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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.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 29, 2009

Wikipedia Article on Community Indicators

I just noticed a new section in Wikipedia on Community Indicators. It's nice to see the beginning of the wiki, especially since the field has been growing so quickly in the past decade or so and we've learned quite a bit about engaging communities, measuring what's important, and using that information to spur meaningful and lasting community change.

(The coolest thing about the article was seeing this blog referenced as an "external link." Hold on for a moment while I call my mother and tell her my name's in Wikipedia! She'll be so proud.)

However, the article is incomplete. We know a great deal more about community indicators. The history of the movement, the attempts to come together as a field, the development of a shared knowledge base through association, conferences, and journals, the creation of the certification program in community indicators research over at Virginia Tech, the reinforcement/coming together/shared learning with healthy communities, sustainability, quality-of-life, and benchmarking movements, the challenges and opportunities posed by rapid proliferation of data, the efforts at integration with government performance measurement systems, the global efforts to create local community indicators systems inside and outside of governments, and the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of reports, websites, and other community indicator efforts that have been transforming both community activism and public policy for the better.

So if you're the kind of person who likes to update Wikipedia articles, there's an opportunity waiting for you! If you're not that person but can think of information/articles/references that should be added, we can start talking about it here and then see how we can improve on the Wikipedia site.

(And if you're the one who created the article, a thousand thanks for getting us started! I really do appreciate what you've done, and only hope we can take advantage of this opportunity to better capture the state of the art and science of community indicators in the world today.)

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Patchwork Nation

There's a fascinating new website from the Christian Science Monitor called Patchwork Nation. It uses a series of data points to show geographic clusters of people across the United States in 12 distinct categories.

What makes it even more interesting is its ability to display county-specific data on a series of indicators, and to overlay two indicators to see interactions.

From their description:

About the Patchwork Nation project

The United States is a vast, diverse place – more than 300 million people spread over 3.5 million square miles. Yet our understanding of its complexities is limited. We think of demographic slices or broad regions, or we fall back on the overused, oversimplified ideas of red and blue America.

Patchwork Nation, funded by the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization based in Miami, is designed to help us get past those views and understand how different communities and cultures within the US experience different realities – and shape the whole.

As America enters a period of great uncertainty – with a new president, a stumbling economy, rising foreign financial powers, energy challenges, and an unstable world – it’s never been so important and so difficult to understand the United States. That’s what Patchwork Nation is about.

We’ve identified 12 types of places across the US, which are distinct voter communities. They are:

* Boom Towns - growing and diversifying
* Campus and Careers - young and collegiate
* Emptying Nests - having retirees and baby boomers
* Evangelical Epicenters - culturally conservative
* Immigration Nation - heavily Hispanic
* Industrial Metropolis - big-city
* Military Bastions - bordering or encompassing bases for the armed forces
* Minority Central - heavily African-American
* Monied 'Burbs - wealthy and educated
* Mormon Outposts - many LDS adherents
* Service Worker Centers - small-town
* Tractor Country - rural and agricultural

We’ve also pinpointed specific communities that represent each type of place. For example, Sioux Center, Iowa, typifies “Tractor Country.”

Special thanks to Edwin Quiambao of the Annie E. Casey Foundation for drawing it to my attention. He pointed out some of the indicators available at the county level:

-election information

-hardship index

-health uninsured

-density of doctors

-chrysler dealers/closures

-hospital beds

-foreclosure rate2009

-unemployment rate

-median household income

-war deaths per 100,000

-high school graduates

-college graduates

Take a look!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Data Update: Annie E. Casey Releases 2009 KIDS COUNT

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has just released the 2009 KIDS COUNT Data Book.

From their website:

Counting What Counts: Taking Results Seriously for Vulnerable Children and Families: The 20th annual KIDS COUNT Data Book profiles the well-being of America’s children on a state-by-state basis and ranks states on 10 key measures of child well-being. The Data Book essay calls for a “data revolution” that uses timely and reliable information to track the progress and improve the lives of vulnerable children.

Also go to their datacenter for another way to access the data.

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Job Opening: Research Analyst for National Urban League

The position includes production of the NUL's Equality Index.

The National Urban League Policy Institute seeks a Research Analyst to provide up-to-date statistics on a wide variety of topics and analyze data for the staff at the Institute. When requested from the Urban League affiliate network, the Research Analyst will provide statistical information as well. The Research Analyst will conduct empirical analysis using statistical software packages and utilize large data sets.

