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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Friday, February 27, 2009

State of the USA and 1,000 Points of Data

The State of the USA has responded to the New York Times editorial calling for a national indicator program. That's a good thing, because I'm a big fan of the work they've been doing, and I'm getting pretty excited about their official launch, scheduled for some time this fall.

Chris Hoenig, President and CEO of The State of the USA, writes:

In response to a growing call for new ways to achieve shared understanding, increased transparency and improved accountability, a new dialogue is unfolding among Americans and in the media about how to measure the performance and progress of our society. The State of the USA’s mission is to help Americans better assess the progress of the country. We aim to provide key national indicators on the Web as a public service, bearing on major issues ranging from health and the economy, to education and the environment. In the next few months, we will begin by publishing data on key national health indicators, followed by a steady progression of information on other issues. This is a daunting task, which will take some time to accomplish. A working partnership between the public and private sectors will be central to accomplishing this mission.

As a private, non-profit organization dedicated to free information dissemination in the public interest, we rely in particular on working with the people and the products of the U.S. federal statistical system. Without them, we and thousands of other institutions like ours would be unable to make our contributions to better informing the American people. Our role as a private institution allows us to perform an important function that government cannot: combining in one place both public (i.e., official) statistics from federal sources as well as the best quality data from other organizations – commercial, state or international. It is also possible for us to be more selective in our choices of measures that are especially important for Americans to focus on. To do this in a responsible fashion, we rely on an editorial process with a variety of inputs – from polling research and public workshops run by America Speaks and Westat, to expert advice from institutions such as the National Academies. (The National Academies is the umbrella organization for the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.)

Conversely, there are vital functions that public institutions, like the Federal government, have a unique ability to provide to help Americans assess the progress of the nation. These go beyond the tremendous service of managing the nation’s multi-billion dollar statistical system – the lifeblood of so many decisions in our democracy. From the moment of the State of the USA’s founding, we have encouraged the federal government to create a key national indicator system to ensure that Americans get even better access to valuable data on the changing nature of American society. (The State of the USA engages in limited advocacy on behalf of an independent key national indicator system, which is allowed under the Internal Revenue Service code and governed according to the respective policies of its funders.) Such a system has been recommended to Congress by the GAO, and recent media coverage has highlighted growing bipartisan support for the Key National Indicators Act – a bill to be introduced by Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Michael Enzi. This legislation would establish a bi-partisan commission to create such a system. The commission would then charge the prestigious National Academies with the task of creating and managing the system.

Ever since its founding, America’s democracy has grown and strengthened when the best of the public and private sectors are brought out in appropriately constructed partnerships. As we have also seen recently, it can weaken when these partnerships are neglected or poorly constructed. The historical lesson is not to avoid them or ignore them, but to design and manage them well. It is our greatest hope that, should the Key National Indicators Act be enacted into law, we and many other public and private organizations can make contributions to such a partnership in the interest of the American people and future generations.

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My List of Blogs

Some of you may have noticed the list of blogs on the left-hand side of the page. These are some of the blogs that I think might be of some interest to community indicators practitioners.

As we were going through the latest updating of this site, the blog list was accidentally deleted. I've added several of the blogs on to the list, but I know I'm missing quite a few.

If you would like your own blog linked in, or know another blog you like to follow that the rest of the folks here ought to know about, please let me know and we'll add it to the list.


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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Data360 Responds to NYTimes Op-Ed

This is fun -- a challenge to the Duberstein editorial, some self-promotion, and a throwdown challenge to the State of the USA project. Perhaps some controversy in the field will help draw attention to it -- it's embarrassing that the editorial could have been written without at least acknowledging the work already occurring on the subject.

From Tom Paper:

Dear Editor,

Ken Duberstein wrote in an opinion piece titled “1,000 Points of Data” on February 23rd that “What we need now is a Web-based system for measuring our changing society with key national indicators — in a free, public, easy-to-use form.”

Such a system already exists in a site called Data360 (see In business, successful companies build operating reports that are published internally, usually on a monthly basis, that explain very clearly (and visually) the state of the world for that business. When I started my consulting practice, five years ago, I asked myself, “where is my business report for the state of the world?” The answer was that insightful and succinct reports about the state of the world are not publicly available (although if I was a client of Goldman, Sachs I could get an insightful report on almost any subject, but, alas, I was not a client). And so I went about building a tool that would be web-based, free and tell stories graphically with data that left the reader feeling more certain about the state of the world. Four years later, that tool is Data360, a free, public, open-source, easy-to-use and objective tool for reporting on what’s so in the world. Steven Levitt positively reviewed our site in May of 2007, as have many others.

