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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.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, May 13, 2009

Measuring Community Sinfulness: Why?

Have we gone too far when people start using community indicators to try to measure who has the most sinful city? Two recent attempts have tried to use publicly available data to measure where a community falls in the seven deadly sins.

Forbes Magazine, last February, created its version of ranking "America's Most Sinful Cities." Now Kansas State geographers have decided to map the whole country, county by county, in their exposure to the same set of sins.

The two sets of measures are nothing alike, and that's a function of what indicators they used to measure "sinfulness."

Kansas State's list:

  • Greed: Average incomes versus total inhabitants below the poverty line
  • Envy: Total number of thefts (robbery, burglary, larceny, and stolen cars)
  • Wrath: Total number of violent crimes (murder, assault and rape) per capita
  • Lust: Sexually transmitted diseases per capita
  • Gluttony: Number of fast-food restaurants per capita
  • Sloth: Expenditures on arts, entertainment and recreation versus rate of employment
  • Pride: An average of the six other sins

Forbes' list:

  • Greed: per capita billionaires
  • Envy: property crime rates
  • Wrath: murder rates
  • Lust: condom and contraceptive purchases at grocery and drug stores
  • Gluttony: obesity rates
  • Sloth: body mass index (BMI), physical inactivity and TV watching habits
  • Pride: number of plastic surgeons per 100,000 adults
You may want to explore and compare the two sets of maps. For Lust, a popular topic, Forbes has Salt Lake City as one of the top ten most lustful cities, because of the per capita purchasing of contraceptives (which is both interesting and meme-busting), but Kansas State has them as one of the least lustful cities, because of the low rates of STDs.

What's the point of this? When we do community indicators work, we often have themes, goals, or community aspirations that we want to measure -- how close are we as a community to living up to this ideal? We then have to find some set of measures that attempt to quantify our progress towards that target (or away from that problem). Are we providing quality education for our children? Are seniors in our community living fulfilling, meaningful lives? Are we protecting and valuing the environment? Is our local economy vibrant and sustainable?

If we aren't careful, what we choose to measure -- not the data -- determined the answer. The wrong indicators can lead us to misleading or contradictory conclusions. And I suspect that too many of our common indicators -- the measures everyone uses because they're easy and available and comfortable -- sometimes obscure much more than they illuminate about our communities.


(Hat tips: Flowing Data, Revolutions)


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