The sustainability indicators
Passion drives community action, but good data can help.
So advocates Jim Walker, executive director of the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project – a data nerd's dream. The passion behind CTSIP is about advancing community goals and values to grow Central Texas well. The "sustainability" it promotes requires a healthy balance among the environment, economic development, and social equity. Toward that end, the 40-plus "indicators" related to prosperity, quality of life, and equality of opportunity are compiled for the five-county Central Texas region, from public data sources and CTSIP phone surveys. All those factoids get compiled into a graph-happy Biennial Data Report. (The 2006 report is available online at www.centexindicators.org; the 2008 report will be published next spring.) By distilling a wealth of facts and trends, the report offers a rich resource for public discourse, policy, and community solutions – and political candidate stump speeches.
After being housed for seven years at Austin Community College, the CTSIP recently left its institutional host and struck out on its own. Walker said ACC provided a great relationship during the project's incubation period; ACC had been paying his half-time salary, as a donation to CTSIP. The transition has spurred a period of fresh focus for the project on strategic goals, fundraising, and a business plan for growth.
"It's timely that we're in a period of deep strategic thinking, because it seems like every week or so another organization calls for better data," Walker said. "But the real question is, how do we connect the data to things we're passionate about? Which measures matter, and how do you get communities engaged?"
This isn't some crazy Austin idea: Nationally there's a Community Indi-cators Consortium and an International Sustainability Indicators Network (Walker is involved in both) and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership. But the local effort, admits Walker, "is as much a cult phenomenon as anything." Organizations hip to the data cult include United Way and Envision Central Texas (Walker becomes ECT board president in 2008). The report is also valued by the Community Action Network, Leadership Austin, Austin Area Research Organization, Liveable City, environmental groups, Travis County, area school systems, and Seton's Children's Optimal Health initiative.
Walker said that in other cities – some 150 nationally – such initiatives are associated with major foundations or the United Way, which funds them. Here, the 501(c)3 nonprofit is actively seeking new partners, sponsors, and corporate donors. "We've maxed out on what we can achieve with one staff person," said the spread-thin Walker. To date, resources have been focused on simply producing the report. Indeed, it's a massive undertaking: Major categories include social equity, engagement, economy, health, environment, land use and mobility, public safety, and education and children. But the CTSIP has a five-year plan to add staff who can provide new data products, related consulting services, and custom analysis and data reports in the public interest. Most important, the CTSIP wants to proactively engage leaders and citizens in using its data to take action. It regards engagement as the crucial "fourth E" – alongside equity, economy, and environment.
Sponsors are being sought for the 2008 report. The CTSIP is also seeking consulting projects that can provide earned income, around a collaborative model in which they add value to the initiatives of other groups. Specific data extracts and custom compilations are produced by indicator projects in other cities and represent a growth area for the CTSIP.
"I love data!" Walker said. "But more, I love to use trends and different kinds of data – to connect the dots in the community, to imagine in the future, to support hopes and aspirations, and ultimately to get stuff done."