There are other sites today helping to unlock the data in our world, including Swivel and Many-Eyes, although anyone can load data onto these sites and so the certitude of the data presented is not always known. There are also quasi-government sites like State of the USA that they are dauntingly large, not fully launched and not customer-focused. What is really needed is a site like Wikipedia, that can grow organically and respond to the interests of readers. I gave a talk last June at the Community Indicators Conference in Washington, DC, in which I pointed out that the trend towards data democratization is happening, but for it to fully take hold, there are some key principles that must be followed, the most important of which are:

1.Integrity. Data presented graphically must have integrity. Seems simple, but as Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

2.Dynamic. The data must be updated on a regular basis so that it is current. Business people will see the exact same report every month, updated for current data, and, because of that repetition, the thing that they begin to notice is how things are changing.

3.Interpreted. The data must be interpreted. This is the most challenging principle, because data is like a haystack. It’s easy to present a lot, but hard to present just what is important. The best tool will make an interpretation that is distilling AND fair.

Ken Duberstein is correct: a national indicator system is needed; however, an international indicator system is also needed, as well as city indicator system and a state indicator system, not to mention an indicator system for issues, like global warming and education. Data360 is already partnering with innovative organizations like California Forward to unlock California’s data and Applied Survey Research to unlock and empower citizens with dashboards in literally thousands of communities around the globe. Our biggest challenge, as a non-profit, is finding both the resources and the people to populate and manage the data on our site. However, I know we will overcome these challenges and I felt it was important to let readers know that the “web-based system” that Mr. Duberstein mentions is already built.


Tom Paper

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Minor Blog Changes

I was unhappy with the commenting software we were using on the blog, and so we're now using the Blogger commenting system.

In order for this to happen, we had to lose all the comments from previous posts.

Hopefully, the new system will be easier to use, and you'll feel comfortable adding your thoughts to the information we share.

Thanks for your patience as we upgrade this blog!

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

NYTimes Calls For National Indicator Set

Have you seen the editorial today in the New York Times? Kenneth Duberstein writes about the State of the Union address:

But given today’s challenges and the rapid pace of change, a yearly formal address is no longer sufficient to measure the true state of our Union. To recapture the spirit of the founders — and to fulfill President Obama’s own promise to provide greater accountability in Washington — another tool is needed, one that enables all Americans to gauge whether we are making progress as a nation.

What we need now is a Web-based system for measuring our changing society with key national indicators — in a free, public, easy-to-use form.

That sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn't it? It's such a great idea that "Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Michael Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, plan to soon introduce a bill that would allocate about $7.5 million a year for such a comprehensive database of key national indicators, and the idea already has wide bipartisan support. The data, selected by the National Academy of Sciences, would come from public and private sources of information on issues like education, the environment, the economy, energy use, housing, health care and the state of our roads and other public works."

Which would be fantastic -- except Congress already did this. Through the GAO and the National Academies of Science. And they spun it off, and it's now called the State of the USA project. And it's scheduled to be done and online by Fall 2009.

Here's more:

The State of the USA, Inc. (SUSA) is a new nonprofit organization that will assemble high-quality measures and data that can be used to assess the progress of the United States; it will display those measures—as a public service—on its website. SUSA will serve nongovernmental organizations, the media, policy makers, business leaders, foundations, scientists, educators and citizens by providing valuable information so all Americans can educate themselves about the progress of the United States.

With advice from the National Academies, SUSA is assembling a set of key national indicators to measure specific conditions or trends in this country. Data will be drawn from this country’s most respected public and private statistical sources (e.g., the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis) and will help the public track the nation’s progress on a wide variety of issues at many demographic and geographic levels, to the extent such data are available.

So what's up with the editorial? The legislation? Any ideas?

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

It's All Data: Twittering the Super Bowl

Just in case you missed it, the New York Times created a time-series twitter map of the U.S. during the Super Bowl, mapping the most popular words used, by location.

You need to check it out -- especially click on the "ads" button and play it through, and the "emoticons" button.

