Monday, November 24, 2014

The Quantified Community

NEW YORK – I have written previously about the Quantified Self movement – individuals equipped with the tools (monitoring devices and software) needed to measure their own health and behavior (and, by doing so, to improve them). This movement is not quite sweeping the world, but it is making a difference. So-called Quantified Selfers are monitoring their blood pressure, sleep cycles, and body mass. At least some of them are using that information to improve their health and live more productively.

In the same way, I predict (and am trying to foster) the emergence of a Quantified Community movement, with communities measuring the state, health, and activities of their people and institutions, thereby improving them. Just consider: each town has its own schools, library, police, roads and bridges, businesses, and, of course, people. All of them potentially generate a lot of data, most of it uncollected and unanalyzed. That is about to change.

As with the Quantified Self, the tools for collecting and analyzing data about everything from public health to potholes in roads, real-estate prices, school attendance, and more are beginning to emerge. Indeed, many independent data-analysis software tools and Web sites provide data that can be filtered for local information and presented with useful visualizations.

Many of these tools are funded by the Sunlight Foundation (I sit on its board), the Knight Foundation, and CodeforAmerica (my niece Lauren Dyson works there). Others are available from, a marketplace for such tools (as well as more operational software and services).

Other services include SeeClickFix, a user-generated data tool that lets individuals collect information about infrastructure problems such as potholes, broken streetlights, and the like, and then monitor the repairs. Likewise, Zillow collects and publishes real-estate information. And contests like New York City’s BigApps competition encourage developers to create apps that use city data about everything from restaurant inspection results to school performance records. Quantified Selfers can contribute their own health and activity data.

As people and communities use such tools, more and better ones will be created, and developers will start mashing data together, enabling us to see, for example, the relationship between people’s exercise habits and local health statistics. Employers and insurers can also contribute anonymized data. The goal is to create competition – among communities and among developers of the tools – and thus to foster even better tools and more livable, productive communities.

This is not only an American phenomenon. Two weeks ago, at the Open Project Foundation in Moscow, I saw a startup called Antropolis, which provides a map of community development projects and data about them: who’s in charge, budgets, suppliers, and so forth.

Many institutions are unlikely to provide the necessary data at first. But the data do exist, and most of it could be made available if it were demanded vigorously enough. One institution capable of leading the way is local newspapers, many of which are searching for a new business model and a new source of unique content. They have the connections, the resources, and the respect to play a key role.

Indeed, I believe that local newspapers will often find that the Quantified Community offers them the business model that they need at a time when many advertisers are bypassing them for social marketing and running their own Web sites. Despite the pending demise of print journalism, local papers still generally reach more local citizens than any other single institution. They need a way to remain relevant; this could be it.

In addition to selling advertising around the data, local newspapers could charge institutions for specific data analyses, benchmarking studies, and the like. The more enterprising of them could license their analytical software to other newspapers that follow their lead in other communities.

Any local news organizations could collect and manage the data (using its own people and perhaps some of the third-party resources that I mentioned) and provide a central hub to manage and cross-reference the data. For example, which neighborhoods have the healthiest people? Which employers are hiring, and which are shedding workers? How does absenteeism correlate with health – and with health-club membership?

A news company could encourage contests within neighborhoods or with other communities to become healthier, fix more potholes, reduce the rate of traffic accidents, or curb drunk driving. Just as competition with other individuals is part of the Quantified Self movement, so competition with other communities will be part of the Quantified Community movement.

All of this is still at an early stage, but I believe that it is probably the best outcome for many local newspapers searching for a business model, not to mention for the many communities that could benefit from more self-awareness and the spur of scrutiny and competition. With luck, as some communities lead the way, others will learn from them. Someday, citizens will not just complain about local problems; they will have the data to prove their case – and to figure out how to fix those problems!

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (12)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. Commentedandy kieffer

      Thanks for pointing me to this Esther. As we discussed, is a social/mobile app that lets citizens record issues in 4 categories (crime, infrastructure, traffic, and environment). We've launched a few weeks ago in Mexico and, so far, so good. Regarding a business plan, we've found that governments (local, state, and federal) seem delighted to pay for access to the data that we generate. Because we encourage participants to both add reports AND vote on those existing reports that affect them - the agencies that are responsible for addressing these issues can see which are the "hottest" problems. In addition to giving them guidance on how to spend their limited resources, there's also a bit of public shaming (very effective here in Mexico). Because this data isn't filtered through a interest group it's hard for governments to ignore it. The non-political nature of crowd-sourced data has a way of forcing consensus and action.

