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Indicators Are Reality
Alan AtKisson, 25 Nov 03


Psst ... Hey, you. Wanna take the red pill? Wanna know the true state of the world? Drag your head out of the media-matrix and consider the big picture, the numbers that measure the stocks and flows, the deeper drivers behind the staccato popcorn we call "news"?

Fasten your seatbelt.

Our topic is "Indicators - Global".

The next three websites could feed your statistical curiosity for the next several months. And these are just the free options; if you're willing to plunk down a hundred bucks here and there, you will be happily swimming in data for several years more.

We're talking GDP per capita (see the map - can you tell who's rich?), carbon dioxide emissions, education levels, biodiversity, air quality, AIDS infection rates, teen births ... These are the numbers that reflect the physical and human realities of the world. They are the very definition of big picture.

It's all there for the downloading.

Let's start with the most user-friendly site: the EarthTrends Information Portal, run by World Resources Institute. Here you can pull up groovy maps like this one in a heartbeat, on a whole raft of issues, plus specific data on specific countries. Don't let the world "Earth" fool you into thinking this is just envirodata; this is the whole sustainability enchilada, business, social trends, the works. Need to back up that running argument with Uncle Phil about climate change, fisheries collapse, whatever? Just the place to go.

If you're geekier than that, check out the United Nations Statistical Division, where you can review the Indicators for the UN Millennium Goals ... and a heck of a lot more. You'll have to do a bit more wading around in the datamuck to find what you want, but it will have the imprimatur of the UN behind it, and it will be linked directly to the only candidate for an operating Global Vision for Humanity.

Finally, my personal favorite, and an early heads-up for the Worldchanging cognoscenti (care-o-scenti, maybe?). My indicator-wonk friend and colleague -- yes, I confess, I am and have been an indicator wonk during various periods of my life -- Adil Najam of Boston University has created a terrific new data gateway: The Project on Human Development. It's still in beta, which makes it all the cooler. Here you can get access to a lot of the same data on the sites above ... but you can do so much more. You can generate your own indices, combining different indicators from different countries. You can build your own spreadsheets. Save one of the output web pages, and you'll instantly have JPGs of all the world's flags, in miniature. I could go on and on.

Poking through these sites may be dizzying. It's best to go in with a goal, e.g.: "I want to get the big picture on climate change, vis a vis economic growth." Or a question: "What's the bigger problem, AIDS or malaria?" You will certainly get sidetracked as other things pique your interest. But you will also, certainly, come out more awake than when you went in. And you will probably know more than certain barely-elected leaders of the western world's last superpower (why do so few people understand that China is a superpower?).

One final tip: Another friend and wonk-colleague, Jochen Jesinghaus, has built a little Windows application called the Dashboard, which you can download for free at his site. I'm a Mac guy, so I've never played with it myself ... but it's a very flexible tool for viewing data. Check it out.

Warning: Remember that it is impossible to forget the facts once you know them.

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Comments

Thanks, Alan - excellent links

In case anyone hasn't heard of them, I just thought I'd mention Redefining Progress as an organization that has been working on refining the comparatively simplistic - but easily understood - concept of ecological footprinting. Especially useful when talking to people who don't spend their spare time thinking about this stuff. In the past I've used their data as in addition to the excellent EarthTrends Portal for calculating human impacts..

http://www.rprogress.org

And the tidily revealing footprint of nations (1999 data):

http://www.redefiningprogress.org/programs/sustainabilityindicators/ef/projects/1999_results.html


Posted by: Dawn Danby on 26 Nov 03

I guess I worry when we box reality to only those things that we (a small we) can measure. Indicators are political tools and those who control indicators have the power to define.

"Power, quite simply, produces the knowledge and that rationality which is conducive to the reality it wants." (Bent Flyvberj, Power & Rationality).


Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 26 Nov 03

Zaid - I agree with you completely. Do you know of anyone going beyond talking about the factors that we can't easily measure, and trying to provide at least some information on their importance?