Two quick lessons:

1. Everything is data.
2. Data display technology rocks. What excuse do we have for still using bar charts?

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Webinar: Community Health Status Indicators

April 16, 2009
Community Health Status Indicators: Employing a New Tool for Assessments and Planning

Jennifer Stanley, MA
Director, Public Health Systems Research
Public Health Foundation
Washington, DC

Norma Kanarek, PhD
Executive Director, CRF at Johns Hopkins
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Baltimore, MD

This webinar will showcase and provide a tour of the newly released Community Health Status Indicators (CHSI) containing individualized reports for more than 3,000 counties in the United States. The CHSI online tool provides local and state public health agencies, hospitals, community health centers, community organizations, policymakers, and researchers with unprecedented access to comprehensive and nationally comparable health data. The goal of CHSI is to provide easy-to-understand reports that convey the breadth of public and community health issues, and the uniqueness of local health needs and community assets. It is intended to support local health improvement and needs assessment with data assembled from multiple sources.

County reports present demographics, summary measures of health, preventive services use, estimates of vulnerable populations, birth and death measures, risk factors for premature death, indicators of environmental factors, and health care availability. Plus, every county is matched with peer jurisdictions for comparative analysis and benchmarking of health indicators with similar communities. (The CHSI Working Group includes: the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the Public Health Foundation (PHF), and faculty from Johns Hopkins University (JHU). The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a funder of the current CHSI dissemination efforts.)

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify health status indicators that are available at the county level in the CHSI website
  • Identify where to find the reports, peer counties, and downloadable database
  • Identify and discuss ways in which this tool can be employed to support needs assessment, priority-setting, and community health action planning
Edited to add: I forgot where to tell you to sign up! Go here for more information.

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PolicyMap Student Update


Jeff Rechler

215-564-3200 x118

PolicyMap Launches Affordable E-Resource for Students

Online Mapping Tool Lets University Students Utilize

Professional-Grade Data at an Accessible Student Rate

(Philadelphia) February 11, 2009 – TRF’s today announced that it is opening up its vast wealth of online market and demographic data to university students at a deeply discounted rate. Students now have easy, affordable access to the same professional-grade data utilized by thousands of policymakers and professionals across the nation. The electronic resource is intended to aid scholarly research and support class discussions through the application of credible data that was previously scattered across the web or unavailable for students.

University students can utilize TRF’s for quick access to more than 4,000 data indicators related to demographics, real estate markets, education, employment, money and income, crime, energy, and public investments. These indicators are aggregated from a variety of sources including U.S. Census, Claritas, FBI, IRS, the Postal Service, and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

“Students can now support their coursework not just through data, but with compelling visual maps, charts, tables, and reports,” said Maggie McCullough, Director of TRF’s “The full range of data and GIS functionality on TRF’s is available to students at just $35 per semester, a fraction of the cost to standard subscribers. “ For details, students and professors who wish to subscribe can visit or call 1-866-923-MAPS.

More than 150,000 users have accessed TRF’s since its launch in 2008. To date, its varied subscribers include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, state agencies including the New Jersey Housing Mortgage Finance Agency, private entities like Comcast, as well as nonprofit community organizations nationwide.

About PolicyMap

PolicyMap is an online mapping tool that makes it quick and easy to gather and analyze geocentric information. PolicyMap is a service of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a not-for-profit leader in the financing of neighborhood revitalization. TRF developed PolicyMap to empower decision makers with better access to credible market and demographic data. To utilize PolicyMap, visit To learn more about TRF, visit

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

OECD Training Course Announced

Here's an update from the OECD:

Dear colleague,

I am pleased to announce that the OECD, in conjunction with the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) have developed a training course on "Statistics, Knowledge and Policy: Understanding Societal Change", to be held in Ottawa (Canada) on 11-15 May 2009.

The course has been designed to provide assistance to those wanting to understand the progress of their societies and promote evidence-based debate and policy making. It will be of interest to statisticians, economists, policy makers, and people from the private and civil society sectors and we are targeting people with at least 5 years’ work experience.

Organised as a part of the Global Project on "Measuring the Progress of Societies" (see,3417,en_40033426_40033828_1_1_1_1_1,00.html), the course will focus on the importance of statistics for democracy and democratic decision-making; measures of progress that go "beyond GDP"; tools to transform statistics into knowledge; and evidence, civic engagement and policy making.

The maximum number of participants is 25 and the deadline for registration is 31 March 2009. The cost of all training, accommodation and lunches will be 2,000 Euros (or 1,500 Euros for the course without accommodation). For more details see,3343,en_40033426_40037426_41341551_1_1_1_1,00.html

If you need more information, please do not hesitate to contact:

Barbara Iasiello (

Yours sincerely,

The Global Project Team

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Job Opening: GIS Analyst

MAPC’s Data Services group has an opening for a GIS Analyst/Geodatabase Specialist. The Data Services Group seeks to utilize information and create technology tools that help not only inform Metro Boston’s planning and public policy, but also drive social change.

