Data for Decision-Makers: Arizona Indicators Project Provides Accessible Information on the Web

June 04, 2008

Public policy-makers and voters need sound, relevant data when making decisions, yet accessing information can be difficult, and often costly. But a national trend to use technology and innovative public and private funding is beginning to change all that.

One example is the Arizona Indicators Project (AIP). The idea -- to make it easier for Arizonans to make informed decisions -- is not new, according to Tom Rex, associate director of the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research, a unit of the W. P. Carey School of Business. A decade ago, ASU considered such a project but was unable to secure funding.

Then the necessary pieces came together. Public, private and university funding sources were secured to apply fresh technological resources, yielding a Web site that provides a useful, functioning warehouse of information. Launched six months ago, the tool is constantly expanding and improving its methods of operation.

Recently, a broad-based opinion research tool developed by Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy to bring perspective to the information was incorporated into the site.

The evolving site is expected to be increasingly valuable to government leaders and Arizonans at all levels.

"Without robust data, how can we make informed decisions?" points out Mariko Silver, director of the Arizona Indicators Project and special advisor to ASU President Michael M. Crow. "Most data available are not what we can reasonably call accessible -- they are often available only with little or no explanation or context, so that data use becomes the preserve of experts. This is unacceptable."

AIP provides the data in a form that's useful to the public, Silver says. "In Arizona this is particularly important, since Arizona citizens directly make so many important decisions through ballot propositions … especially here it is not just policy professionals who need to be informed."

Assessing needs

The first phase of AIP addressed areas of need identified by the project's partners: ASU, the Arizona Republic, the governor's office, the Arizona Community Foundation and the Valley of the Sun United Way. The Arizona Department of Commerce and the governor's office had identified a need for clear presentations of economic and innovation data, so the Commerce Department funded the innovation indicators and county economic profiles in the AIP.

Rex says the focus is to provide information for local policymakers and the state legislature. "The idea is to have a lot of data on the local area available in one spot," Rex says. "Informed decision-making is the idea."

Frequently, legislation is the result of ideology, emotion or a rush to pass a bill, instead of quality information and logic. Also, strong data can help us to identify consequences of policy actions -- intended and unintended. Rex cites Arizona's employer sanctions law, which was passed in 2007 and which took effect Jan. 1, as an example. The law penalizes businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants, which sounds like a good idea. With the economy slow, the law has not caused much trouble for employers, but when things pick up, employers may have severe problems hiring workers. (The law also had the unintended consequence of a quick drop in school enrollment.)

Dashboards

One of the Web site's dashboards compares metro Phoenix with nine metropolitan statistical areas from Georgia to California regarding wages, income, patent activity, and the quality of air and water.

Some other metro areas also are embarking on programs like the Arizona Indicators Project, Rex says, so it is important that further AIP funding be viewed as an investment. "This is the direction the world's going to go," Rex says.

Meanwhile, the information at Arizona Indicators is being improved incrementally while maintaining a clean look, ease of use and transparency for the whole presentation. Key to the effort is building compatible software, staying on top of data developments and new data sources, then translating all this onto the Web site in a user-friendly form.

"Considerable information is available [elsewhere] online, but it often is difficult to find and time consuming to access," Rex says. But, so far, so good, Rex says, as a decentralized staff of data professionals and academics makes hard decisions about what goes on the site and how to make it practical for users.

"When we started … last fall, it was very preliminary, but we got comments that, 'Hey, you've got a very good site,'" Rex says. Rex believes the project will help Arizonans to "keep pace or set a pace" in making smart decisions on public policies that affect business, which has not always been the case.

Silver is pleased with how well the project as progressed so far.

"The project is in its second year of data collection and we are continually improving the functionality and user friendliness of the site," Silver says. "This year alone we will be rolling out multiple improvements, including a revised and friendlier map interface. It is an ongoing project. While we will have a major data update this coming fall, new data will be loaded onto the site all the time."

"Some aspects are indeed fully operational while others are in development," says Dennis Hoffman, associate dean with ASU's William Seidman Research Institute. "The innovation and economy sections are well along. The county indicator section is very comprehensive."

Factoring in opinion

Numbers are one thing, but how Arizonans think is equally important, says Nancy Welch, associate director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU.

One of the Morrison Institute's contribution to the Arizona Indicators Project is the introduction of online "panel research" as a deep, rich measure of statewide public opinion.

"Panel research has been used over time, mostly with consumer research," Welch says. "We hope to better understand over time what Arizonans think."

Between 700 and 800 households all over Arizona are involved currently. Special age groups, including 16-to-24 year-olds, 25-to-64 year-olds and those 65 and older, will be added in the future. Households that do not have online service are provided with a Web TV hookup.

"People are willing to give more information than on typical telephone surveys," Welch says. "It is done online at their convenience."

Telephone surveys that the Morrison Institute did for the past 20 years "provided valuable insights into Arizonans' outlooks, but they were one-time snapshots," Welch wrote in a recent newspaper column. "The studies could not track how Arizonans' thinking changed over time or what they did as a result. In short, they left a gap in the understanding of Arizonans' perspectives and how collectively we can address the state's issues.

"Now, by regularly collecting input from a standing representative 'panel' of Arizonans, the Arizona Indicators Project is changing that. Think of it as a statewide kitchen table around which Arizonans gather to discuss issues and options."

Three online pilot surveys are planned for 2008; one already has been done and the second one is set for August. Starting in 2009, surveys are expected to be conducted six times a year.

"We have the potential to marry a lot of data and have a long-term look at how Arizonans think,' Welch says. "We're going for real people and a typical sample in metro Phoenix, Tucson and the remainder of state. It's important to represent all of the state."

Welch says that as soon as the Morrison Institute finishes a survey and writes up the results, it will posted on the Arizona Indicators Web site.

"It's just another technique," Welch says. 'Hard numbers and statistical indicators are important, but the way people feel is important too. You can't just make decisions based on numbers; you have to know how people think.'

Help for business too

Providing business decision-makers with one-stop shopping for the quality information that could ultimately result in new jobs for the state is a happy byproduct of AIP.

"The project itself is not focused on recruiting new business, but we have geared the data to be of use to those who do work on business attraction," Silver says.

According to Silver, "The Arizona Indicators Project can help business leaders and community leaders see where we are, measure the impacts of policy and benchmark their own activities. It can also inform industry about the overall business climate in Arizona."

How much of the emphasis of the Arizona Indicators Project is to recruit new business to Arizona?

"It is one of a portfolio of needs that can be addressed with access to solid data on Arizona," Hoffman says. "We have a host of data available that could help businesses gauge the wages of potential employees, measure demand for products, analyze tax and regulatory burdens in Arizona, and understand the potential for building an innovation infrastructure."

Bottom Line:

  • Six months into its existence, the Arizona Indicators Project already is a useful tool to government and business decision-makers.
  • The introduction of statewide online "panel research" will marry Arizonans' opinions on public issues with the hard data on the Arizona Indicators Web site.
  • The main goal of the AIP is to help elected officials and ballot-measure voters to make more-informed decisions.
  • Although business development and attraction is a secondary benefit, AIP provides solid information for entrepreneurs.