    2. CommentedEleanor Wynn

      Esther, I have begun a little project to characterize social neighborhood cohesion and social networks, trying to understand some of the variables needed to generate simple social bonds, but also with an eye to understanding how to move to the next level, of providing resources. I am encouraged by your effort and look forward to getting and sharing ideas. I used Klinenberg's Heat Wave as a starting point, in terms of worst case when there is no cohesion. From his book I also grasped the layering of activities, policies and services that come into play when vulnerable populations and emergency situations are involved.

    3. CommentedEmmanuel Letouzé

      Just fyi we just published a blog post for Bruegel on "Big Data, aggregates and individuals" where we cite your article and this particular argument--here:

    4. CommentedF. W. Croft

      Interesting - but you'll see a lot of unit of measure and "what's the right metric" questions when trying to implement. Goals of particular communities are going to vary all over the place. It seems like a much tougher issue than Quantified Self, where there's a fair amount of agreement on what constitutes health. That said, having the metrics and unit of measure discussions would be useful for any community.

    5. CommentedAurelie Pols

      Interesting food for thought, thank you! It reminds me of the UN Global Pulse initiative ( but then of a local level.

    6. Commentedsally duros

      This is another very interesting idea, which I will pass on to my network of online news sites looking for a sustainable revenue model.

      And indeed, I have been exploring an idea, in which a newsroom co-creates with the citizenry something I call The Accountabilty Newsroom. When the front line workers are brought into play as well in a process engineering project, it could change the very nature of government. I wrote about this idea on Huffington Post.

    7. Commentedsally duros

      This is a great idea and I will pass this information on to LISC Chicago, which I have done some work with. It occurs to me at times that good journalism and a healthy community are directly intertwined.

    8. CommentedNathan Coppedge

      What I would like to introduce is more "information overhead"; Information need not simply consist of mundane details or even physical systems organization; Instead, categorical properties of opposites can be used to describe logical deductions and relationships between properties of data; I describe the methods to reach towards information overhead in my forthcoming book, The Dimensional Philosopher's Toolkit, to be released by Authorhouse; Data need not be "thin", it ought to be deep.

    9. CommentedS vd Niet

      I appreciate the idea of sharing information and getting everyone involved. Even the little things you notice during a dog walk might prove valuable. However, I agree with J K, here's a little thought experiment.

      We could rank all citizens.

      You earn points for, say, your contribution to GDP, voluntary work, lose points for medical costs, earn points for the number of friends and likings you have on the internet and the times you provided the governments with useful information about potholes and graffiti, homeless hanging around in your neighborhood, or people whom you suspect aren't entitled to the financial aid they get.

      Then there'll be a TV show. Please cheer for the people at the top and those who have climbed the ladder last week, and please deride the people on the lower end as well as those who have dropped places. Sponsors will parade with our heroes - finally we're sellable items ourselves.

      That will motivate people to do good.

      Well, endless possibilities. Except, I don't want them to materialize.

      Competition is great for losing track of the original reasons for doing something (as opposed to incentives). And statistics are great for exerting normative force without having to be interested in idiosyncratic stories and experiences. Be aware, don't let numbers and figures get the better of us.

    10. CommentedJ K

      Be careful what you wish for. Data & statistics-based planning are already commonly misused, particularly in education. Campbell's Law states: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

    11. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      This is truly very interesting.
      If we put the whole project into the global context, into the interdependent, integral conditions we live in, this whole project sounds like as the gradually awakening self awareness of a vast organism, that awakes at first at the cellular level, then cells get together to form organs, and finally all the organs connect together into a single united, harmoniously functioning body.
      As the desperate helplessness all over the world regarding any solution for the global crisis shows, until we finally form this single self awareness, starting to function as a single mutually responsible human body, we have absolutely no chance of solving any of our problems.
      At the end all of these "self monitoring" "data collecting"activities, programs have to be run by the same fundamental software that connects all of them together.