GIS Analyst / Geodatabase Specialist

Position definition
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council seeks a GIS Analyst for the Data Services Group. The GIS Analyst will collect and organize geographic data, conduct analysis, and prepare maps for presentation in print and electronic formats. This is an opportunity to work in a dynamic, multidisciplinary environment focused on using data and analysis to support regional planning and policymaking.

Primary Responsibilities

  • Perform work related to GIS data, mapping, analysis, and technical support for MAPC regional planning projects and initiatives.
  • Provide on-going support and maintenance of the regional geo-spatial data library
  • Assist with the installation of software and hardware, setup, and troubleshooting
  • Establish a method for cataloging, storing, and archiving existing data sets in a central database
  • Research and obtain updates to our current data sets as they are released
  • Collect and maintain project data from other units within MAPC
  • Research and identify new data sources that will expand our service capacity
  • Conduct statistical analysis and prepare summary reports from data sets
  • Maintain and update existing Community Viz model and adapt for local applications
  • Build relationships with other agencies and allied organizations
  • Respond to email and telephone data inquiries from municipalities and allied organizations
  • Assist Data Services Group staff in presentation of reports and other information, both oral and written
  • Perform other duties as necessary

The following are required qualifications for the position:

  • A bachelor’s degree in planning, geography, geographic information systems, public health, economics, computer sciences, or a related field and at least three years experience in GIS
  • High level of cartographic experience
  • Experience with creation and management of geodatabases.
  • A high proficiency with ESRI software, including ArcGIS, ArcSDE, ArcIMS, and ArcGIS-Server
  • Experience with XML, SQL, Microsoft Office and in particular MS Access
  • Experience working with diverse data sets from federal, state, and local agencies.
  • Knowledge of spatial statistics
  • Demonstrated innovative, strategic and analytical capabilities, self-motivation and goal-oriented approach
  • Ability to communicate effectively with internal staff and the general public (oral and written)

The following are preferred qualifications for the position:

  • Master’s degree in planning, geography, geographic information systems, public health, economics, computer sciences, or related field
  • Experience in application programming and development or strong aptitude in using VBA, .NET, XML, ArcXML, ArcObject, Java Script, CSS, and HTML
  • Experience with graphic design software such as Adobe PhotoShop, and IT experience a plus
  • Experience with PostgreSQL, MySQL, and open source GIS and Internet mapping
  • Experience with scenarios modeling (Community Viz), visualization, and 3-D modeling.
  • Experience with data replication and archiving

Compensation and Benefits
Salary range from $44,000 to $49,000 DOQ. Excellent state employee benefits package.

Position open until filled. Review of applications will begin on February 15th, 2008.
Interested candidates should submit a cover letter, resume and three references. MAPC is an EOE/ AA employer.

The MAPC Data Services Group conducts the following activities:
• Maintain a warehouse of geospatial and tabular data about Metro Boston and continually acquire or develop new datasets.
• Provide data analysis, mapping, policy analysis, and modeling support to all other departments within the agency.
• Provide basic analytical services and data products to municipalities and allied organizations, both “on demand” and through on-line resources.
• Provide training, technical assistance, and coordination to support municipal use of GIS, other data applications, and other technology.
• Undertake customized research projects or studies for external clients.
• Conduct independent research on emerging planning issues of regional significance to educate the public, private, and non-profit sectors on the implications of policy and regional trends.
Over the past few years the Data Services Group has:
• Developed the Metro Boston Data Common, an on-line web mapper and data viewer (in partnership with The Boston Foundation).
• Prepared demographic, employment, and land use projections for 164 municipalities in Metro Boston to support regional transportation planning.
• Developed a comprehensive model of regional growth and development to support regional planning and policy development.
• Pioneered the use of decision support tools such as Community Viz modeling, scenario visualization, and wireless keypads.
• Prepared interactive maps of critical infrastructure and facilities to support emergency response, evacuation planning, and pre-disaster mitigation.
• Partnered with community-based organizations to launch a “Human Development Overlay” project designed to link residents with health, social, business, and other assistance in a rapidly developing neighborhood of Boston.

