What areas are most important to measure? Who is going to make these decisions and how? How can a process be designed to generate a national indicator set with sufficient engagement of many interested constituencies, yet still be manageable? Because the technical issues surrounding the presentation of data on our nation can become quite complex, we have set out these general policies to guide State of the USA editorial decisions.
The State of the USA's mission is to help all Americans assess national progress for themselves, with the best quality measures and data on the most important issues. The aim of editorial operations is to create a system that can earn the trust of the public by responsibly developing and continually evolving content on relevant issues, supported by quality measures, data sets and contextual content. Furthermore, this content must be published on the Web in such a way that it is easily usable, verifiable from original sources and engaging.
The website must be a rapidly accessible source of quality facts. But most importantly, it should encourage and challenge all Americans to think more critically about the context of that information and the interrelationships among the issues faced by the nation.
Ultimately, the State of the USA aims to create a shared quantitative frame of reference for national civic dialogue, helping Americans frame questions based on evidence and implement workable solutions that deliver measurable results.
The State of the USA is dedicated to the following editorial strategies:
A systemic point of view: Important national issues are often dealt with in isolation - such as education, health, the economy and the environment. They are, in truth, intimately related. Understanding these relationships helps to frame issues in a way that can lead to more complete and lasting solutions.
A concentration on quantitative data: We strive to provide easy access, in one place, to specific quantitative data that helps Americans understand what is and is not known about the state of the nation, and where and whether progress is being made.
A high degree of selectivity: State of the USA is highly selective, striving for credible simplicity rather than incredible complexity. This means gradually developing a total of several hundred measures that can be used to assess progress on a wide range of issues.
Intensive collaboration: It is only possible to be selective by drawing on advice from prestigious institutions like the National Academy of Sciences who have a proven capability to build consensus and untangle complex issues. Equally important is reliance on providers that collect original data, as well as other organizations that specialize either in particular topical areas such as the economy or the environment, or geographies from the global to the local level. When users require more detailed information or research, the State of the USA will link to original sources or other information providers.
A free public service: All Americans deserve to have access to information about the progress of their country. The best way to make information widely available is to offer it free of charge both to end users and to media outlets - so that it has the maximum possible exposure to the public.
Producing high quality information: By making information, context and commentary on the relative quality of information a foreground editorial focus on the website, the State of the USA will meet the growing demand for quality data that is non-partisan, non-ideological and as free as possible from bias.
Dedication to ease of use: High quality does not have to mean complicated. The rich veins of statistical data in which this country has invested can only be appreciated and valued if they are made easy to use.
Our core editorial principles are to balance audience value, public legitimacy and scientific credibility. Audience value represents our commitment to produce content that is highly understandable, relevant and useful for the American people. Public legitimacy represents our understanding that the choices our institution makes in presenting information must have as diverse and democratic a character as possible. Scientific credibility means we strive to draw on objective, independently verifiable sources in a way that meets the standards of the scientific community.
Audiences, Stakeholders and Feedback
The audience for the State of the USA is the American people. Audience members may be leaders, policymakers, civil servants, business, consumers, workers, the media, teachers or students. They may be interested in the world, the country, their state, region, city, community or all of the above. They will be of varying ages, educational backgrounds, race/ethnicity, income and gender. They will acquire information through different means--some using the Web exclusively, others using it moderately in conjunction with other media.
State of the USA bases its work on the stakeholders who are professionally dedicated to developing specialized knowledge in their fields. They organize and conduct research. They collect and evaluate data to better understand those fields of study. They publish their understanding to serve the advancement of knowledge. These stakeholders are scientists and statisticians, business and city planners, policy specialists and journalists, program officers and academics.
State of the USA is committed to providing a valuable service and to being a reliable catalyst for dialogue between the public and experts in many fields. Feedback is essential to achieving the mission and can be submitted on every page of this site. State of the USA considers as many means as possible of encouraging, publishing and responding to feedback from our audiences and stakeholders.
Quality information is a prime concern for the State of the USA Editorial Committee. Diverse groups of experts will help frame issues and recommend data sets as well as indicators.
