Standardized Indicators for Informed Cities

By Patricia McCarney

Patricia McCarney is Director of the Global City Indicators Facility (GCIF) – a program initiated by the World Bank and now based in Canada and supported by the Ontario Government, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Before joining the University of Toronto, between 1983 and 1994, Professor McCarney worked as a professional staff member in a number of international agencies, including the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, the World Bank in Washington, and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UN-HABITAT) in Nairobi. Professor Patricia McCarney received her Ph.D. in International Development and Planning from M.I.T. in 1987.

Mar 18, 2013 | Smart Cities | 1 comment

As cities continue to grow and become more complex, urban based data and the collection of city indicators becomes increasingly important for effective city management. While indicators to measure city performance are commonly used by management levels of government, academia and international agencies, they are not yet globally standardized, consistent, or comparable across cities and over time.  This lack of standardization limits the ability of cities to observe trends, engage in comparative benchmarking with peer cities, share best practices and learn from each other. 

In recognition of this need, the Global City Indicators Facility has been established to provide cities with a standardized system for data collection.  The GCIF includes a set of indicators that are standardized, consistent, and comparable over time and across cities.  Paired with a web-based platform for sharing data across a global network, GCIF indicators become an invaluable tool for exchange of reliable information and learning between cities. The GCIF has developed into a growing global network of over 250 cities reporting on this standard across Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

GCIF Members

GCIF Members – 252 cities across 78 countries

The GCIF Indicators are structured around 20 themes and measure a range of city services and quality of life factors which supports and provides a framework for sustainability planning. The current set of global city indicators was selected based on a pilot phase with nine cities and from significant input from the current member cities, ensuring that these indicators reflect city information needs, interests, and data availability.  The indicators are easy to gather, most cities are already collecting this information, therefore they are also inexpensive to collect by cities.

Standardized, Consistent, Comparable

To strengthen the comparability of these indicators, GCIF is currently developing an International Standard for City Indicators through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to ensure a consistent and standardized methodology third-party verification. This standardization work is currently being undertaken by the ISO Technical Committee on Sustainable Development in Communities (TC268) within Working Group 2 on City Indicators. As the GCIF platform of indicators now moves forward for international ballot, Working Group 2 will commence preparation of a new ISO Technical Report addressing the need for additional city indicators for municipal management related to sustainable development and resilience, including for example, bio-diversity, risk management, greening, disaster prevention and preparedness, amongst others. A key question for discussion thus arises – What indicators need to be added to the GCIF platform that can assist cities in building more sustainable and resilient cities?

Creating a knowledge network

Learning is at the heart of GCIF.  The GCIF assists cities in drawing comparative lessons from other cities locally and globally. The GCIF online platform enables cities to compare and learn from other cities relative to their peer groups. Cities can sort themselves into relevant peer groups, for example according to their Population Size or their Region in order to draw comparative lessons. Cities can also sort themselves into other comparative peer groups, such as Climate Type, Land Area, GDP per capita or Gross Operating Budget.

Increasingly, city leaders whether mayors or city managers, are asking for this information to answer the following questions:

  • How are we doing relative to our peers?
  • How can we learn from our peers in order to better plan for the future?
  • What can the data we collect tell us?

GCIF creates a knowledge network that connects cities and builds global partnerships. GCIF is also developing twelve Policy Snapshots to assist municipal leaders in making informed, evidence-based decisions. The GCIF Cities and Prosperity Snapshot was released in February 2012. Other policy themes identified, which are being developed, include: Diversity; Sustainable Infrastructure; Ageing; Climate Change; City Governance and Finance; Transport and Mobility; Planning and Land-use Design; Education; Safety; Health; and, Water.

Land Use Planning, Energy and the Environment – The Case of Rotterdam

The City of Rotterdam is using GCIF indicators to monitor and compare its performance with other cities worldwide.

GCIF Indicators

GCIF Indicators in Rotterdam

In assessing Rotterdam’s performance, the City developed a Resilience Profile using GCIF indicators organized around: People, Planet and Prosperity.  The indicators and measures are used to identify which themes are below the city’s goals and targets.  Knowledge generated from the collection of indicators allows the city to say “This is where we are” and “This is where we want to be”. Rotterdam is using GCIF indicators to add a spatial dimension to the assessment of performance by mapping GCIF indicators at the neighbourhood level.  Although GCIF indicators measure performance of a city as a whole, mapping indicators allows cities to see where targeted efforts are needed on a neighbourhood level.  For example, Rotterdam mapped the GCIF indicator, Total residential electrical use per capita [kW/h], to determine the location of high electricity uses among residents.  This will allow for more targeted and tailored solutions for specific neighbourhoods.

