are possible.

The author's a friend of the Freakonomics guys, and tries to write a book as engaging and controversial as theirs. It's not quite there. But it should make you think a little bit about how you use data and the importance of open, free access to information to counteract the growing information imbalances in our society.


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