Community Indicators: Winnipeg, Canada (The Peg)

Rob Newell, Research Associate, Royal Roads University
Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development, Royal Roads University
Published November 27, 2013

You get what you measure. Measure the wrong thing and you get the wrong behaviors.

~ John H. Lingle

Case Summary

The Peg community indicators system was developed to measure the well-being and community vitality of the City of Winnipeg. The name was selected for its dual meaning, being a common local term for Winnipeg and also referring to ‘pegging’ the specifics of and solutions to community monitoring. Peg categorizes community indicators into eight themes – basic needs, health, economy, natural environment, built environment, governance, education and learning, and social vitality. The system also identifies an additional category of poverty as being a cross-cutting issue that spans across the other themes. Its online user-interface allows a user to explore indicators in each of the themes and access related data and information. Data can also be accessed through an interactive map tool that provides geographical referencing and context to the information. In addition, Peg contains a ‘stories’ section that provides personal accounts of Winnipeg locals’ experiences with the indicators, that uses narratives as a method of providing greater meaning to abstract data (Avraamidou & Osborne, 2009).

The concept for a Winnipeg-based community indicators system began to coalesce in the late-1990s when the local United Way conducted a community engagement process entitled Journey Forward that examined key social issues in the community (United Way of Winnipeg, 2000). This process prompted considerations and questions about the key social issues in Winnipeg and how they be identified and addressed. The outcome of these considerations and questions was an agreement on the necessity to develop a community indicator system that effectively and comprehensively tracks the well-being of Winnipeg residents. In 2003, the United Way approached the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) to discuss working together in developing a system for Winnipeg, and the two organizations subsequently have led the development process over the last decade.

In order to ensure the community indicators system accurately represents the comprehensive needs and interests of Winnipeg at-large, the United Way and IISD developed Peg through a highly inclusive and participatory process. Peg’s development has involved the input of all sectors of the community contributing to the project in various capacities, including guidance and direction on Peg’s development, involvement in the indicator selection process, advising on community engagement and public relations, technical expertise, and assisting in obtaining data and relevant information.

The United Way and IISD conducted a ‘soft launch’ of Peg in 2010, marked by a presentation to the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council (WPRC, 2010). Currently, a beta version of the Peg website ( is publicly accessible, and the United Way and IISD plan to launch the official, complete Peg system in early December 2013. Their long-term goal is that PEG will become fully integrated into the City of Winnipeg’s infrastructure as a system for measuring community performance and vitality, educating the public on the issues facing Winnipeg, and informing effective and comprehensive local decision-making.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

There are several drivers that have motivated the development of community-oriented tracking systems. Often mentioned are the shortcomings of conventional measures that rely solely on material and economic data, chief among them is the much-critiqued GDP (Barbier, 2012; Dhlakama & Schiff, 2011; White, 2013).

Increasingly, policymakers are recognising that the pursuit of economic growth, as measured by GDP, is not taking into account the full picture of wellbeing. Broader metrics are required to understand social progress and wellbeing, which take into account environmental harm and social issues. The establishment of the “Beyond GDP” initiative under the sponsorship of the European Commission and the OECD1 and President Sarkozy’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress2 are clear evidence that governments are now taking seriously the idea that growth alone is not enough, and that narrowly defined economic measures of social benefits are insufficient for a sustainable prosperity.

In the last twenty years, many efforts have been made to develop alternative measures that go beyond one-dimensional analysis and capture the complexity and diversity of factors that determine the shape of our communities. In addition, the sustainable development imperative (Dale, 2001) adds another new dimension to the need for more integrative indicators that reconcile the ecological, social and economic imperatives of a community and yet, are concrete measurements.