With this knowledge, Rotterdam is working towards its objectives for “densification and greenification” in the inner city of Rotterdam (Nico Tillie, City of Rotterdam, 2013).

Improving Governance and Planning through the use of indicators – The Case of Sao Paulo

As informational policy instruments, indicators provide more and better knowledge to local decision-makers and offer a methodical system of informing decisions. For example, the City of Sao Paulo, a pilot city of the Global City Indicators Facility, recognizes the need for indicators as a tool for increasing transparency and accountability within their government. Sao Paulo is an important demonstration of how municipal governments can use indicators to enhance governance and institute evidence-based policy development in the City (City of Sao Paulo 2009). They report that “the media and civil society are often skeptical of government statistics. As an active member in this global initiative supported by universities and international organizations, the government of Sao Paulo is hoping to regain legitimacy and public confidence in government statistics by creating more transparency on its performance in city services and on improving quality of life. The Government of Sao Paulo recognizes the growing importance of indicators for planning, evaluating and monitoring municipal services. In addition, use of indicators to assist with public policy making in Sao Paulo has opened more effective dialogue between civil society and the local government”  (City of Sao Paulo, 2009).

The City of Sao Paulo has recently prepared its Plan – “Agenda 2012” and states that the plan preparation is “a concrete example of how indicators improve governance, establish evidence-based policy making and promote civic engagement.” The 2012 Agenda identifies priorities, goals and presents 223 targets organized in six different directions: a social rights city; a sustainable city; a creative city; an opportunity city; an efficient city and an equal city. Also, the municipality must report its results, periodically – and at least every six months. In this sense, the global city indicators that the City of Sao Paulo collects as part of the Global City Indicators Facility allows the City to measure performance, impacts and policy effectiveness (City of Sao Paulo, 2009).

Working Together – Questions and Challenges for Meeting of the Minds

The Meeting of the Minds provides an opportunity to convene an important and timely discussion around two themes, namely: how to expand the framework for more informative measurement of sustainable and resilient cities; and, how to address the question “how do cities learn” and better use metrics for more informed decision making and knowledge sharing.

Theme 1: Development of Performance Measurement Standards for Sustainable and Resilient Cities

In the process of developing a new ISO standard for municipal performance management indicators related to sustainable development and resilience, a number of gaps in city data have become evident.  For example, city metrics in the emerging fields of cities and bio-diversity, risk management, greening, disaster prevention and preparedness, amongst others are required. A key question for discussion thus arises – What indicators need to be added to the GCIF platform that can assist cities in building more sustainable and resilient cities?

Theme 2: Learning Cities: Metrics for Sound Decision Making

The GCIF does not only provide a valuable tool for cities worldwide to engage in building sound metrics for evidence-based decision-making and planning but the Facility also now hosts an important network and learning tool for cities.  In his book Beyond smart cities: How cities network, learn and innovate, Tim Campbell concludes that cities make use of internal networks of confidence to process and validate new knowledge, which he calls “clouds of trust”.  Every city learns differently and the GCIF is providing a network to facilitate this learning process. The GCIF is collaborating with strong partners such as UN-HABITAT, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, UNICEF, UNEP, Cities Alliance, and CITYNET, amongst others, in order to strengthen this learning platform and process for member cities. Standardized indicators provide the basis for mutual exchange and learning.

Better data is needed if cities are to meet the challenges for more sustainable futures but better data does not necessarily or inevitably translate into decision-making processes.

How can a global network of cities that is building a database on comparable city indicators influence the decision making process, locally (or in-house) and globally?

What is the essential process for moving sound metrics forward on what might at this time be termed “the grey path” to inform sound decisions?

How do effective analytics and visualization of data assist in this pathway to informed municipal decision-making in general, and more effective planning, management and policy development in cities specifically?


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1 Comment

  1. This is interesting and helpful. We just launched a project – Performance Driven Urban Management in the administrative capital city of Malaysia using a 3D parametric modeling tool with the aim to reduce energy related emission and increase avg, household income and GNI contribution. We have a target/ KPIs but we lack benchmarking capability.


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