In this era of “big data,” policymakers too often focus on overly broad statistics, saysAmy Luers of the Skoll Global Threats Fund in this week’s podcast.
Luers spoke at the Wilson Center during the launch of the ND-GAIN Index, which ranks countries on exposure to climate change and their readiness. The index and other “catch-all” indicators like it are useful for making people aware of vulnerabilities, she says, but they also can mask important local variations which are important when it comes to making decisions.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Luers says, “but I would say, with a word of caution, a number is not worth a thousand words, and how indicators are interpreted however often suggests they are.”
“A number is not worth a thousand words”
Luers points to the ND-GAIN Index’s ranking of the United States as an example; it’s considered very ready for climate change and not very vulnerable. But that ranking “completely blinds you to the fact that a place like New Orleans is incredibly vulnerable,” she says. “When it becomes operational to support decision-making versus awareness-building, certain people in these countries are not apparent,” leading to marginalization of regional populations that ultimately undermines efforts to build resilience.
More generally, GDP is the “classic example” of a single indicator representing a complex system. It is the “single metric in our society of progress,” Luers says, even though by measuring only economic growth, it prioritizes market goods over non-market goods like natural resources and other measures like vulnerability or resilience to change. The result is an indicator that “creates incentives and priorities that are not necessarily supportive of the general progress and values of a society.”
“Research shows that when communities have control over their lives, they are more resilient to stresses”
This does not mean the ND-GAIN Index and other metrics that combine many factors are not useful; their value should simply be kept in perspective. Problems arise when policymakers emphasize “the desire to measure as the goal,” Luers says, “instead of characterizing an indicator and placing it on a country or on a sector, looking at a sector and saying, ‘what is it about that sector that makes it vulnerable?’”
“Research shows that when communities have control over their lives, they are more resilient to stresses,” she says. As such, the goal should be to use metrics in a way that “empowers human agency, and allows us to own the data and own the information…in a way that not only monitors and tracks vulnerability and adaptive capacity, but also builds adaptive capacity.”