Over the last few decades, community indicator projects have begun to emerge around the world that attempt to integrate ecological, social and economic measurements. They include long-running programs such as the Jacksonville Quality of Life Indicators established in 1985 (Swain & Hollar, 2003) and more recent initiatives such as Community Indicators Victoria (CIV), Australia (established 2007) (Cox, Frere, West, & Wiseman, 2010), and the City of Surrey Sustainability Indicators (established 2010) (City of Surrey, 2010). Typically, these community indicators systems are designed and developed to measure community performance and quality of life to help guide sustainable community development (Besleme & Mullin, 1997). A comprehensive set of community indicators can provide insights on the changes in local social, ecological and economic conditions and the complex relationships between these different dimensions of a community (Ramos & Jones, 2005). In turn, these insights can be used for more integrated local decision-making that accounts equally for the social and ecological imperatives.

Community indicator systems are designed to capture the cultural, social, economic and environmental conditions of their respective community, and thus every community indicator system is somewhat unique and place-based (Cox et al., 2010). Recent research and evidence points to the importance of place-based policy development (Bradford, 2013). Accordingly, local community indicators provide a comprehensive, integrated way to measure and capture data that is meaningful to a majority of its residents, and also reflect the sustainability of any particular community.

To address local problems, approaches to governance and sustainable development decision-making must also involve a diversity of stakeholders to ensure policies and decisions reflect the needs and interests of those affected by them (Chuenpagdee & Jentoft, 2009; Dale, 2001; Ling, Hanna, & Dale, 2009). Similarly, information guiding these decisions should be comprehensive and collected in an inclusive, participatory manner to adequately represent the appropriate diversity of interests (Dale et al., 2010; Trimble & Berkes, 2013; Goldman, 2011).

Critical Success Factors

Peg was developed through the leadership of two well-established organizations that brought different but complementary expertise and experience – the United Way of Winnipeg and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The United Way contacted IISD because of their expertise in sustainable development research and their previous work on sustainability indicators (IISD, n.d.). As IISD brought the research expertise and knowledge to Peg, the United Way, a strongly networked organization, brought the necessary community contacts and experience in community engagement to build project partnerships and community collaboration. These two complementary functions ensured that Peg developed through expert knowledge of indicator systems and through the inclusion of many different community inputs and perspectives, contributing to the development of a comprehensive, integrated system ultimately accepted by a majority of community stakeholders.

The United Way and IISD were the main drivers of Peg’s development; however, the process was highly inclusive and participatory, involving all sectors in the community – public sector (mostly local government, but input did come from provincial and federal civil servants), academic (University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba), business (represented by the Chamber of Commerce), and non-government organizations (NGOs). The United Way and IISD estimate that over 800 people were engaged through the course of the project. High-level guidance for Peg was provided by a steering committee that was assembled specifically to represent every sector of the city, and indicators were selected through diverse working groups to ensure that (as much as possible) all aspects of community well-being were equally considered. In addition, the general public was invited to provide feedback on the indicator selection process through social media, such as Facebook. This inclusivity allowed the PEG indicator system to be developed ‘by the community and for the community’, a first in Canada.

This inclusion also ensured that its development was seen as and perceived to be apolitical, nor driven by a single agenda. Similarly, diverse funding sources also demonstrated non-partisanship and majority representation in developing the indicators. In some circumstances, involving a diverse set of perspectives led to potential conflicting priorities and perspectives, and this lengthened the development process (although no indication was given in this research that discussions ever became emotionally argumentative). However, the development of a comprehensive community indicators system requires inclusive representation from the community, and deliberative discourse involving differing opinions is thus necessary for capturing diverse perspectives (Dale & Newman, 2006).

United Way’s and IISD’s continual leadership, commitment and collaboration were required for Peg to come into fruition. Ensuring that the community indicators system is comprehensive, integrative and sufficiently represents the needs and concerns of the community requires high levels of continuous input and a large amount of data, thus it can be a slow, lengthy process. The concept of Peg began in the early 2000s and has developed progressively since that time. Its success, thus, hinged on the commitment of the initiative’s driving organizations (the United Way and IISD) to ensure the system was being built and community partners were continually engaged. Although the development of Peg has experienced periods of lowered activity, the United Way and IISD both have maintained involvement and interest in Peg for the majority of last decade, and their perseverance has built momentum and sustained a large and diverse network of actors around the indicator system. Novel network formation is particularly necessary for social innovation and for the implementation of sustainable community development (Newman and Dale, 2007).

