Santa Monica Quantifies Health and Happiness with the Wellbeing Project

July 29, 2015 7:00 am PDT | Effective Governing

Can collecting and analyzing data result in happier citizens? The city of Santa Monica thinks so! The Californian city began gathering and quantifying data in 2013 as part of the Wellbeing Project with the goal of “defining, measuring, and actively improving wellbeing in Santa Monica.” The Wellbeing Project released their first report in April, 2015 and the findings are already improving the lives of city residents.

Finding and Quantifying Data

At the center of the project is the Wellbeing Index, which quantifies the the well-being of Santa Monicans. The project identified six different areas of well-being: Outlook (emotional health), Community, Place; Learning; Health; and Opportunity (affordability and economic security).

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The data used for the Wellbeing Project was gathered from a variety of sources in order to capture the most diversity of opinions, and was held to a rigorous standard. Over 2,200 surveys were conducted in person with Santa Monica residents over the fall of 2014. Opinions were requested and tracked over social media services like Twitter and Foursquare.

Santa Monica already tracks a large quantity of data on subjects such as public safety or transit systems, much of it available through in their robust open data portal. This data was included in the project when it overlapped with one of the Wellbeing Index areas, along with similar data from third party groups like The California Health Interview Survey, which is conducted by UCLA.

Reading the Results

The Wellbeing Project isn’t just about collecting data, of course. One of its central tenets is that wellness initiatives need to move beyond spreadsheets and online dashboards and turn their findings into actionable ideas for the community. The Wellbeing Project was created to help the local Santa Monica government coordinate on policies and agendas that improve the lives of residents in the areas where they feel they need the most help.

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In fact, some initial findings were a surprise even to longtime Santa Monica residents. For example, a high number of respondents feel as though they have no say on what happens in their city. According to the official Findings Summary, “a surprisingly large percentage of Santa Monica residents report feeling that they have very little influence on local decision-making, even though Santa Monica residents vote and volunteer at higher-than-average rates.”

This perceived lack of involvement was felt throughout the other Wellbeing Index areas, and is thought to contribute to distrust between residents, and a high incident of civic apathy. While 80 percent of Americans say they can count on their neighbors, only 56 percent of Santa Monica residents reported feeling the same way.

The Wellness Project hopes to share this information with as many people as possible, both in Santa Monica and beyond. Keeping city staff aware of the personal well-being of residents will help increase the effectiveness of government policy in the future. Sharing the data collection methodology and results with other cities will perhaps encourage them to also undertake a wellness index project of their own, improving both the lives of citizens and the value of the data.

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Open Data and Wellness

The Wellbeing Project hopes to soon make almost all of their datasets available for public use. The team is currently working on securing authorization to release the data from the department directors who oversee the datasets, and ensuring that the privacy of citizens is preserved.

Team members are also considering the issue of data timeliness. Some of the collected data is routinely updated, while other sets are based on a one-time survey. Each type of dataset will have to be identified, and a plan for regular updates put in place to ensure the information is useful for residents and researchers.

One thing’s for sure: open data is useful in the effort to improve civic engagement and wellness. When asked about the city’s citizen engagement toolkit, Julie Rusk, Assistant Director of Community and Cultural Services in Santa Monica, says that “open data is a value-add which is supposed to provide the public with facts to help make informed decisions. We put forth the data in an unbiased manner and hope that it drives the residents to engage in debate using facts versus perception.”

To learn more about The Wellbeing Project and its holistic view of citizen wellness, visit their website at http://wellbeing.smgov.net/


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