The Need for Data with Meaning

Community-indicator projects are popping up all over. They are serving an important function for regions that must compete on a global scale.
by | November 29, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Charlotte Kahn was there at the beginning of the community-indicators movement. In the early 1990s, she was director of the Boston Persistent Poverty Project at the Boston Foundation, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. She and others who were trying to develop data-driven strategies to reduce poverty were dependent on the decennial U.S. census data. While they knew the community was changing, they didn't have access to data to see how things had changed.

In addition to not being very timely, most of the data being collected--teen pregnancy rates, unemployment rates, crime rates and so on--lacked meaning in a broader social context. The real need was for indicators: quantitative measures that describe economic, social or environmental conditions over time. For example, if the community condition we value is economic well-being, an indicator might be median family income in our community in relationship to other communities and with the past.

In the middle '90s, Kahn met Geeta Pradhan, who was working on sustainability issues with the city of Boston and who shared Kahn's interest in data systems and data "democratization"--indicators that measure community conditions that matter to regular folks and that present the data in ways that are easily accessible and understood. The two began to work together, and eventually Pradhan joined Kahn at the Boston Foundation. By 1998, they had about 300 people representing a diagonal cut across the community working to answer the question, "What do we value and how do we measure it?" The group initially came up with about 1,500 items that people thought ought to be measured. Eventually this list was whittled down to roughly 150 indicators with the underlying data drawn from a wide variety of sources. In 2000 they issued "The Wisdom of Our Choices: Progress, Change and Sustainability," the first report produced by what had then become the Boston Indicators Project.

The project's 2012 report, "City of Ideas: Reinventing Boston's Innovation Economy," is a remarkable document that civic leaders and elected officials ought to take a look at even if they have no interest at all in Boston. This is no dull compendium of facts. The report is well designed, the data are the basis for a story told in clear, compelling language, and the visual representation of complex data is superb. It's an interesting blend of civic boosterism and stark truths that shows metro Boston's performance in a regional, national and global context. For example, "Today, 3 billion workers over age 15 are competing for 1.2 billion jobs. … Greater Boston is well positioned to compete in this fast-moving global economy but Bostonians' future jobs prospects depend on our capacity to grasp and respond creatively to the accelerating pace and scope of global change."

That's a message that many cities and regions in the United States should heed. They are competing on a global scale, and those that are paying close attention--as Boston is with the indicators project--will do better than those that are not taking a careful, clear-eyed look at data and crafting the policies and partnerships they need.

The Boston Indicators Project report is produced independently of city government, but the city collaborates closely with Kahn and her team. As he has with each of the project's reports, Mayor Thomas Menino provided an introductory letter for the 2012 version. In it he writes, "The report's main prescription for building a true 'innovation' economy is engagement. …" True, but collaboration and engagement have to be built around a common understanding of the world that is grounded in data. The conversation around the data--built on hundreds of "convenings" involving thousands of folks over more than a decade--has resulted in a shared civic agenda for Boston: agreed-upon measures for progress toward specific goals in areas as diverse as civic culture, human capital, jobs and economic strategies, and infrastructure and sustainability.

Charlotte Kahn also was one of the founders of the Community Indicators Consortium, an organization of hundreds of community-indicator projects from around the globe. In this country, the movement got a huge boost with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The federal health-care law authorized a congressionally appointed commission and the National Academy of Sciences to oversee the development of a key national indicator system for the United States.

The law also directed the Government Accountability Office to study how such indicator systems are developed and used. GAO's report, issued in March 2011, featured seven model indicator systems from around the world. Among them are three from the United States, including not only the Boston Indicators Project but also projects in Virginia and King County, Wash. In a world that is increasingly crowded, complex and competitive, no single government can produce the outcomes required for success. Partnerships formed around a common set of indicators and shared concerns are the best way, perhaps the only way, to create outcomes of the scale needed. This is clearly a movement whose time has come.