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Francis Koster: Making our aquarium better to live in

By Francis Koster

Do you remember when you were given your first goldfish? The gift was probably a little bowl of water containing a few tiny fish and some fish food. 

I remember receiving mine when I was in grade school. It was probably the first time I was officially made responsible for caring for other living creatures. I also remember how sad I was when weeks later I found them floating in cloudy water, dead. As a child, I felt my failure deeply.  

I still remember when my brothers and sisters and I buried them in the garden with a little ceremony overseen by my mom.

I will never know what killed that fish, but the range of possibility is large — the amount and kind of food, jimmy germs from failing to wash hands before putting them in the bowl, not enough or too much light, high or low water temperature and acidity. The list can go on and on just like the list of things that impact the quality of life and health in our cities and towns. 

We all live in a “human aquarium.”

The lives of our friends and neighbors in our cities and towns are just as vulnerable as those little fish. Any number of elements in our local aquarium can encourage or stop a wide range of physical, emotional, intellectual and financial growth for our citizens as well as impact our collective quality of life. The problem (and the opportunity) is that we do not track them and make them public.

The only commonly used metric of quality of life in America is some form of counting money. It is easy to look up trended information about the gross domestic product, the unemployment rate and similar money-based indicators. Used by themselves, they are a deeply flawed measure of the quality of life. Gross domestic product actually rises if a child is hit by a car and requires extensive healthcare. The child’s quality of life declined, but the doctor’s wages and hospital bills increased, causing the GDP to rise. Another flawed metric is the stock market performance, because citing an index average like the rising Dow Jones does not reveal that 84% of the value of those stocks is owned by the richest 10% of our population. These and similar monetary indicators are used as the main metrics to discuss how our national and local quality of life. How misguided is that? 

Unlike America, most of the advanced countries in the world have systems of local dashboards that roll up into a national report. These often gather data in eight categories – and only one is financial. The other seven cover safety, health, education, environment, political freedom, social interactions and overall experience of life.

To take existing data and place it into publicly available dashboards is usually not a question of starting to collect new data. Our communities have tons of data from the Census, local arrest records, false fire alarms, rates of attempted suicides, air and water pollution data, high school graduation rates, percentage of miscarriages and birth defects, cancer rates by zip code, home ownership rates by race and a wide range of other things scattered throughout the files of many different agencies and nonprofits. Leaving it uncoordinated means there is no easy way to see the “big picture,” trends over time or inter-relationships between one metric (lead levels in drinking water) and another (amount of violent crime).

Many communities discover that no one is collecting data on some important issue and start to collect it.

In America, more than 300 communities have programs to gather and publish this kind of data, assisted by two different national organizations, the National Indicators Partnership and the Community Indicators Consortium. Called “dashboards” of quality of life indicators, these efforts engage community members in selecting measures that matter to them, gather existing but not published data, trend it year after year and put the results on a website so the entire community can see the trends and act on them. As issues become visible, change is made. These efforts have had a dramatic impact on the quality of life in their communities.

There are two great examples of this kind of tool located here in North Carolina. The first is called Charlotte/Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer, and the second is Durham Neighborhood Compass.

We can make our “aquarium” a better place to live and raise kids by imitating our successful neighbors in Durham and Charlotte. Are you going to be the little fish or the keeper of the aquarium? 

 

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