Community Contact Information

Heather Block
Director, Strategic Initiatives
United Way Winnipeg
580 Main Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba
R3B 1C7

Charles Thrift
Project Manager
IISD's Head Office
161 Portage Avenue East, 6th Floor
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
R3B 0Y4

What Worked?

The development of Peg was a lengthy process; however, the carefully thought-out and deliberate planning has contributed to its wide acceptance by the City. The initial stages involved addressing the philosophical considerations of developing a Winnipeg-based community indicator system, which included determining what it means to be a ‘Winnipegger’ and what makes a meaningful indicator of the well-being of Winnipeg residents. Dedicating effort to address such considerations ensured that Peg has the appropriate uniqueness and relevance to Winnipeg that is necessary for a successful community indicator system (Cox et al, 2010), and it captures the place-based characteristics of the community. People can ‘see’ themselves reflected in the indicators.

The indicator selection process was equally as deliberate and carefully thought-out, as it was designed to capture a comprehensive set of interests and perspectives. Indicators were selected through extensive research and the input of eight working groups, which were each assembled for their expertise and insights on a particular theme or indicator. The selection process also included public feedback (via social media) to ensure key aspects, concerns and considerations were not overlooked. In addition, the process of developing the community indicator system was conducted with the guidance of a 15-person steering committee and advisory groups (on communications and marketing, community engagement, community stories, and technical aspects of the project) that represented diverse sectors and perspectives. Involving a multitude of interests and perspectives in Peg did have at times a decelerating effect on the process in terms of having “too many cooks in kitchen” (personal communication, July 4, 2013); however, it built the social capital necessary for an effective sustainable community development strategy (Dale & Newman, 2010). Therefore, albeit Peg’s development was a slow and lengthy process, the vast and diverse amount of input and perspectives was essential for its penultimate acceptance by community members.

Another strength was that it deliberately maintained a non-political, non-partisan process. The fact that Peg was both funded through multiple sources, and the input of a comprehensive set of interests and perspectives ensured that the indicator system developed without undue emphasis on particular types of indicators and metrics, for example, privileging traditional economic measures. Consequently, the set of indicators was selected to (as accurately as possible) represent the needs and interests of the entire community, rather than reflect the agenda of a specific group, organization, and / or sector.

What Didn’t work?

Developing a community indicator system is a complex and involved process, and thus contains considerable challenges. One of the challenges facing Peg is determining how to maintain its longevity and (coincidently) the ideal destination and organizational structure for long-term stewardship of the system. The United Way and IISD would ideally like to see Peg become fully integrated into Winnipeg’s system of accounts; however, certain considerations for achieving this have yet to be addressed. In particular, how the system will be funded and sustained has yet to be determined, and, contributing to this uncertainty, the City of Winnipeg discontinued its financial support to Peg in 2013 (although it still provides in-kind support). The future leadership and ownership of the system has yet to be decided; therefore, Peg is vulnerable to becoming a system operated with a specific agenda if it becomes primarily supported by a single organization. Its future sustainability will be compromised if it is not embedded into the City’s existing infrastructure.

Peg also experienced challenges in the development of its user-interface. The user-interface was designed to capture complex relationships and illuminate meaningful insights from large data sets. This required novel technologies and labour-intensive processes that presented several difficulties. For example, data sets for the indicators were often incomplete and longitudinal data (comprising significant periods of time) was difficult to obtain. In addition, the novel and complex nature of the technology has caused difficulties in terms of transferring knowledge about how to service and support the user-interface, and this can be a source of concern considering the ultimate destination and stewardship of Peg is still uncertain. Furthermore, because the user-interface is novel and experimental, precedents were not available for some of the features and thus some features did not work and operate as envisioned. In particular, the stories aspect of Peg was designed to provide narratives, which can add meaning to abstract data (Avraamidou & Osborne, 2009); however, currently, the stories and data mostly exist as separate entities on the website and their linkages are not as strong as originally envisioned.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources

