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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Community Indicators and Road Trips

As I mentioned earlier, I'm on the road right now on vacation, taking a chance to see America. In between trying to figure out why kids love the Chipmunks so much and wondering where I can find internet access, I started thinking about the communities we were driving through and how different they were.

I think it was in Upton, Wyoming yesterday that some thoughts started to crystallize. When you enter the town, there's a big sign: "Welcome to Upton: Best Town on Earth". From an outsider's viewpoint, this town of 872 people didn't appear to be exceptional in any of the indicators we use in our community to measure progress. But maybe that was the point.

The week before, I had wandered through the Yampa Valley in Colorado. Besides getting back at my kids for playing Chipmunks over and over by repeating "Yampa" as often as possible (aided immeasurably by the number of times the road crossed the Yampa River), I thought about their community indicators project. Their work on civic indicators (pdf) includes measures of voter turnout, like many indicators reports, but it also looks at how they give philanthropically and how they communicate with each other about shared governance issues. To their south, the Pikes Peak community indicators project measures philanthropic giving differently, and adds in religious engagement as a measure of civic health, along with volunteering. Different communities, different measures.

I'm often asked if there is one really good standard set of measures for communities to use in their indicators reports. Certainly there are measures that show up more often in reports. The National Association of Planning Councils compiled a fascinating report in 2002 that examined common indicators framework and shared indicators among its member organizations in their social indicators reports. The State of the USA effort is trying to compile a national framework for indicators. Some data sets, because of the recognizability, usefulness, ubiquity, whatever appear to be nearly standard, regardless of their flaws (all indicators have flaws, of course.) But the collection of indicators from community to community, while sharing some common characteristics, always has some surprises.

What's even more interesting are those indicators that communities want to measure but have no data for. (We shouldn't assume an indicator is a good one because it is common -- data limitations can force us into too few options to get at what we really want to measure.) I've heard some amazing suggestions for indicators from community groups. And the struggles to measure things like "coolness" of a community or its "authenticity" are sometimes pretty rough.

I don't think there's one set of perfect community indicators, any more than there's only one kind of good community or one kind of scenic beauty in landscapes. How can you find a set of indicators that captures Yellowstone and the Columbia River Gorge and Zion National Monument? Rainfall? Foliage? Elevation? I'm in South Dakota today, having just stared in awe at four presidents on a cliff face. What if my indicators for "astounding national parks" included something about "natural vistas unspoiled by man"?

So here I am, in the shadows of Mount Rushmore right now, still thinking about community indicators. (That's what you do on vacation, right?) One more random thought: As we drove down through some fascinating geological formations yesterday in Wyoming, we saw placards announcing the ages of the rocks around us. Jurassic. Cretaceous. Philadelphian. Cambrian. Pre-Cambrian. I was filled with the wonder of seeing the incredible geologic time sequence, measured in millions and then billions of years. Such immensity of time has to put our local efforts in perspective.

Even with Chipmunks screeching "Please Christmas don't be late."


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