Letter to the Editor of The New York Times


news_times_logoDear Editor,


Ken Duberstein wrote in an opinion piece titled “1,000 Points of Data” on February 23rd that “What we need now is a Web-based system for measuring our changing society with key national indicators — in a free, public, easy-to-use form.”


Such a system already exists in a site called Data360 (see www.data360.org).   In business, successful companies build operating reports that are published internally, usually on a monthly basis, that explain very clearly (and visually) the state of the world for that business.  When I started my consulting practice, five years ago, I asked myself, “where is my business report for the state of the world?”  The answer was that insightful and succinct reports about the state of the world are not publicly available (although if I was a client of Goldman, Sachs I could get an insightful report on almost any subject, but, alas, I was not a client).  And so I went about building a tool that would be web-based, free and tell stories graphically with data that left the reader feeling more certain about the state of the world.  Four years later, that tool is Data360, a free, public, open-source, easy-to-use and objective tool for reporting on what’s so in the world.  Steven Levitt positively reviewed our site in May of 2007, as have many others. 


There are other sites today helping to unlock the data in our world, including Swivel and Many-Eyes, although anyone can load data onto these sites and so the certitude of the data presented is not always known.  There are also quasi-government sites like State of the USA that they are dauntingly large, not fully launched and not customer-focused.  What is really needed is a site like Wikipedia, that can grow organically and respond to the interests of readers.  I gave a talk last June at the Community Indicators Conference in Washington, DC, in which I pointed out that the trend towards data democratization is happening, but for it to fully take hold, there are some key principles that must be followed, the most important of which are:

1.      Integrity.  Data presented graphically must have integrity.  Seems simple, but as Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

2.      Dynamic.  The data must be updated on a regular basis so that it is current.  Business people will see the exact same report every month, updated for current data, and, because of that repetition, the thing that they begin to notice is how things are changing.

3.      Interpreted.  The data must be interpreted.  This is the most challenging principle, because data is like a haystack.  It’s easy to present a lot, but hard to present just what is important.  The best tool will make an interpretation that is distilling AND fair.


Ken Duberstein is correct:  a national indicator system is needed; however, an international indicator system is also needed, as well as city indicator system and a state indicator system, not to mention an indicator system for issues, like global warming and education.  Data360 is already partnering with innovative organizations like California Forward to unlock California’s data and Applied Survey Research to unlock and empower citizens with dashboards in literally thousands of communities around the globe.   Our biggest challenge, as a non-profit, is finding both the resources and the people to populate and manage the data on our site.  However, I know we will overcome these challenges and I felt it was important to let readers know that the “web-based system” that Mr. Duberstein mentions is already built.




Tom Paper



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