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What is a community indicator?
Bauer (1966) defines social indicators as "statistics, statistical series, and all other forms of evidence . . . that enable us to assess where we stand and are going with respect to our values and goals, and to evaluate specific programs and determine their impact."
Social indicators can be compiled on many different levels: nation, state, county/borough, city, community council, school, neighborhood, or even household. When we focus on social indicators of communities, we can assess similarities and differences within and between cities or boroughs. On a community level, indicators are things like residential stability (how long the residents of a neighborhood have lived there), employment characteristics (the industries and types of work that residents are employed in), and numerous family and economic characteristics.
Collecting and analyzing these statistics allows us determine what the current situation in a community is, how the situation in one neighborhood compares to other neighborhoods, how we could conceivably change the situation, and what effect our attempts to change the situation are having.
Why are community indicators important?
Community indicators can prove valuable to both community leaders and community members. Leaders and residents may have different ideas about the quality of services provided, how safe and enjoyable neighborhoods are, even areas and directions for improvement. Community indicators provide an empirical way to identify problem areas, quantify the scope of those problems, and track progress in rectifying the problems. Sometimes community leaders identify areas they would like to target for improvement, then develop community indicators to guide their efforts. Other times, community members’ responses to a standard battery of community indicators call attention to areas in need of improvement that had not yet been recognized by community leaders.
Because community indicators are assessed repeatedly, they can also be used to assess progress in reaching community goals and mitigating community problems. Community indicators allow us to measure what matters and find out whether programs implemented by and for the community actually have the desired impact on problems or goals.
For example, we might find that vandalism is a particularly prevalent problem in one community. An analysis of the indicators shows that there is a high ratio of children to adults, and that these children have a significant amount of free time on their hands. This might prompt community leadership to initiate an outreach program to involve the youth of the community in worthy activities, such as athletic programs or increased educational opportunities. Subsequent studies of community indicators would tell us if the outreach program was having an impact on vandalism, how much of an impact, and how the change was taking place.
How are community indicators measured?
Much of the data utilized in community indicators analysis comes from existing sources such as U.S. Census measures, health statistics from public health agencies, police records, tax assessment rolls, and from community or business surveys. These surveys ask questions about satisfaction with public services such as educational services, emergency services, or outreach programs, or about issues that face the community such as vandalism, drugs, or gang activity.
What do you do with the information?
The data is collected and stored at the Justice Center of the University of Alaska Anchorage. These data are carefully analyzed to insure that there is no identifying information contained or associated with them, then the data are made publicly available so that others may access and perform their own analyses using the data. The Justice Center publishes its own findings of interest, as time and resources allow, however, one of the central premises of any community indicators project is to make the data available to others for their own analysis and research projects.
As an affiliate with the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, the Justice Center is committed to democratizing the data collected. What this means is that the Justice Center would like to provide data to policy makers and leaders in communities in an effort to aid them in the improvement of their neighborhoods.
The Justice Center provides information to communities regarding the development of appropriate indicators and methods of measuring these indicators. Community leaders, and community members determine what issues are in most critical need of attention, then the Justice Center assists communities in tracking the progress of their initiatives to determine outcomes.
What is the Justice Center?
Established in 1975, the Justice Center is an academic, research and public education program serving the entire state of Alaska. Members of the Center faculty and professional staff hold advanced degrees from institutions nationally recognized in their fields and have diverse backgrounds in law, police and corrections work and public office. They direct a broad spectrum of research and provide advice and professional assistance on justice and community related concerns to participants in the legal, judicial and legislative arenas, as well as local governments and community action groups.