Send all application materials to: (Email responses strongly preferred. Only applications with cover letters will be reviewed)

Thomas E. Hauenstein
Manager of Human Resources
60 Temple Place, 6th floor
Boston, MA 02111
(617) 451-2770, ext. 2072
(617) 482-7185 FAX
Posted 2/2/09.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Spartanburg, Indicators Reports, and Community Engagement

I like how the Spartanburg community came together to talk about the challenges raised in their new community indicators report. There's a video available at the site (I couldn't get this one to embed properly), but you may want to take a look at it.

The meeting raises the challenge all indicator projects must face: how do you move from reporting the problems to solving them? We know providing the data alone is insufficient to solving the problem (though may times it serves as a necessary precondition for action). We also know that, while indicators reports sometimes catalyze community action by raising the key issues of the community, more often than not the report itself highlights the problem, sparks a little conversation, and then (if left alone) people move on.

At the same time, no one organization can solve all the community's problems. We know that. But when we report on all the community's problems, and people ask us what we're going to do to fix them, we can inadvertently create expectations of problem ownership (especially if no one else is talking about the problem or is stepping forward to lead community action.)

So what do we do about it? Some thoughts follow:

I've suggested before that community indicators are one piece in an overall model for community improvement. I'll likely say it a few more times.

Right now, though, what I want to focus in on is the need for a credible, neutral source in the community that can take a bigger-picture view of the aspects of a community that contribute to good living/high quality of life/healthy/sustainable community (whatever your framework for describing what's important about where you life.)

Lots of people and organizations are working on issues. For each of these, the most important issue is the one they are facing today. Their voices, especially in a time of relative resource scarcity, keep getting louder as they fight for a place in community priorities and attention. Some people are more effective at being heard than others. Some become too effective in getting their message out until it becomes overkill and people stop listening -- there are only so many times you can hear that the sky is falling before you start resenting the calls for action. (Just check out the latest poll numbers on global warming -- the intensity and omnipresence of the message is spurring a backlash, and the weather isn't helping.)

In a worst-case scenario, people and organizations get so tied to a message that others actively shut out content and replace it with caricature. (Take PETA, for example -- they've done a pretty good job of alienating people from hearing a set of important ethical messages, in my opinion. Somewhere along the way they stopped sharing information and started looking like desperate folks who will do anything to get attention. Can anyone with a straight face tell me that their banned Superbowl ad helped advance community discussion? Or when exploiting women became OK if it was in the cause of not exploiting animals? OK, I'll stop ranting.)

The strength of a community indicators report is the ability, again in my opinion, to rise above the issue-specific turf wars and get people to see the community through a wider lens. This helps issues get framed as parts of overall systems. It demonstrates interrelatedness of problems. It tears down silos. It encourages collaborative action.

The temptation is to dive in on a particular issue and begin leading the charge. On the plus side, this issue may need a champion, and the community is looking at you already and wants to know what you are going to do about it. You can galvanize the community, you can with intentionality forge those coalitions. You can be the voice of the community and lead action to make things better!

The negative side to that is twofold. First, You dove into the pool. You became just another advocacy organization. From now on, your report will be viewed differently -- no longer above the fray, you're now talking about how everything relates with your issue. It changes how you are seen, and how your report is perceived.

Second, you've used your community capital on that issue. It will be twice as hard to try to tackle another issue. You're in the pool already, so can't dive in as the lifeguard to rescue another community problem with quite as much ease, especially since that problem is likely still hanging on to you for dear life.

Third, when you jumped in, others were free to stay out. They could go on with their lives, secure in the knowledge that you were taking care of the problem. You and they lost the opportunity to see who else could be a lifesaver. You took the pressure off the community and put it on yourself.

The good news is that a strong model of community improvement can keep you (and your community) afloat, even in tough times. I'll talk more about that model in another post. In the meantime, congratulations to Spartanburg (and to all the rest of you out there) for keeping those community conversations alive. The problems out there are too big for just one organization, even a really cool one that knows how to do indicators.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Statistically Significant Other?

I got a chuckle out of this comic strip. Maybe you will too.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Children in Immigrant Families

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has new data on children in immigrant families.

You'll want to look at the data sets and see what they tell you about your community. From their newsletter:

Children in immigrant families now represent 22 percent of all U.S. children and youth under 18 and 26 percent of all children living in poverty. Learn more about immigrant children and families in the KIDS COUNT Data Center, which offers the latest national, state, and city-level data on more than 100 measures of child well-being, including:

Visit the Data Center to create your own map, chart, or graph — or add an interactive map to your own website:

Visit the KIDS COUNT Data Center to make your own map.

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