Additional levels of review ensure the appropriateness and quality of the data we publish. Furthermore, quality will be considered across the chain from collection to presentation, irrespective of the medium in which information is published.
The State of the USA works closely and continuously with professionals in the area of statistical data quality, such as the official statistical agencies of the U.S. federal government and the Committee on National Statistics. The State of the USA also draws on widely established best practices and norms for defining and assuring quality used by leading organizations in other fields around the world.
Bringing Information to Life
The State of the USA wants people to engage with information they care about in ways they may not have realized were possible. Our aim is to bring the state of the country to life by allowing users to find, discover and share useful information - whether it be finding a fast fact or conducting an hour-long research project. This requires a careful balance between advanced data functionality and ease of use. It also requires a commitment to explanation, context and interactivity. A quality user experience must ensure that its search, analytic, visualization and social interaction tools are designed and presented to be as accessible and open as possible.
The Website Development Team brings together subject matter experts, statisticians, scientists and practitioners focused on quality with experienced Web publishing producers charged with making the website's content exciting and thought-provoking. Measures are expressed with many dimensions wherever possible, showing trends over time and breakouts by geography and demographic groups. The site includes carefully crafted explicatory content, including thorough descriptions of indicators and source data, and explanations of data gaps and quality issues. The State of the USA also publishes engaging supplementary materials that help put the data in the context of current events and allows users to see themselves and their circumstances in the numbers.
A Work in Progress
The State of the USA is by definition a work in progress.
Based on what has been learned through feedback and other sources, initial online experimentation has led to the development of the beta version 1.0 of the State of the USA website. The beta site will continue to evolve, adding content, features and functions as audiences demand, innovations emerge, partnerships are established and resources are made available.
Much of the content on the beta site is focused on health. Also featured is initial content in education, housing, crime and justice, economy and energy. These sections and other areas of the site will continue to evolve to include more measures, comparisons at different geographic levels, demographic breakdowns and related indicators.
As global and national issues emerge, the State of the USA will attempt to be responsive, recognizing that there are resource constraints at this stage of our growth. The State of the USA's Editorial Committee will be fully open and transparent about our planned development of content and, in particular, will identify gaps that are within or outside of our control.
Editorial Committee and Website Development Team
The State of the USA's editorial policies are formulated by its Editorial Committee and implemented by both that committee and the organization's Website Development Team. The committee has been meeting formally since June 2008. Biographies of the committee and development team members are available on the Staff and Leadership page.
The committee is growing steadily, and already includes a small but distinguished group of individuals, including leading researchers, subject matter experts, journalists, statisticians, scientists, business executives, nonprofit executives and technical specialists in human-computer interaction and website design. As our content areas grow, so will the committee, and its leadership will be particularly attentive to expanding the diversity of the group over time. The State of the USA's leadership welcomes nominations, at any time, for membership in the Editorial Committee.
The State of the USA Editorial Committee is responsible for strategic content decisions, ranging from choosing advisers to framing of issues, selection and sourcing of indicators to display and quality assurance. The Website Development Team is responsible for tactical implementation of policy and managing the website on a daily basis. Both groups rely on current work by many information providers to leverage complementary efforts, avoid replication and achieve economies of scale. They also draw heavily from several years of previous work on a key national indicator system for the United States that served as a starting point for the State of the USA's work.
The Content Development Process
The State of the USA's content development process is designed to be repeatable, adaptive and cumulative so that the organization is continually learning and improving over time.
At its best, such a process acknowledges the need to make reasoned choices while attempting to bring as many objective factors to bear as possible. One important aspect of the process involves always being open to alternative points of views. Hence, the process is designed to involve multiple sectors (business, media, government, academia, civil society); multiple levels and types of geography (communities, cities, regions, ecosystems, states, watersheds, nations) and multiple demographic groups (age, gender, race/ethnicity, education level, income).
The content development process is informed by three complementary sources:
- Input from the public and stakeholder groups through civic engagement and site feedback,
- Input of the National Academy of Sciences and other experts, and
- Input from statistical data providers, given their experience and long histories of interaction with the public and their data.
The State of the USA synthesizes these inputs to make final decisions on issue definition, indicator and data set selection and online presentation.
