Alternative Metrics

The credibility of Gross Domestic Product as a measure of prosperity has waned. GDP correlates with improved standard of living and with human flourishing up to a certain range: somewhere around $7000 per person. Above that, there is little to no correlation. Because GDP is also limited in scope–it leaves good things out and includes bad things, it ignores environmental factors, etc.– other competing methodologies such as Genuine Progress Indicator have gained some traction. Critics say GPI isn’t value neutral, but it does attempt to incorporate universal criteria for human success. Such a weakness may be inherent to the discipline of the public service of social metrics as propagated by singular organizations.

Distributed technology could begin to provide social metrics on an open source model which uses transparent and crowd-sourced methodologies leveraged on public datasets to produce comprehensible trends accessible to information designers. That would mean that by sharing achievements in software development non-commercially, groups of social data analysts could work toward turning really big data into structured and correlated sets which could be mined by curious and politically minded individuals. This would not produce a single TV ready figure which, rising, would guarantee incumbents’ reelection. Instead, it would create an infographic renaissance of privately designed social metrics.

One example of this kind of work is, which provides an influenza indicator. This simple yet incredibly powerful tool harnesses an enormous data pool of nationwide searches to provide a real-time metric of flu infections. The data is presented well for easy consumption.

Another project which shows the concept is work by computational social scientist Johan Bollen of Indiana University-Bloomington. According to Wired magazine’s interview, Twitter can be used as a stock market predictor. That is, there is a correlation between mood on Twitter and stock market performance on a scale of days (this won’t make anyone rich). Researchers searched massive numbers of tweets for emotional language and found an 87% correlation with the DJIA 3 days later.

The fact is that far more data about everyday economic activity exists than is recorded in traditional documentation methods. The internet provides public access to the hive mind: it’s just too disorganized for anyone to absorb its meaning unless a critical mass is reached which impacts other media.

Information designers have decades of experience in making data digestible. The open source community has established how to accomplish huge engineering feats publicly. Major stakeholders have shown the way and gotten people used to the privacy issues. What we need now is an effort in the hacker community or a nonprofit consortium to bring the pieces together to create measures of human flourishing.

Many social issues are relatively invisible, either because they aren’t sexy, or because they reveal inconvenient truths. It takes a world-wide crisis to give the impetus for an idea like bitcoin, which has shown itself to be truly incendiary. Now the world is learning what happens when you massively distribute currency fiat. It is only a matter of time before the next politically dynamite issue is reimagined by internet culture. How about food? Water? Oil? Deep and transparent informatics on these baseline commodities could change politics forever.

Incidentally, this is why losing net neutrality is a nightmare scenario. A century from now people will remember the amazing innovations of the wild west of internet infancy, and wonder why it got all commercial. If people want to keep the power of this technology, they will have to fight Verizon and the NSA for it every step of the way. Vigilance is hard work, but it’s worth it.


“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” ~ Thomas Paine: The American Crisis, No. 4, 1777

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Google's Seattle Flu Chart


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