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Pioneering new ways of measuring a city's successThe inaugural CKX Summit explored how open data and collaboration can transform communities.

The new sharing economy has shown us ways of sharing our tools, our cars and even our homes. But we're still figuring out the best ways of sharing knowledge about how our communities work, grow and prosper.

Cities that get it right will be able harness the power of their own citizens to work together for bigger rewards. Cities that don’t may not even realize what the problems are.

The 400 diehard data geeks who descended on Toronto last month for Canada’s first-ever Community Knowledge Exchange Summit certainly believe that sharing knowledge can change the world. Hosted by Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) and Community Foundations of Canada, the splashy SXSW-styled summit celebrated collaboration amongst community partners who want to deliver more bang for the buck.

Taken at face value, the summit sounds pretty dry, even for bean counters. Not-for-profits, charities, funders and other organizations dedicated to building stronger communities gathered to come up with shared measurements to evaluate the success of social, arts, environmental and youth programs across the country.

But when change-makers, thinkers, activists and people with money get together to share ideas and strategies, something interesting happens. The sharing itself—through community networks, social media and open-data platforms—makes new things possible, breaking down the barrier between service provider and service giver. And that creates a truly open city. Hosting such an event in Toronto was a no-brainer. More than 200 people signed up before there was an agenda.

“When you talk about systems change and how we’re going to reassemble different pieces of community knowledge, there’s a hubbub of that kind of activity happening at places like MaRS and the Ontario Trillium Foundation,” says lead organizer Lee Rose, who went by the title “CKX Sherpa” during the event. “There’s also the notion of what a world-class city looks like and the different actors who are working at city building and community knowledge—these are things writ large here in Toronto.”

Even for those who aren’t data geeks, the summit offered possibilities of more vital cities. “When you can find efficiencies in systems that can redefine my experience as a citizen, by having these conversations among institutional players like universities, governments and large organizations opening up, it makes my community more accessible and my city more accessible,” says Rose. “It empowers me as a citizen to create the change I want to see in my city. You have permission by default to use data, to create solutions.”

There has been increased pressure for community service organizations to share knowledge and increase cooperation since the 2011 Annual Report of the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario criticized the OTF, which distributes about $110 million in grants each year to as many as 1,500 community initiatives across the province. The AG suggested there was little evidence that the funder “objectively compared the relative merits of different proposals to ensure the most worthy projects were supported.” The report recommended establishing “meaningful operational indicators and realistic targets, and measure and publicly report on its success in meeting such targets,” as well as substantiating how grant recipients themselves were evaluating success. If a youth program aims to get kids off the streets and into schools—theoretically reducing crime and increasing education levels—how does the program, the funders or the community know if it’s having any effect?

If everyone starts using the same data, it’s easier to compare what used to be apples and oranges. At the very least, small grassroots organizations wouldn’t feel like they were constantly reinventing the wheel.

But CKX was also an opportunity to see how a knowledge eco-system, with shared strategies and data, could become a platform for something much bigger. Sharing would mean working more closely together, allowing overlapping initiatives to coordinate efforts and build on each other’s successes. In a post-CKX city, it will be increasingly possible to see how smaller initiatives contribute to the city as a whole and interact with other initiatives that may previously have seemed unrelated. Transportation projects can be coordinated with employment projects, which can be coordinated with health projects. Sometimes a measurement might be unexpected. For example, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in a community is not just an indicator of health, it can be a signal of poverty.

“Competition has built this city,” said Rahul Bhardwaj, president and CEO of the Toronto Foundation, during one of the panels, “but collaboration is the way forward.”

Toronto has certainly been a leader in the field. The Toronto Foundation’s Vital Signs report, which has been adopted by 49 community foundations across six countries, has established itself as an effective way to benchmark how a city is doing and how it’s changing for better or worse year over year. Not far away, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo, can also help organizations measure quality of life and their impact on it.

Keynote speaker Don Tapscott, adjunct professor of management for the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and most recently the author of The Digital Economy: 20th Anniversary Edition, told attendees that the massive amount of data that technology has made possible is transforming our cities. Offered up on open platforms, data has become a new class of asset, like land, physical plants and finance. “There is a new division of labour in society for how we create value,” said Tapscott.

The summit’s flexible structure also allowed participants to nurture new relationships. Conversations between Toronto’s Not Far from the Tree and Ottawa’s Hidden Harvest, groups that encourage the harvest and sharing of fruit growing in the city, led to the creation of a new national network of fruit movements.

While indicators like health and education are relatively easy to measure, other aspects of wellbeing are more elusive. For example, how do you measure an increased willingness to chat with a senior on your street after playing a neighbourhood game together? The chats may help reduce the senior’s sense of isolation and reliance on the healthcare system, but it’s tough to document and assessing its value. No matter how important data becomes, Bhardwaj suggested that there is a limit to any evaluation strategy.

“Don’t abandon important things because you can’t measure them,” he warned attendees. “Measurement is part of the journey, not the journey itself.”
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