September 11, 2014

Behind the Numbers

by Ayanda Collins

Ayanda Collins '16 is an intern at the City of Providence Office of Sustainability through the iProv Summer Internship Program.

Like any consumer of information, I've read many reports and articles where somewhere in the article a number is offered as quantified evidence for the plea of the article. Mostly I overlook these numbers, noting if they are big or small and then continuing to read the article to distill it to a thesis that I will retain and later use in a debate, essay or dinner conversation.

This was before I completed my internship for the City of Providence in the Office of Sustainability when I became the person behind the numbers.

The Office of Sustainability was created by City Ordinance in an effort to get Providence to start to think about the consequences of the citiy's present actions on future generations.

My internship was timely because the Office was poised to finish off the City’s first Sustainability Action plan - Sustainable Providence - this summer just before the change of administration in the fall. The plan has been in the works for so long that the first intern to work on it, Emily Koo, has since graduated and now works in the Mayors office. I was so lucky to have the opportunity to work under the supervision of Sheila Dormody, who is respected by people across the City and state for her sustainability work. After a few more rounds of edits and comments the plan will soon be released.

This is where the numbers come in play. Sustainable Providence was almost completed and the next step was to start working on a report of the city’s progress towards the goals outlined in Sustainable Providence. One of my main responsibilities for the summer was to assess the feasibility, reliability and the 2013 baseline measurements for the metrics that were outlined in the plan as a measure of success. Daily tasks involved emailing and calling a variety of people in different departments to to track down numbers such as the “Number of trees planted in Providence” and “Amount of waste generated per capita.”

When brainstorming some ideas around the metrics of the food section, Sheila mentioned, “number of beds in community gardens” as a new metric. She mentioned that this number would be difficult because no one had actually measured this yet. This turned into one of my favorite projects of the summer. Myself and another intern volunteered to do the job and spend about 4 days driving and cycling around Providence visiting all the 41 community gardens, counting the number of beds and talking to plot owners about their gardens. We created the first comprehensive spreadsheet that is now displayed as a heat map on the City’s open data portal.

This internship taught me that though often overlooked, numbers are important to give direction to change making (or something). Accurate numbers do more than show off success, they are vital to informed policy making and frequently encourage and inspire.

The first public draft of Sustainable Providence can be found here and I urge everyone who lives in Providence to spend some time reading and understanding the City’s sustainability goals because it will affect us all.


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