For example, a fairly minimal (but still useful) step would be to ask a worldwide sample of people what they value most, and compare the results to the statistics we tend to bandy about. I can't believe this hasn't been done - can anyone point me in the right direction?

Dan [who means this query seriously, even if it is expressed oxymoronically]


Posted by: Dan O'Huiginn on 27 Nov 03

Dan,

There are plenty of values surveys, and some of them global. Marketers know everything from what kind of condoms you buy to whether you believe in a supreme being. More idealistically minded polls are conducted worldwide -- by, for example, Pew, see http://people-press.org/. The information you seek is largely out there.

But my advice would be something I learned working as a therapist for junkies 20-plus years ago: Look at the behavior, not the words.

What we actually do, what is actually the case, tells us a lot about what our values actually are.

Recently, for example, we updated our study of sustainability trends in the Pittsburgh region. Among other things, we found survey data that showed a steady increase in the number of people who say they care a lot about the environment. However, the number of people who actually do anything about -- recycle, use green power, whatever -- has actually been steadily declining.

Obviously, measurement and numbers are not be all and end all. But they are the best tools we have for understanding basic facts, like, how poor most of the world is (half make $2.33 or less per day), who's getting hit by the ozone hole (the Patagonians), etc.

Hey, the king of Bhutan has actually decreed that the country replace its measure of GDP with a measure of "Gross National Happiness." How's that for a nice mixture between important values and numbers?


Posted by: Alan AtKisson on 27 Nov 03

I'm sure you've heard this story but anyways.

It's a dark street with only one street-light shining. A man sees another man searching for something under the light of the street-lamp so he walks up and asks: "What are you looking for?"
"My keys, I lost them..."
"Well where did you lose them?"
The man points way out into the darkness.
"Well why are you looking for them here?"
"Because it's too dark to look there."

For me this story sums up our affinity to stats, measurements and numbers. I feel we have many other tools than measurements and numbers to 'understand basic facts' - we can actually take the time to talk to people and understand their stories. We have our imaginations. We have a lot more than numbers and stats.

I would recommend looking at the work of Danish professor Bent Flyvberg for a different way of doing social science - maybe I'll post a review.


Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 27 Nov 03

Hey, I don't disagree with you at all about the value of other ways of "seeing", in fact I strongly agree, and I'd throw in art and literature as equally valid, indeed necessary, "methodologies". They're all part of the red pill. But you are writing as though you're "against" indicators, and I don't think you are. Nor am I saying that indicators are sufficient; they are just necessary.

A full picture of what's happening requires both kinds of approaches being described here by us ... and I mean requires. Some things *have* to be measured for us to know that they exist, otherwise we human beings just don't see them, because they are larger, more diffuse, slower, more long-term than our awareness can comprehend. Indicators make the hugeness seeable. This is really true for environmental and economic trends, but it's just as true for social and health issues.

Take AIDS -- you have to have statistics on infection rates to understand the full scope of the problem. Obviously, this does not give you the full understanding of the problem, but it alerts that the problem is there, how big it is, what scale of response is going to be required
to even think about solving it, etc. After that, to really grapple with it, you must put the stats behind you and do a lot of *other* things.

Look forward to learning about Danish social science ...


Posted by: Alan AtKisson on 27 Nov 03

And what is the status of art in our society?

Well you're right in that I'm not 'against' indictators but I'm very dubious about how and why they're used.

I say in the review of the Flyvberg book...but I often feel that numbers and indicators are often used to give ideological and political decisions legitimacy.

What I'm suggesting is that we only use numbers and indicators with a high degree of self-awareness as to their misuse by power, which I fear is much more rampant then we'd imagine.


Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 28 Nov 03

In regards to world values, Susan Hayes-McQueen sends this link:

http://wvs.isr.umich.edu/

worth a look!


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 28 Nov 03



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