There are multiple factors that need to be balanced in content development. One imperative is to balance what the public wants to know with what experts believe they need to know. Another is to balance the risk of data non-use (i.e., as a result of complexity and inaccessibility) against risk of misuse (i.e., overly simplistic presentation of data without explanation or context). The State of the USA is committed to grappling with these elements of balance and exposing them to our audiences wherever possible.
Transparency is essential to building and sustaining trust.
The State of the USA in general, and the Editorial Committee in particular, are committed to public transparency about our operations. We are open about the criteria which are used for the choice of Editorial Committee members, the way issues are defined for development, the way indicators and data sets are selected for each issue and the way we use input both from the National Academy of Sciences and other experts and from the public through the civic engagement process. This will include everything from information about the members of the Editorial Committee and working groups to full disclosure of any relevant funding or sponsorship information. We plan to publish many additional relevant documents on our website, including records of meetings and decisions, articles by Editorial Committee and working group members and summaries of both expert and public input.
Issues, Measures and Data
The State of the USA presents well-framed issues (e.g., health costs) and clearly defined measures (e.g., per capita health expenditure), supported by quality data sets (e.g., the National Health Expenditure Accounts compiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and international data collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). This content will roll out incrementally over the next few years and evolve continually in response to the content development process described above. The organization will rely heavily on recommendations from the National Academies to assist it in making judgments that can withstand broad scrutiny. All feedback is welcomed on issues, indicators and data sets as well as the process we are using to develop them.
The State of the USA's policy is to present content in ways that make it:
- easy for audiences to engage around issues,
- possible for those issues to be defined and evolve rapidly and fluidly in response to feedback,
- easy to gain a sense of the context and interrelationships among issues in a way that is useful for a wide variety of world views, and
- possible to manage content so that indicators can be used to investigate multiple issues.
The Editorial Committee has initially defined 12 core topical areas that represent major areas of national activity, investment and concern. The goal is to develop several hundred measures across these areas in the next few years. The areas are, in alphabetical order: Civic and Cultural Life, Crime and Justice, Demographics, Economy, Education, Energy, Environment, Governance, Health, Housing, Infrastructure, Safety and Security.
Across these 12 topic areas will be a myriad of cross-cutting issues. By facilitating views of measures across topic areas, State of the USA will make it possible for users to analyze indicators that relate to broad national concerns.
Some examples that have emerged in the content development process to date are: Global Concerns and America's Role, Science, Technology, and Innovation; Values and Culture; Families, Children, and Youth; Working Age Adults; Seniors, Aging, and Retirement; Disability Issues; Social Equity; and Sustainability.
Since it has not been practical to develop all issue areas at once, the Editorial Committee chose to roll out topics based on the level of interest shown by the American people - as validated by an independent analysis of historical polling data.
Among the highest priorities for development were the economy, health and education. Over the past two decades, economic issues have, on average, ranked as the most important single problem area in national surveys. Health issues have sometimes been considered the top problem, and are consistently in the top five. Education is also a high-interest issue. However, some topical areas are more difficult to develop than others. As a result, there are some high-interest areas (e.g., Infrastructure, Safety and Security) that could lag in their development.
Supporting this broad range of topic areas and issues will be the State of the USA's key measures and their supporting data sets. The Editorial Committee defines a measure, or indicator, as a quantitative measure of societal condition. The organization's policy is to express each indicator in four dimensions: over time, by geography, by demographic subgroup and by level of abstraction. The ability to satisfy all four of these will vary widely across indicators, and the State of the USA will show as much information as possible without sacrificing quality.
The supporting data sets will determine how "fully" an indicator can be presented. Some will allow county- or regional-level comparisons while others will only have national and international comparisons. Some will allow demographic breakdowns by age and gender, but not by race/ethnicity or income levels. Some will have continuous time series over 60 years and be updated monthly, while others will have gaps of coverage and be updated only every 3 years. All these considerations concerning data quality will factor into which data sets are chosen to support an indicator.
- Christopher Hoenig, President and CEO
- Howard Parnell, Editor-in-Chief and Vice President, Content and Creative