Measure What Matters: DIY Toolkit

Since we’ve already mentioned kits to help citizens in getting involved in their neighbourhood, lets look at another one, the Measure What Matters: DIY Toolkit.

Parks, libraries, community centers and trails can connect people of all backgrounds, cultivate trust and counter the trends of economic and social fragmentation—yet continued investment and attention to these public places relies on our ability to measure that impact.

The kit is a collection of six well designed and thought-out PDF documents, guides to help people organize, survey, measure, and analyse how public places are used and what value they bring.

It’s an initiative by Reimagining the Civic Commons which aims “to counter the trends of increasing economic segregation, social isolation and distrust, a collaboration of national foundations and local civic leaders are reimagining civic assets as a solution.” Public spaces are too often considered mostly for the upkeep expense, not enough for the benefits they bring to local populations, RCC wants communities to help design these places, and to consider them as a portfolio of assets.

To achieve this, they are focused on four types of outcomes; civic engagement, socio-economic mixing, environmental sustainability, and value creation. The group also measures its impact with the kit above, and “brings together practitioners, policymakers, advocates and residents advancing new ways of designing, managing and measuring public spaces” around a learning network, a community of practice.

It’s also important that, as positive as the mission and tools of the group are, we also consider that they are answering a rising focus on data, where only what gets measured gets considered. See for example this excellent essay by Bryan Boyer which also happens to mention Detroit, one of the places RCC is working in. Maps are a form of measurement and datafication, and Boyer explores their impact in the isolation and corresponding loss of wealth for black communities.

When viewed through the lens of a federal highway planning map, that lack of wealth and power looked like “slums,” which meant a void to be filled through “urban renewal” and an “opportunity” for locating a highway. […]

It would be nice to have a grand conspiracy or singular bad actor to blame for this history, but instead we have systemic racist bias converted into externalities that need not be considered, those biases inscribed into maps, maps used to inform policy, and policy decisions eventually carved into the earth by bulldozers.

A phenomenon also present in health data, as Jesse Hirsh details in this newsletter issue.

[T]he myth of datafication is that it enables the pursuit of truth. Yet the paradox is that truth is never obtained. Instead the result is a desire for more data, believing that with more data truth can be grasped. Always within reach yet never obtained, an endless loop of potential, that justifies greater data and perpetual iteration of the system for the system’s sake.

To be clear, the work of Reimagining the Civic Commons is vital, but we must remember the context of measurement and what it represents more broadly.