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Data Challenge Spotlight: WhyGDP?

We're told American success equals economic growth. The data tell a different story: GDP doesn't predict better lives, but civic measures do.

By GovFresh · November 28, 2012

“Data Challenge Spotlight” is a collaboration with the National Conference on Citizenship and GovFresh that highlights winners of the 2012 Civic Data Challenge. Follow the Civic Data Challenge on Twitter (@CivicData) and on Facebook.


WhyGDP? by Will Dekrey and Sean McDonald.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

We’re told American success equals economic growth. The data tells a different story: GDP doesn’t predict better lives, but civic measures do.

What problem does WhyGDP? solve for government and/or your community?

We created WhyGDP? to tell the story of an America paradigm (“Success = GDP”) that may not be able to deliver on its promises. The paradigms that a society holds (i.e, the pervasive, shared but often unstated assumptions) define the lanes of progress for systems, institutions and individuals in that society.

As Emerson eloquently wrote:

"Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to ... their state of thought.  Observe how every truth and every error, each a thought of some man's mind, clothes itself with societies, houses, cities, language, ceremonies, newspapers.  Observe the ideas of the present day ... see how timber, brick, lime, and stone have flown into convenient shape, obedient to the master idea reigning in the minds of many persons ... It follows, of course, that the least enlargement of ideas ... would cause the most striking changes of external things."

Changing paradigms is hard but not impossible. Pioneering systems theorist Donella Meadows, instructs would-be paradigm shifters to “keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm … keep speaking and acting, loudly and with assurance, from the new one.”

Republicans, Democrats and pundits feed the paradigm that success for America is inextricably tied to economic growth. WhyGDP? elevates examples of data sets that demonstrate areas where this paradigm is not serving us well – the data suggest that civic engagement measures are better predictors of happy, healthy individuals and communities than are measures of GDP growth.

WhyGDP? is a simple story meant to empower citizens of all walks of life to point out the anomalies of the “Success = GDP” paradigm in conversations about politics, the economy and their community. They can share the site itself via social networks and email, but we also hope they will bring a new line of thinking into discussions with friends and family. They can use WhyGDP? to ask critical and productive questions: “What does success look like for the United States of America?” and “To what long-term goals do we want to hold our government accountable and what short term metrics will we use to judge progress?”

What does having government collect civic data mean to you?

The more data we have, the better we will be able to understand how well our politicians and our policies are leading us towards a happier and healthier future. To continue our dedication – as Lincoln described it – to “the great task remaining before us … [of building a] government of the people, by the people and for the people,” we must have data to understand who we “the people” are, how we’re doing, and how well our government is serving our best interests.

What tools did you use?

WhyGDP? is a story with data at its core.

The story was built using the JavaScript impress.js library, which creates a 3D “story slider” environment similar to a Prezi presentation.

The data was aggregated and cleaned up in Excel and then imported into Tableau Public for analysis.

How can those interested connect with you?

You can find Will at @dekrey and You can find Sean at @sean_mcdonald and