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 By Francis Koster, Ed.D.

I could truthfully tell you that 46 percent of high school students had sex in 2009, and horrify you. Or I could tell you this percentage has fallen from 54 percent in 1991 and make you feel things are at least going in the right direction.

I can tell you that almost one in 12 (8.1 percent) of all American youth aged 16-24 lacks a high school credential of any kind, and we could fear for our state and country. Or, I could tell you that, 20 years ago, that percentage was 11 percent and is actually getting better.

In both cases, the second piece of data is vitally important in assessing our society’s health — because without it, you don’t know if things are getting better or worse. Yet, it is common practice today in public debate to cite a single number, without context, which I argue cheapens the discussion.

One of the significant weaknesses of social metrics stems from the fact that most historic measurement systems emerged from what was easy to count, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This flawed statistic actually rises if a child is hit by a car and requires extensive healthcare — because it only counts economic activity, and the child lost no wages, but the doctors gained them — surely a flawed measurement system! Yet this is exactly the system used in political debates when GDP is brought up.

Some communities have tons of data such as arrest records, false fire alarms, graduation rates and so forth scattered throughout the files of many different agencies — making the task of assessing the community difficult.

One additional challenge faced by such efforts is that many record-keeping programs report on failures — number of violent crimes, traffic accidents, deaths due to smoking, days of unhealthy air quality and the like. These are called “lagging indicators” — they report on things that have already occurred, over which we have no control.

Other indicators that are more predictive are called “leading indicators” — examples of these might be children entering the second grade knowing their alphabet (predictive of future success in school), the percentage of pregnant women who are overweight (because the children of overweight moms have more health problems) or percentage of teens who do not smoke (because smoking teens have high disease rates later in life). These “leading indicators” are often not collected, or if collected, are not the stuff of headlines.

Some communities have recognized the opportunity to collect and trend both “lagging” and “leading” indicators over time, so they can identify emerging problems, and applaud and support successful interventions. The city of Jacksonville, Fla., has been a pioneer in this area and is worth imitating. Since 1985, the Jacksonville Community Council Inc. (JCCI) has been developing a system to track indicators of the quality of life in Jacksonville and surrounding communities.

The JCCI Quality of Life Progress Report measures over 100 indicators in nine areas, or elements, of the quality of life, including education, economy, natural environment, social environment, arts and culture, health, government, transportation and public safety. Detailed reference data, including charts and graphs, are also provided for those wishing to explore these trends further. The document serves as a roadmap for community improvement, telling local leaders where the community is now compared to others, how far it has come and where attention is needed.

For example, in Jacksonville, the public health records revealed that “births to teen moms per 1,000 teens” steadily dropped from a high of 25 in 1989 to a low of 10 in 2007. The records showed that the St. Johns River is getting cleaner, but other indicators such as the HIV infection rate and number of homeless are getting worse. As a consequence, attention is being focused on these areas.

The report is updated annually and often drives the agenda of local government and other groups. The Pew Partnership for Civic Change, the United Nations, the international Community Indictors Consortium and the National Association of Planning Councils have highlighted JCCI’s work.

 The majority of work in collecting the data, analyzing it, and presenting it to the community is done by citizen volunteers supported by a small professional staff. Production costs include printing of the report, creation of a CD-ROM with the full report, reference data, and other important information, as well as posting on the JCCI website.

An effort like this could be undertaken in every community in America and would surely improve our quality of life. It is an ideal project for a local college, Rotary Club or similar organization.

We are not powerless to fix the problems facing our country, and we don’t have to to wait on others. All it takes is sustained local leadership, a willingness do some hard work and the guts to face the facts uncovered.

For more information, go to www.jcci.org/

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