Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

Citizens are often bystanders in their own lives. Research, even that which is putatively conducted in their behalf, is often irrelevant or even damaging to the livelihoods of "ordinary" people and marginalized groups alike. Since it is intended to promote academic aims, such as publication in an academic journal, rather than community goals the idea of actual benefit based on the results of the research often takes a back seat. This lack of genuine community involvement or connection helps lead to the self-perpetuating cycle of citizen disempowerment.


This pattern could be used in any situation in which citizens need to come together to better understand complex dynamic situations and develop meaningful responses. This pattern can be used in focused or more distributed way; it can be used as the basis for a long-term project or for a project of short duration.


"We view the process and product as interwoven and equally valuable. Part of our task is to practice and develop the skills of civic democracy and volunteer participation." - Richard Conlin, Sustainable Seattle co-founder

Doctors take a patient's temperature to get some understanding of the person's general health. Although this is only one measure among hundreds or thousands of other possible measurements it is judged to be important enough — and acquired easily enough — to be warrant its acquisition. An indicator is typically a single measure that can be acquired over time to help ascertain the general health or condition of a larger, more complex entity, like a lake, city, or society. It helps serve by being a stand-in or proxy for that whole.

Indicators are often devised and used by scientists, economists and other professionals to help inform them on the status of what's important to them. And just as the medical community has selected temperature as one indicator among many possibilities, these professionals have selected theirs. And, like other measurements, these can have far-reaching consequences which basically depend on they're interpreted, what meaning is ascribed to them, and what's done with them. Needless to say, communities — especially those that are struggling to stay alive — generally play no direct role in the development of these indicators, nor do they design their own.

In 1991, a group of social activists in Seattle launched an ambitious multiyear project around the idea of sustainability. Though many people today view sustainability as largely an environmental paradigm, it is one that can capture the long-term cultural, economic, civic, and educational health and vitality of a region as well. Because sustainability is a complex term and difficult to define and comprehend, the first goal was the development of a set of "critical indicators of sustainability" that would assist in defining the term and defining Seattle’s current status.

Since that time the project has matured into a community-wide program divided evenly into research and community action. One commendable aspect of their effort has been the patient, evolving, consensus-driven manner in which the project has taken shape and unfolded over time without being driven by set agendas.

When the project was launched, the "indicators of sustainability" were designed to form its intellectual as well as motivational foundation. Indicators are measurable values that accurately reflect and coalesce several factors that are deemed to be important. The selection of indicators as core constructs of the endeavor demonstrates the founders’ commitment to a long-term rather than a quick-fix effort, for it is only by examining how the values of the indicators change over time that an understanding of trends can arise. Examining changes over time may also bring to light relationships between indicators. Two indicators, for example, may actually bear inverse relationships to each other.

When people in the community identify indicators that are important to them, the indicators are more liable to carry personal and operational meaning than when social scientists in an ivory tower identify theoretical constructs that are significant only to an academic community. The indicators are carefully chosen to reflect activity within a community that is desired or not desired by that community. Furthermore, because the community identified the indicators, there is a feeling of ownership and confidence in them.

While Sustainable Seattle’s report on Seattle’s critical indicators presents a useful snapshot of several important aspects on the community’s agenda, it does not by itself create a sustainable society. According to their newsletter (Sustainable Seattle, 1994), ". . . understanding trends in our community is only the first step in the journey towards sustainability. The next step is to change the community." To that end, Sustainable Seattle initiated a Communities Outreach Project "to create measurable improvements in the behaviors and practices that drive the indicators, both on large and small scales, as a result of homes and organizations changing their behavior in response to this project." Their ambitious goal "is to enable and inspire people in the many different communities in greater Seattle to transform the values of sustainability into actions that will move Seattle, the region, and the planet towards long-term cultural, economic, and environmental health and vitality."

The Worldwatch Institute identified and assessed 50 social, economic, and environmental trends which they labeled the Earth's "vital signs" to help show the important role consumers can play in demanding environmentally friendly products. .Indicators can also be used in international or other large-scale collaborative projects. A new international effort between the US and Canada that monitors the health of Puget Sound Georgia Basin where salmon and orcas are endangered in Washington state and in the province of British Columbia shows another use of indicators (Stiffler, 2006). Of the nine indicators that the project has established five of them are declining (Urbanization and Forest Change; River, Stream and Lake Quality; Marine Species at Risk; Toxics in Harbor Seals; and Marine Water Quality) while the remaining four have not shown progress (Population Health; Solid Waste and Recycling, Shellfish; and Air Quality). Scott Redman from the US team stated that the indicator project "puts press then for us to catch up, or the other way around." There is a web site that includes data as well as a large number of suggestions for people and groups who want to help improve the situation.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists through its "Doomsday Clock" offers a variant on this concept. The clock measures the state of worldwide nuclear danger (not just from a US perspective) and graphically reports its findings in a clock whose hands are approaching midnight — nuclear apocalypse. Moving the hands is not taken lightly, "Because the Doomsday Clock is the world’s most visible symbol of nuclear danger, any decision to reset it is taken with great care and only after significant deliberation by the Bulletin’s board of directors, in consultation with the board of sponsors." It is interesting to note the infrequency within which the clock has been reset: 17 times in 56 years. The two boards reset the hands infrequently to demonstrate significant developments; the clock does not respond, "to every change in the global security environment. If it did, it would be in almost constant motion and would lose much if not all of its symbolic resonance. "

Many of the patterns in this pattern language — including this one — could be used as indicator generators. What indicators, for example, could be used to show whether humankind's Civic Intelligence is increasing or decreasing? Virtually any area, conceptual or actual, could be a source of indicators. And in any area, it will be important to think of what possible actions could comes after the indicators are developed before they're identified. What to do with information? Who could use the information? What resonance could the information have with various people and groups? 


Citizens need to construct community and civic indicators, publish them, discuss them, measure them, publicize them and develop policy and projects that address them. Indicator projects seems to be best coordinated through organizations and groups.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

When people in the community identify Indicators that are important to them, they are more likely to carry personal and operational meaning than when social scientists identify constructs that are significant only to an academic community. The real work begins after the Indicators have been identified. The Indicators must be measured, discussed, and publicized. Ultimately they can be used to develop policy and projects that address them.

Pattern status: 
Pattern annotations: 

Vital Signs – An educational citizen science project

From their web site:

"Vital Signs 2.0 (VS) is an educational citizen science project consisting of an extensive Drupal website created by Image Works in Portland, Maine for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and funded by the Hewlett Foundation and a generous in-kind donation of services by Image Works.

The VS project provides students, teachers, scientists, and citizen scientists with the tools to monitor environmental conditions throughout Maine. The project includes a structured central data repository, tools and protocols for identifying, mapping, tracking and analyzing the occurrence and spread of invasive species into and around the state. Beginning in fall 2009, these resources and supporting programs are being utilized on the laptop computers provided to all Maine middle school students and will be made available to all interested parties starting early 2010.

The project's site is composed of 13 original custom Drupal modules, approximately 2 dozen Drupal core modules, more than 40 contributed modules, Google Maps and other web services. In order to give back to the community that made this project possible, we are releasing the full source code for the website under the GPL license and adding it to the project repository.


Vital Signs targets and encourages participation from three primary groups of users: 7th & 8th Grade students in Maine, individuals with an interest in studying, monitoring and preventing the spread of invasive species, and research scientists studying invasive species."

Pattern ID: 
Linked Nodes: