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good form sirs…goood form. the cascadia scorecard.

April 16, 2011

the very first edition of the cascadia scorecard, circa 2004

Man, I almost accidentally posted the pollen data write up I did for my climate change class.  That would’ve been wicked disappointing for you guys.  Trust me.  It’s one of those things where the process is actually fairly interesting and heaped with learning but the end result is real dry and unexciting.  I’ve been at the coffee shop for over seven hours.  Partly because I’ve got heaps to do and I’ve been wicked productive here (if I was this productive even a quarter of my waking hours I would totally rule the world, but unfortunately this sort of food deprived, caffeine induced, interesting conversation supported and inspired productivity is in absolutely no way sustainable) but also because after being sunny and 70 degrees just two days ago, it is now windy, gray, freezing (literally) and snowing and I am incredibly reluctant to ride home.  Anyway, I’ve been dogging on data so far this month.  This is not personal.  It’s more of a constructive criticism sort of approach because 1)  it’s hugely underachieving and I’m not going to give it a slap on the butt and say you’re doing great…I expect more, I expect better.  I would like to see data reach it’s full potential.  Or even half of it.  And 2)  our relationship with data is worrisome…the extent to which many of us trust it and see it as some sort of absolute truth…as facts.  That being said I’m going to switch it up and share an organization and project that, though not perfect, I think is doing a good job of utilizing data.  And they are doing this in a genre that has proven notoriously difficult to get anything truly useful or meaningful from data, picking indicators, following trends, etc.  And also an rea where buzzwords and vagueness are a chronic issue.  Poverty, development, sustainability.  Buzzwords.  They can mean so much or absolutely nothing.  So, let’s talk about The Sightline Institute.  They are and they do a bunch of different things but essentially they’re a think tank focused on sustainability* issues and research in the Pacific Northwest.

There’s a lot I could talk about in regards to them and the work/research they do but I’m going to focus on one of their projects called the Cascadia Scorecard because i think it’s a really good example of proper data application, and one of the more successful attempts at some sort of poverty/development/sustainability index.  “The Cascadia Scorecard measures progress in two steps: choosing a real-world model as a target, and then calculating how far we are from matching that model.”  It does this by following seven indicators:  Population, health, energy, pollution, wildlife, economy and sprawl.  It does a lot of things right.  I shall outline a few of them below.

1.  Focuses on a specific geographic region…”Cascadia’s boundaries are natural: they are defined by the watersheds whose rivers flow through temperate coastal rainforests on the North Pacific coast.”  Yet it also breaks the data down for smaller areas within that larger region…by state, by regions with similar data, with similar geographic, economic, or cultural characteristics, and by country (since part of their “Cascadia” region is in Canada), and recognizes the differences that occur within the region and addresses them, and sometimes even publishes books on the differences, or the way various indicators are connected (ie Cascadia Scorecard 2006 which looked at the relationships between health and sprawl.)

2.  They track specific trends, using specific pieces of data…and consistently follow those over time…not just a one off deal.  They’re also consistently adapting to changes in various areas, so that the data remains as relevant and useful as possible.

3.  The data is transparent.  The trends are transparent (in terms of knowing what data they’re using to make their statements).  And it’s easily transparent.  One doesn’t have to slog through heaps of numbers and websites and papers strewn throughout the internets and scholarly journals…one can if one desires an even deeper understanding but it’s unnecessary.

4.  There is a solid target goal, also just as transparent and explained as the indicators.  “Sightline identifies a model of success: a part of the industrialized world, or a time in the region’s recent history, in which performance for that trend is exemplary. These success stories embody aspirations, but reasonable ones: by definition, model performance is within reach, since it has already been achieved somewhere in the world, or at some point in our history. The Scorecard models do not necessarily represent the best possible performance on any indicator. Instead, they serve as wayposts, goals that — if reached — will put us well on track toward creating a healthy, lasting prosperity.”

These six indicators have never moved in lockstep. Only health and sprawl have improved consistently. Performance on other indicators has been mixed. Chart updated in 2010.

Let’s take for example the health indicator…they explain what the health indicator is (what it measures), and why it was chosen as an indicator of sustainability and also why they chose the data they did to be the health indicator.  And they indicate what the target goal is and why it was chosen as the target.  The health indicator is life expectancy which measures life expectancy at birth, in years.  They chose this as the indicator for health because, in their words, “…the life-expectancy measure integrates all maladies that can shorten lives, from infant mortality to heart disease to traffic accidents to cancer. Moreover, national and international comparisons show strong correlations between life expectancy and other measures of health, such as the number of years people live free of disability, rates of preventable illness, and even people’s satisfaction with their own health. Life expectancy is measured consistently throughout the world, and official figures are reported with minimal delay–making it ideally suited for reliable comparisons of population health.”  And the target is 81.3 years, based off of life expectancy in Japan (at time of Scorecard creation), the world’s leader in longevity.  There is heaps more data and sources and whatnot if one would like to dig deeper but for the purposes of this post it is unnecessary  and probably overkill.  Plus the exact data and claims of the health indicator are not the point…the point is that if you so choose…the data and sources are readily available to you.  If you want a good history of the Scorecard and more explanations (in well written, interesting, non-data form) I would encourage you to check out the very first “book” that Sightline put together on the subject, “Cascadia Scorecard:  Measuring What Matters.”  They do a great job of not writing in the traditional (and admittedly often dry) scholarly/research journal style…it’s actually quite interesting.   If you want a bit more information on the Scorecard but not a whole book’s worth then head over here for a much briefer but exellently helpful rundown.

I’m not saying it’s perfect or flawless…but it is one of the “best” examples I’ve seen of using data as a measurements and indicators of poverty and development, for the reasons I outlined above as well as this:  they tend not to get too ahead of themselves and make grandiose claims that start to move far beyond the scope of their data and they also avoid absolutes and final destinations.  An important factor to consider when using data is the scale on which we collect data and the scale on which we then apply or project our conclusions.  It’s very easy to get excited and have things snowball completely out of control in terms of the outcomes we predict based on data, or the indexes we draw up based on data.

Okay, in addition, if you’re residing within the Cascadia vicinity I would encourage you to follow Sightline’s news/blogging site for up to date news on related topics/issues within Cascadia.  Cheers.

*Sustainability is buzzy…in many instances it carries not a whole lot of specific meaning (okay, it’s actually often completely vague and void of any sort of actual quantitative or qualitative value) and is fairly un-useful, informative, or helpful.  But it’s buzzworthy so they use it, and I do not like this trend but it is understandable.  In this case Sightline does address what they mean by sustainability but they don’t come forth and say “Here is what we mean by sustainability” and then proceed to explain so it can be a bit of a slog to try and find somewhere in which they address what they mean.  But if one is familiar enough with the Scorecard and has had to poke around it for various classes, one is able to figure out what they mean by sustainability and that is:  the overall health and quality of life in the region, both human and environmental.

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