Click to read more:

Essential Functions

•Research, write and edit reports and fact sheets on various topics related to the NUL Empowerment Agenda;
•Acts as Project Coordinator for initiatives as assigned;
•Serve as the Census Information Center coordinator, handling data requests and organizing large amounts of data;
•Advise NULPI Executive Director and staff on relevant research;
•Research, write and edit articles for NULPI publications;
•Manage and coordinate electronic updates;
•Respond to research requests from NUL Affiliates and staff;
•Oversee production of the NUL Equality Index

Additional Qualifications:


•Master’s degree in economics, statistics, public policy or related discipline required.


•A minimum of four years of experience with interpreting data and translating the data into reports and fact sheets.

Knowledge and Skills:

•Experience with quantitative computer-based statistical analysis software with large data sets required;
•Must have excellent analytical and writing skills and a record of producing research reports;
•Must have experience presenting research findings;
•Must be able and willing to work on multiple projects simultaneously;
•Must have experience with major statistical programs such as STATA, SAS or SPSS in producing research reports. Familiarity with PowerPoint is a plus;
•Strong inter-personal skills;
•Commitment to and ability to advocate for NUL’s mission and recommendations
•Write reports and fact sheets on various topics related to income security and labor market issues.
•Present results of research studies related primarily to social safety net issues at various conferences.
•Serve as the Census Information Center coordinator for the office, handling data requests and organizing large amounts of data.
•Supervise research interns on various data analysis tasks and projects.
•Coordinate and monitor preparation of research reports and publications

How to Apply: To apply send resume, cover letter an (3) page writing sample to Human Resources, National Urban League 120 Wall Street, NY , NY 10005 or e-mail

Deadline to apply: August 10, 2009

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Community Engagement and Civic Indicators

I was reading David Brown's "Citizen-Centered Democracy" interview with Matt Leighninger (of Everyday Democracy and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium) found in Kettering's recent (2009) Higher Education Exchange, and I began thinking about the role and importance of community indicators in both facilitating meaningful civic engagement and in measuring the extent and effectiveness of that engagement.

In the interview, Leighninger (speaking of his book, The Next Form of Democracy) says:

"Different communities will come up with different frameworks for the relationship between citizens and government. But the question of how they know where they are headed, and (perhaps more importantly) how they know they are making progress, is a major challenge for the field. Right now, in most instances, communities and public agencies fail to measure how they are doing with public participation. We need systems that will help people track the quantitative kinds of information -- how many people participated, how diverse and representative they were -- along with more qualitative kinds of data -- what did the participants and the decision makers think of the process, what kinds of tangible changes resulted, and so on. This kind of tracking and measuring ought to be easier now, with all the online technology we have at our disposal, but I haven't yet seen an online system that does all this. Without these kinds of information loops, it is harder for communities to figure out where they are going and how they might get there faster." [emphasis added]

This intrigued me for multiple reasons.

First, I strongly believe that successful community indicators systems must be built on public participation. Absent meaning civic dialogue in determining a shared community vision and consensus in the kinds of information needed to track progress towards that vision, indicators become merely another academic exercise. Community indicators need to be of and from the community, not just for and about the community.

Second, part of our measures of a community ought to include the civic health of the community. How involved are citizens in governance? Are they successful? Do they feel successful? I disagree that counting noses at public meetings is a necessary or even useful indicator, but it is a start. I'd appreciate further conversations that would pick up where the National Civic League's Indicators of Civic Health project left off. To some extent, the current efforts toward bridging community indicators and government performance measures are leading to redefinitions of citizen involvement in community governance, but often in a round-about way -- we probably ought to be more intentional about that conversation and more precise in what we measure.

Third, I suspect that we have some difficulty at times in the field of community indicators bridging community-oriented public dialogue principles and skillsets with data-driven measurement and research capacities -- it's uncomfortable to recognize that we need to bring together both data people and people people in order for our work to make a difference. Balancing the competing needs for data excellence and community conversation (which is often much messier and much less quantifiable) is a challenge that will undermine our work if we're not aware of the tensions and plan our engagement processes accordingly.

I found Leighninger's response to the question of "professionalization" particularly intriguing. (You may remember Ken Jones leading a similar discussion at the 2005 joint Community Indicators Consortium/National Association of Planning Councils conference in Washington, D.C.)

Leighninger said:

"Professionalization is both promising and problematic for us. Right now, there are virtually no barriers to entry in this field -- it seems like all you need to set up shop as an expert on democracy is some free time and a Web site! There's a sort of excitement to that, and it may encourage various kinds of innovation, but at the same time it makes it very difficult for the prospective employers (public managers and other kinds of leaders who need help working more intensively with citizens) to find the right prospective employees (either job candidates for permanent positions, or nonprofits and consultants for temporary projects) who have the right skills and experiences to be effective.

