Times Article Sparks Reader Questions, Imagination

By Howard Parnell
June 9, 2010

Numerous suggestions, questions and kudos were generated by a recent New York Times Magazine article highlighting State of the USA's role in the movement to redefine how progress is measured, communicated and debated regionally, nationally and internationally.

A total of 70 comments were posted on writer Jon Gertner's 6,600 word piece during nytimes.com's online commenting period, which recently closed. Additional comments were made to posts on stateoftheusa.org during the same stretch. The Times linked directly to the site as part of a profile of the organization, which was woven throughout the article.

"It's wonderful [what] organizations like the State of the USA are doing to formulate new measures of not just a country's but also individual well-being, economic and other factors included," commented Jag of Las Vegas.

The article's focus was on the growing international debate over Gross Domestic Product as the preeminent measure of national progress, and described State of the USA as one challenge to the widely tracked index. "Its arrival," Gertner wrote of SUSA, "comes at an opportune moment, but it has been a long time in the works."

State of the USA works to help engaged citizens 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. Many readers expressed support for this work, and offered their own ideas about what we should measure.

"Sense/feeling of being safe and secure should be a part of the criteria," continued Jag. "Maybe it comes under emotional/social factors but it's an important consideration. Should terrorism related issues also be a part?"

We welcome and encourage such suggestions. In fact, Safety and Security is one of 12 main issue areas currently in development, a choice based on nationwide polling and survey data.

The piece described in detail our goal to create a "key national indicator system," as mandated by recently signed federal legislation. "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," wrote Gertner. "The State of the USA intends to ultimately post around 300 indicators on issues like crime, energy, infrastructure, housing, health, education, environment and the economy."

Times commenter APS, of Olympia, Wash., was moved to ask, "If other countries don't adopt those same 300 measures, how will we be able to tell if we're doing better than them?" The question was echoed by Nick Hanauer, commenting on stateoftheusa.org, who wrote, "It's crucial that these health measures be compared to other G-20 nations to give context to the numbers."

Scott Gilkeson, State of the USA's chief data officer, responds: "We don't expect to have measures for other countries for every key measure, but we will for many of them. In the health area, we have been able to find comparable measures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for about half the State of the USA key measures. OECD and the United Nations, as well as other international organizations, are already collecting lots of data and doing the hard work of setting standards for collection and analysis that make them comparable across countries."

In addition, what we help develop in identifying key measures across issue areas may serve as models for other nations. For example, our work with the Institute of Medicine to identify 20 key health indicators led to the development of a new one measuring the prevalence of chronic disease. That new indicator is defined by IOM as "the percentage of adults reporting one or more of six chronic diseases: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (bronchitis and emphysema), asthma, cancer and arthritis," and its creation has prompted the OECD to consider it as an international standard.

Comments on this site also included several suggested measures of health in addition to the 20 key ones from the IOM. Among them, maternal mortality; time spent on recreation, play and community service; and two calls for measuring the amount of sleep we get.

Scientalla, a Times commenter from California, cheers us on.

"GREAT, fascinating. Of course with new technologies there is no reason on earth we need to rely on one or even two all-encompassing measures," Scientella writes.

"Start with 20 different measures, all on one page at a time. That would have to be better. Go techies!"

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