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NY Times Highlights State of the USA's Work, Mission

By Howard Parnell
May 14, 2010

While society's progress has always been a subject of diverse views and intense debate, the need to have some kind of yardstick has led over the years to what many see as an unhealthy focus on Gross Domestic Product, a valuable but some say overused indicator of a country's entire economic output. That measurement has increasingly come under criticism as failing to take into account advancement or decline across a broad spectrum of crucial areas affecting the lives of everyday citizens

In his 6,600-word essay in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Jon Gertner explores the movement that seeks to redefine the way progress is measured, communicated and debated in our country and others - with more evidence and less opinion. He highlights the work of The State of the USA as a key player in this transformation.

"In the U.S., one challenge to the GDP is coming not from a single new index, or even a dozen new measures, but from several hundred new measures -- accessible free online for anyone to see, all updated regularly," writes Gertner.

The State of the USA is in the process of building such a system of national measurements. "Its arrival," Gertner writes, "comes at an opportune moment, but it has been a long time in the works."

State of the USA's Evolution

The work that led to the creation of the State of the USA and ultimately to a Key National Indicator System for the United States began at the national level in 2003 (See History).

In the coming months, State of the USA's new public website will provide access to the best available facts drawn from the country's most respected statistical sources, including official government agencies. The site's tools will enable Americans to discover, understand, and share information across the Web through distributed publishing, social networking and other state-of-the-art techniques. A "Beta," or initial site, is planned for later this year, engaging the public as well as the experts in State of the USA's continued evolution.

State of the USA will launch with an emphasis on health, focusing on a set of key national health indicators recently identified by the Institute of Medicine. State of the USA will continue with similar efforts across a range of other issues representing national activity, investment and concern.

State of the USA's goal is to enable engaged citizens to freely and easily track and share a variety of important measures of progress -- including GDP but also scores of others. Chief among them will be those designated as "key," or the most important to understand, through a process engaging the best minds in the nation's scientific and statistical communities. (See Mission and Policies).

A National 'Report Card'

"Think of it as a report card meant to show a country's citizens the exact areas -- in health, education, the environment and so forth -- where improvement is called for; such indicators would also record how we improve, or fail to improve, over time," Gertner writes.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz chaired the recent Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, formed by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to consider alternatives to GDP. Gertner describes visiting Stiglitz's Columbia University office several times as the Times piece was coming together.

"When you go to a good doctor today, they don't just look at one or two vital signs," Stiglitz told Gertner at one point. "They look at a hundred statistics." State of the USA, he said, could be a "rich diagnostic tool" for evaluating the health of the nation.

Howard Parnell is editor and vice president of content and creative for State of the USA.

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