Specific financial costs for Peg are difficult to ascertain for several reasons. Firstly, the concept emerged from a previous project (Journey Forward), and the conceptual development occurred over a few years without specifically allocating a budget for this discussion and development process. Secondly, Peg’s development relied heavily on in-kind participation, as the 15-person steering committee, different advisory groups (of 6 to 24 people each) and eight indicators working groups consisted of voluntary members, and the United Way and IISD estimate they have engaged approximately 800 people over the course of the project. Peg also received significant in-kind contributions from Health in Common, which included one day per week of a staff member’s time to work on the project and staff members’ participation in the steering committee and indicators working groups. Thirdly, Peg was specifically designed to have a non-political, non-partisan agenda, and thus funding from the project was secured through a diverse set of financial pots and contributions. Project financing included (but was not limited to) donations from Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Investors Group, Great-West Life Assurance Company, Assiniboine Credit Union, local and provincial government grants, contributions from partner NGOs, and from United Way’s operations budget.

For the recent years of Peg’s development (i.e., past the conceptual stages), costs for the development of the indicator system, the database, the Peg website and interface technology were broadly estimated to be over $100,000 per year. Significant expenses were associated with the development of the interface technology, i.e., the tool that allows a user of the system to explore indicators and access relevant data. It is important to note that the estimated figure represents approximate expenses of the project; however, it does not capture the numerous hours of in-kind support and community involvement that was essential for its development.

Research Analysis

Data collection for this research involved semi-structured interviews with 13 interviewees. The leading organizations in Peg’s development, the United Way and IISD were well sampled in the interviewee selection process (8 interviewees). Interviews were also conducted with four members of the steering committee members and the designer of the user-interface technology.

Since the project has been ongoing for over a decade, interviewees were selected from people involved in the initial stages of the project and those more recently involved in the project. Designing the interviewee list this way ensured that the historical perspective was captured, as well as its current status and future directions.

Data was analyzed to develop an accurate picture of how the indicators were identified, its operations, the design and development of the system, as well as the future plans and, its historical development. In addition, data analysis identified the key elements and challenges of designing and implementing a community indicator system. We also analyzed the transferability of this model to other Canadian communities.

Detailed Background Case Description

The discussions and ideas behind Peg began in the late-1990s with the United Way’s work on the Journey Forward project. The objective of Journey Forward was to gain insight on the critical social issues that were affecting Winnipeg and its residents through a citywide community engagement process. In 1999, the United Way widely distributed a public survey on concerns for social issues by partnering with over 30 local organizations that delivered the survey to their employees, publishing the survey in the Winnipeg Free Press (and allowing people to respond online), and mailing surveys out to over 120,000 residents (United Way of Winnipeg, 2000). The survey asked locals to identify and prioritize what they believe to be imperative social issues from a list of 26 by selecting their top five issues and then their next five issues of concern (ibid).

Journey Forward received 2,802 responses, generated from a wide range of different views and perspectives across the city (United Way of Winnipeg, 2000). The United Way recognized that the response rate was such that the sample might not be statistically representative of Winnipeg as a whole; however, responses did represent a diversity of views and thus the survey provided insights on key target areas. In particular, youth crime, gang activity, violence and abuse among families and within neighbourhoods were prevalently noted as areas of concern (ibid). The results from this survey stimulated thinking about what the specific critical social issues in Winnipeg, what aspects of these issues should be addressed, and what actions could address them.

In November 2000 (following the Journey Forward project), the United Way held a forum, entitled The Willing Community, that brought together different sectors of Winnipeg to continue the exploration and discussion on the social issues facing the community (United Way of Winnipeg, 2000). During the discussion, there was a strong recognition that key social issues had been prevalent in Winnipeg for some time (particularly poverty and marginalization), and they needed addressing. However, the forum also recognized that, in order to implement effective programs and projects for addressing these issues, a system for monitoring and measuring whether these issues are increasing or diminishing in prevalence must be established (ibid). This consideration prompted the idea of developing a social indicators system, which became the foundation for the Peg project.

