Common Place   /   October 27, 2014

The Pursuit to Turn Data Into Action

Stephen Assink

Community Indicators Consortium 2014 Conference Logo

Once upon a time, society had a pressing need for metrics that could gauge and track complex phenomena like the health of our national economy. Out of that need arose, as one expert puts it, Data 1.0—metrics on national prosperity. Soon after, Data 2.0 arrived focusing on local and regional economies as well as other non-economic factors, e.g., health and education. Now we have entered the era of Data 3.0 with indicators that capture the wide-ranging detail of places on multiple scales and dimensions.

Today, the problem is not a lack of metrics but an overabundance. There is an unparalleled enthusiasm for measuring every urban issue and subsequent problem. From employment numbers to high school graduation rates, metrics abound to track a community’s progress and well-being. This desire for assessment leaves very few aspects of our communities not destined for measurement in some way.  A pressing challenge then for city departments, community organizations, philanthropies, and government agencies is to navigate a crowded marketplace of indicators and metrics. Despite the growth of sophisticated tools, there is little guidance in assessing context as well as determining the appropriate metrics, often resulting in ad hoc or even misguided strategies. But at the most practical level, the vexing problem facing practitioners is the most basic: so what?

Community Indicators Consortium 2014 Conference Logo

These themes were part of the discussion at the tenth annual Community Indicators Consortium (CIC) Impact Summit held last month in Washington D.C. Organizations and cities not only shared the ways they were updating their tools with more detailed maps, better tracking, and improved digital analysis but also explored the challenges and limits of assessment. For example, one group shared how poverty levels in their city had declined in recent years—and they had the statistics to prove the point. However, on closer inspection, this organization discovered that the poor had actually moved away due to rising housing costs. Where one set of stats revealed progress, a deeper look revealed what one attendee referred to as an example of “the dangers of data.” Although the images of our cities can become clearer and more precise, contextual, local knowledge still matters.

Indicators then are contextual as well as normative. They involve (often unseen) interpretative questions: Which indicators should we choose and how should we understand our findings? Further, the reliance on indicators highlights an even deeper and equally important problem addressed previously on Common Place: What can and should be measured? Most if not all community organizations are pressed for time and resources and so may choose those indicators that best fit their needs. The language used and the surrounding context inevitably frame the debate in powerful and often invisible ways.

Minnesota Compass's Craig Helmstetter shares his insights on indicator strategies at the 2014 CIC conference.

Many conference attendees—city officials, community practitioners, and even data enthusiasts—openly acknowledged this fact, and most everyone admitted their indicators are dynamic entities constantly in need of refreshing, clarifying, and institutional connecting. Yet oftentimes, most community organizations and indicator projects with limited resources can only focus on specific spheres, such as education, healthcare, or sustainability. Very few practitioners have the time or scope to focus on the comprehensive nature of their communities. Although organizations such as STAR do incorporate a multi-sector framework, those groups that are focused on a comprehensive approach are largely aggregative attempts rather than integrative projects.

Finally, as most ardent supporters of data will admit, even the most sophisticated indicator needs something more: community buy-in. No amount of graphed data will persuade an apathetic public or civic leadership, if the indicator is not compelling. Therefore at the conference, the thematic issue centered on turning data into action.

Conference speakers and workshop groups shared their insights and experiences on using data for collective good and social impact. In turn, attendees told of their own struggles and success. One community organization in Austin, Texas, Ready by 21 uses an online dashboard to communicate goals and to connect stakeholders. The group Sustainable Calgary petitions its council members for change. Two sessions focused on improving data consumption by showing how to use enhanced graphs and engaging presentations. In another session, Pittsburgh Gazette’s Doug Heuck shared the importance of making statistics come alive by embedding them within stories and narratives.

Despite the obvious benefits of benchmarks for community organizations and practitioners (and their funders)—clear insight on their progress, accountability to stakeholders, details on the nature of the problem, and the subsequent confidence to address it—in the end, concerns about the efficacy of data in promoting community commitment persisted. At the same time, the demand for more data and the supply of better tools will only increase. The context of a place—its history, its capacities, its institutions, and its aspirations—will need to be front and center if even the best indicator is going to be applicable. Equally significant, in this age of political diversity, will be the empowering and motivating of citizens for the common good. In short, getting them to care about and be engaged with the problems of their communities is more important than ever.

Together, these challenges necessitate not only a different kind of assessment—one that privileges a holistic context—but also a new art for civic life. And here is where the Thriving Cities Project (TCP) together with Common Place is exploring the meaning and mode of community thriving.  Stay tuned for subsequent posts that will discuss the promising avenues and methods that TCP is exploring that would be useful to an association like Community Indicators Consortium and its members.