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The Executive Officer’s Column

Taking the Pulse of the Nation: Key National Indicators

Over the past year or so, ASA has been involved in a collaborative venture at the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) to create a web-based system of information that will provide key data on the “State of the USA.” Known as the Key National Indicators Initiative (KNII), this project evolved from a deliberative process emphasizing the need for “comprehensive, reliable indicator systems [to] measure progress toward broad societal goals.” The KNII acknowledges that we live in one of the most information-rich societies on earth, but we face the paradox of information inaccessibility to all but the cognoscenti. Overwhelmed by data from a wide range of sources, we find it increasingly difficult to compile solid information on how society is faring across important domains. The accessible information tends to be fragmented and hard to locate; thus, sound bites and personal opinion often substitute for data presented in a meaningful way on the complex and critical issues facing our society.

Enabling an Informed Public

KNII was launched at a forum sponsored by the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) and the NAS in early 2003 in response to this need for high quality, accurate, and easily usable data. Based on extensive research and review of indicator systems (including those in other countries), the GAO reported to Congress in 2005 that the business community, media, civic organizations, and educators expressed the need for a system of reliable and accessible information in one place in order to make sound and informed decisions on national and local policy issues and to ensure an informed public. The goal is to provide significant parts of the vast existing data systems in a highly usable, easily searchable location.

A Single Webportal

At the heart of the system will be a state-of-the-art interactive webportal to provide timely data of the highest quality on the health of the nation. A high priority is being placed on creating an information system that will be relevant to a wide range of public audiences and different types of users across segments of society. Part of making this system relevant is to ensure that as much information as possible can be disaggregated from the national level to the state level and to the local community level where the public is most engaged. In addition to spatial disaggregation, most data need to be available over time and by age and race.

Useful Indicators

Thus far, the KNII has focused on integrating input from stakeholders about three core domains—society, economy, and environment—to develop a robust set of indicators, and to define appropriate measures. KNII has also assembled data sources related to each domain as well as on a set of cross-cutting issues that span the three major areas. The guiding principles for selecting indicators and measures include: transparency, objectivity and independence, reliability, accessibility, frequency of updating, focus on “what” rather than “why” of various phenomena, and aggregation rather than interpretation of data. Although the data presentation formats to be accessed through the webportal will include definitions and references to sources, it will not include analyses, draw conclusions from the data, or seek to answer causal questions.

In spring 2006, a set of 30 “key” (or first-level) indicators from the three domains was selected for a test on the webportal, currently under construction. The NAS also announced in June that the KNII would be spun off from the Academies as a nonprofit organization to maintain and operate the website, and to perform other organizational functions (such as issuing regular reports and press releases, holding conferences, and conducting regular assessments of the initiative). The NAS will continue its involvement in the KNII by establishing an NAS Forum or Roundtable to discuss and assess KNII as it matures. It is also likely that the KNII nonprofit will further enhance oversight by including advisory participation by stakeholder organizations. (For more information, visit www.keyindicators.org.)

As one can imagine, an initiative such as this generates a wide offering of opinion, considerable debate, and even controversy. Some of these challenges have become evident in the discussions so far, as for example: What indicators best reflect the state of each domain (as well as the many possible elements within them)? What are the most appropriate and reliable indicator measures? What reliable data are available for presentation? How easily can data be updated? Is it possible to disaggregate these data?

Engaging Sociologists

The creation and availability of such an information system has important implications for sociologists. Since educators and learners at all levels will be targeted as important potential users, sociology has an important stake in ensuring that the most relevant and best data are available for presentation. From the outset of the initiative, a high priority was placed on openness of the system and on input from stakeholders across all domains. Sociologists are contributing to the design and implementation of the indicator system, and the Executive Office staff have had input through participation in national meetings and domain working groups. We anticipate that the ASA membership will also have an opportunity to experiment with the test version of the KNII data systems that will be installed over the next year. We will keep you informed of the progress on the KNII, and will seek to provide an opportunity for your input and suggestions.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer