Academic background of Yourtopia

Summary

Traditionally, initiatives to engage the public for realising the Millennium Development Goals make a difficult choice between dashboards of indicators (which correctly represent the complexity of development but overwhelm users with information) and composite indices (which order the information for the user but disempower her through arbitrary assumptions on indicator weights and choices of proxies). Yourtopia provides a middleway which enables easy composite indices that neither suffer from the problem of arbitrary indicator weighting nor from proxies that the public cannot understand. Yourtopia makes information about MDG-progress participative and fun, incentivising greater public engagement in tracking MDGs while retaining scientific integrity.

Obstacles to public engagement on MDGs that our application addresses

The growing consensus that measures of human development must take into account non-economic dimensions1 has lead to a proliferation of composite indices2 aiming at a holistic capture of human progress without the complexity for the end-user of indicator dashboards such as the World Bank's WDI and UN's MDG portal. Such “mashup indices” have, however, recently seen a counter-revolution by a series of economic papers3 as well as new policy initiatives and controversial public debates4. Criticism focuses on the possibility of researcher bias in the construction of composite indices, either through the weights attached to indicators which “are either arbitrary or reflect value judgements on which there is not broad consensus”5 or through the choice of development categories and their proxies themselves “which the producer is essentially free to set”6 which of course implies that the researcher's “changing [of] the indicators’ weights changes the poverty estimates”7.

Our approach is to build a composite index tracking progress on the MDGs together with the user. The user determines the indicators and their weightings in a playful quiz, generating individualised country-results. With the viewer and constructor of the index coinciding, we circumvent the traditional issues of composite indices: all assumptions are now open and by construction understandable by the user since he chose those items he recognises and prefers.

Research contributions

Yourtopia's primary objective is to test a work-around to problems of weighting and choice of indicators. Our hope is to contribute to tackling these two major roadblocks on the way towards non-GDP indicators of human development.

Yourtopia furthermore generates anonymous high-frequency data depicting regional variation in the public's understanding of development and their preferred indicators, with potential policy messages.

The user is hence not just a dump for information but two-way communication becomes possible. The user participates in a research-project that allows us to gauge the extent to which society can be engaged in measuring its progress.

Yourtopia uses the categories of development suggested by UNDP's Human Development Index and suggests users as default to use the official weightings and proxies. The extend to which users' choices diverge from these defaults is interesting in identifying how strong the assumptions underlying HDI are reflected in public understanding of development.

Notes
  1. As shown by the MDG themselves of course, as well as well as through the results of the recent Commission on Growth and Development: M. Spence und O. Hotel, “The Growth Report: Strategies for Sustained Growth and Inclusive Development,” Commission on Growth and Development Final Report, Washington, DC (2008).
  2. such as UNDP's HDI or the new MPI.
  3. see J. E Stiglitz u. a., “Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress,” Paris (FR): Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009).

    Franco-German Ministerial Council, Monitoring economic performance, quality of life and sustainability (Berlin and Paris: German Council of Economic Experts and Conseil d'Analyse Économique, 2010).

    M. Ravallion, “Mashup indices of development,” Policy Research Working Paper 5432 (2010).

  4. European Commission, GDP and beyond - Measuring progress in a changing world, Communication of the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament (Brussels, August 20, 2009), 7.

    On public debate see for example Johannes Jütting und Christ Garroway de Coninck, “Mashed-up Indexes: nonsense or enlightenment?,” ProgressWiki community associated with OECD, Prog Blog, November 16, 2010.

  5. Stiglitz et al (2009, p.96).
  6. Ravallion, “Mashup indices of development”.
  7. S. Alkire und M. E Santos, “Acute Multidimensional Poverty: A New Index for Developing Countries”, Human Development Research Papers (2009 to present) (2010): 63.
  8. Some sensitivity analyses, however, contest that weighting assumptions influence country-rankings sufficiently to constitute significant bias. For MPI see Alkire & Santos (ibid), for the new HDI see G. Xu and V. Hümmer, “The Consequences of Inequality: A New Measure of Human Development,” DIW Weekly Report, no. 35 (2010): 259–262.