"We need certain aspects of professionalization: a more unified sense of the main principles that undergird the field; stronger degree programs (in disciplines like public administration) that prepare students to engage citizens more productively; and greater awareness of the main organizations, models, and techniques. But we need to retain some antiprofessional qualities as well: the sense that at least some of the basic skills you need to do this work can be learned fairly quickly by committed amateurs without formal training; a shared understanding that your mindset and attitude toward citizens is at least as important as the skills and experiences you bring to the job; and the flexibility to continue adapting models, methods, and principles, so that shared learning is one of the most prized tenets of the field."

I found myself in wholehearted agreement, especially as I considered how this applied to our field of community indicators. I'd appreciate your thoughts and comments on what you think this means to our work.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project Releases Report

The Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project just released their 2009 Annual Community Indicators Report (PDF).

The report is straightforward and to the point -- nothing overly elaborate, with clean text and clear maps supporting the indicators. It's a solid overview of the region's challenges and strengths. The indicator set is interesting -- it looks like they made a conscious decision to exclude the more commonly-used indicators (you won't find high school graduation rates under education, for example, or unemployment rates under economy.)

Associated with the report is their new MetroPhilaMapper interactive mapping system, containing 300+ indicators. This system is designed to allow you to build your own maps based on your own geography and indicator selections. They describe it as:

"a new web resource that allows users to easily find data about all communities in the region, to view the information displayed in charts, tables, and maps, and to compare data that used to be scattered across multiple sources. MetroPhilaMapper provides over 300 local and regional indicators, including land use patterns, population characteristics, school district spending and performance, income and wage data, and crime patterns for the two-state, nine-county region."

The printed report refers often to the extended indicator set in the MetroPhilaMapper online site.

The mapping interface generates some nice graphics, but has a few bugs in the display that didn't work well (I was using FireFox). I liked how you could select the indicators your liked, and then choose whether you wanted them displayed on a map, in a table, ranked, as a scatterplot, or with more detail in a "statistics" view. I also liked how you could save your project and come back to it later.

What I thought was unfortunate is the data timeliness -- household income data was available for 2000, annual wages for 2004. Similar patterns were seen in data availability in other areas. I hope the data is brought up to date soon -- more current data is available in the printed report, and I don't understand the data gaps in the online version.

In all, however, both the report and the mapping tool are worth a look.

(HT: MPIP on Twitter)

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Mapping Assistance

I'm back from vacation -- had to take time out to improve my personal quality of life before I could get back to measuring other people's QOL -- and am playing with some mapping software for our local community indicators project.

In the process, I needed to simplify a 3+ MB Census-derived shapefile map of Florida counties into something a little more nimble and useful. I found this great resource in beta test -- MapShaper shapefile editor -- that allows you to upload a shapefile map and then control the level of simplicity you'd like. I got my map down to a nice 98 KB and with no noticeable resolution degradation for what I needed it for.

You will need to copy over the other files associated with your shapefile and rename them in order for your new map to work. This took a matter of seconds to do.

Anyway, if you're using maps that are too large, and need to simplify them quickly (and for free!), visit the blog at to find out more.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The (un)Happy Planet Index 2.0: Why good lives don't have to cost the Earth

Here's an update from nef you might enjoy:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The (un)Happy Planet Index 2.0: Why good lives don’t have to cost the Earth

nef (the new economics foundation) is pleased to announce the release of the Happy Planet Index 2.0, the second global ranking of the ecological efficiency with which the world’s nations deliver long and happy lives for the people who live there. The report reveals a surprising picture of the relative wealth and progress of nations:

  • Latin America tops the Index with Costa Rica the ’greenest and happiest’ country. Nine of the ten highest-scoring nations are Latin American or Caribbean
  • The USA, China and India were all ‘greener and happier’ twenty years ago than today
  • The World’s richest plummet from 1960s to late 1970s, with scores still lower today than 1961
  • The UK comes 74th, USA 114th out of 143 nations surveyed.

The new Index is based on improved data for 143 countries around the world, representing 99 per cent of the world’s population. By stripping the economy back to its ultimate outputs (lives of varying length and happiness) and fundamental inputs (the Earth’s finite resources) the HPI is the definitive efficiency measure. It provides a clear guide to what matters to us and what matters for the planet.

We hope you enjoy studying the index and would encourage you to share this email with colleagues. We believe that the multiple crises we face provide a unique opportunity for societies around the world to speak out for a happier planet, to identify a new vision of progress, and to demand new tools to help us work towards it. The HPI is one of these tools. But if it is to be effective it must also inspire people to act. Please join the Soil Association, Friends of the Earth, the World Development Movement, Onehundredmonths, 38 degrees, the Gaia Foundation and others by signing nef’s Happy Planet Charter to start this process of change

The full report and data are available for free download at the accompanying web-site:

nef was awarded the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies' Award for the Betterment of the Human Condition 2007, in recognition of our work on the Happy Planet Index.

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