North American cities are innovating on community-level development indicators

A street-art installation near a baseball field in Winnipeg, Canada, in 2014. The city's indicators initiative measures well-being according to eight themes, comprised of about 60 metrics. (Vadim Rodnev/Shutterstock)

Last month, a few hundred people were slated to meet in Winnipeg, Canada, for the 2017 Community Indicators Symposium to discuss how best to ground community indicators — development measurements that track well-being at the local level — in residents’ aspirations.

Community indicators are designed to keep track of development in the local context. They can measure progress on issues such as economic and environmental sustainability, health and social equity, often bundled under the broader umbrella of well-being.

Such tools typically rely on a combination of census statistics and local data. And while it’s important that this data is accurate, valid and comes from reliable sources, the key with community indicator projects needs to go one step further, experts say.

This data needs to be grounded in community values, so that it’s relevant for local decision-makers, businesses and the communities they report on, said Chantal Stevens, executive director of the Community Indicators Consortium, a group based in the U. S. state of Washington that is advancing the use and development of community indicators.

“Public engagement, the public participation aspect of things, is key to the success of an indicator project, as a tool to create a road map for the community,” she said.

[See: If cities are to ‘leave no one behind’, disaggregated data is invaluable]

Stevens could not provide an exact figure for the number of community indicator projects currently in operation. It’s a “pretty healthy field” in North America, she said, while acknowledging that the use of community indicators is less prevalent in the rest of the world.

Still, such projects do operate in Australia, El Salvador and Colombia, for example. And last year, Bogota’s Cómo Vamos initiative, which tracks quality of life and citizen perceptions, and monitors City Council progress in Bogotá, won an “impact award” from the Community Indicators Consortium. The awards celebrate projects that demonstrate “positive change in their communities”.

Tracking Winnipeg

The aim of last month’s meet was to highlight and build on the indicator work happening in Canada and to create connections between projects throughout North America, according to Stevens.

“Public engagement, the public participation aspect of things, is key to the success of an indicator project, as a tool to create a road map for the community.”

Chantal Stevens
Community Indicators Consortium

Winnipeg was a fitting venue for the symposium, since the city is home to a community indicators project that seeded in 2008 and launched publicly in December 2013. PEG, as the project is called, is a community indicators initiative for Winnipeg that measures well-being according to eight themes, each comprised of numerous indicators (about 60 in total). For example, the online tool tracks Winnipeg’s progress on health by looking at the prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, diabetes, smoking rate, immunization rate and others.

The data for PEG is sourced from census data alongside information from provincial and city agencies.

[See: Citizen data can play a key role in monitoring the SDGs — by following a few rules]

While having this data online is useful, the more important step is for such an initiative to interpret the data and identify and communicate any trends, explains Livia Bizikova, programme director with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a global organization that developed and runs PEG in partnership with the local non-profit United Way Winnipeg.

Most people, including policymakers and much of the public, don’t have the time or inclination to play around with data portals, she said. So to communicate its data, PEG produces frequent reports on indicator-related issues. A recent report, for instance, highlights how residents curbed the amount of waste sent to local landfills over a 15-year period, more than tripling diverted waste through recycling, composting and other initiatives.

The project’s work on identifying the city’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods has also helped inform decisions around resource allocation by United Way for family resource centres in the city, according to Bizikova.

With attention of the global development community now turning to the Sustainable Development Goals and the realization that cities will play a key role in helping attain them, community indicator initiatives could be increasingly useful for keeping tabs on the global goals at the local level.

At present, however, there is little explicit connection between community indicator initiatives and monitoring of the SDGs or other global accords.

[See: Explainer: The challenges of measuring cities’ progress on the Sustainable Development Goals]

One obstacle to greater such coherence is that the SDGs are designed so that reporting to the United Nations takes place at the national level, leaving questions about how best to incorporate local initiatives into reporting processes.

In Canada, however, Bizikova’s organization is starting to look at how it could incorporate the PEG framework into SDG monitoring. It recently developed an online tool, called the SDG Indicator Portal, that tracks development progress in 14 Canadian cities on SDG indicators for which data is available. In future, she explained, it could then incorporate PEG indicators that are relevant to other Canadian cities into this monitoring effort.

San Jose dashboard

Across the border in the United States, an effort by Stanford University’s Sustainable Urban Systems Initiative is underway in California to create a local SDG dashboard for the city of San Jose, in partnership with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U. N.-mandated group of technical experts.

In preliminary draft form, the online dashboard shows how users can choose an indicator — such as carbon emissions from transport or miles driven for commuting — and then see how that is represented in their part of the city.

[See: How do we involve the public in implementing the SDGs?]

By the end of the year, the plan is to have pilots of the dashboard running for District 3 in San Jose and Chinatown in San Francisco, in partnership with local community groups, project lead Derek Ouyang, a lecturer with the Sustainable Urban Systems Initiative at Stanford University, said in an email.

Community engagement is playing an important role in the dashboard’s development. In April, Ouyang’s team presented their work to residents and city staff of San Jose’s District 3. Residents asked for the inclusion of additional metrics in the dashboard such as housing affordability, homelessness, health and education, walkability and public-transit ridership, all of which fit within the framework of the SDGs.

Given how complex the process of collecting and “cleaning” data can be, it’s easy to ignore the question of what data is actually relevant to communities, how data literate communities are, and how communities can actually make use of the data, said Ouyang.

A benefit of getting community and local government feedback is that it helps the team define useful boundaries for the data, particularly in the case where census block groups do not align with real-world community edges, he explained.

[See: How Baltimore is using the Sustainable Development Goals to make a more just city]

While it’s still early days for San Jose’s SDG data dashboard, its organizers hope that when fully developed it will be used by local government, businesses, residents and community members.

The aim is to expand the tool to cover first the Bay Area, and then to use the understanding of that data ecosystem to inform similar systems in other U. S. cities, which can link with the United States’ national SDGs reporting platform, said Ouyang.

“We also expect this dashboard to allow cities to compare strategies and outcomes with other cities,” he said, “and ultimately understand their relationship to county, metropolitan, state, regional and national progress [on] the SDGs.”

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

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