In 2003, the United Way connected with IISD to partner with them on the development of a community indicators system, particularly because of IISD’s expertise in sustainable development research and previous work with indicator systems (IISD, n.d.). The two organizations began the process by engaging in the more ‘philosophical’ considerations of the project, including what is the definition of ‘community, what is considered a ‘meaningful indicator’, and what does it mean to be a ‘Winnipegger’. The results of these discussions showed a need for a system that recognizes the interconnectedness of social, economic and environmental issues in order to engage in meaningful and insightful analysis on the well-being of Winnipeg residents, as opposed to simply developing a set of isolated metrics in where each metric provides one-dimensional information of interest to specific sectors or organizations.

In 2005, the United Way and IISD drafted a business plan that was used to formulate an operational strategy for a community indicators system in Winnipeg. The business plan provided the history and thinking behind a Winnipeg-based community indicators system, the vision and key aspects of the system, and a potential budget (IISD & United Way of Winnipeg, 2005). The plan called for the creation of a new organization, based on the visions, goals and values of Peg, to assume governance of the community indicator system (ibid); however, this was not realized. In 2006, the project development was put on hold as the United Way became occupied with building the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council (WPRC). Outcomes of the WPRC reignited interest in Peg as it highlighted once again the need for access to information to be able to accurately address issues in Winnipeg, particularly with respect to poverty. In 2008, the United Way and IISD again assumed leadership of Peg and began the development of system components, which included tasks such as selecting indicators, collecting data and information, developing the various ways to present quantitative and qualitative information, and creating Peg’s user-interface.

The community indicator selection process began in 2009, and the process was guided by extensive research and input from the Peg steering committee, an advisory group called the ‘Engagement Group’, and indicators working groups. The steering committee was selected by the United Way and IISD, included representation from Canadian Community Economic Development Network, Health in Common, the City of Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council, the University of Winnipeg, the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (University of Manitoba), Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Province of Manitoba, and the Government of Canada Western Economic Diversification. This committee helped identify key people to involve in the Engagement Group and indicator working groups. The initial indicator selection process began with one group engaging in an in-depth exploration of indicators specifically around the issue of poverty, as much of the thinking that spurred Peg’s development focused on this issue. Following this initial exploration, eight indicator themes were identified through research and discussion with the Engagement Group, and these themes were basic needs, health, economy, natural environment, built environment, governance, education and learning, and social vitality. Indicators were selected for each theme by assembling a working group for each theme (involving people from the initial working group and adding others), based on people’s knowledge in certain thematic area (i.e., a representative from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority with knowledge related to the indicator theme of health). Thematic indicator selection was designed as a three-meeting process (although one-on-one conversations and meetings outside of the indicator selection design did occur to finalize and fine tune certain details). The first meeting would begin with an overview of Peg and its objectives, and then the group would be presented with a list of approximately 50 potential indicators, generated through research conducted by IISD prior to the meeting. Between the first and second meeting, the group would discuss and narrow down the list to approximately 12 to 20 indicators. In the final meeting, a list of approximately 12 was finalized, and the rationale for the particular selection was reviewed.

To effectively use Peg for measuring community performance, a novel online user-interface was constructed using software designed by Structure Dynamics and a website developed by Tactica. The user-interface mechanics were based on Structured Dynamics’s open systems framework (OSF), which consists of layered architecture and modular software (Bergman, n.d.). Within this framework, a set of structured assets were built, known as ontologies, and these components defined the conceptual domains and relationships within the system. The conceptual linkages used to build the ontologies were identified by IISD, and Structure Dynamics used these for creating a framework that links data sets, information and different components of the Peg site. Data and information are accessed through the website via semantic components, which are widgets that present information in various ways including interactive visuals, maps and browse / search features (Bergman, 2010). The Peg website also contains stories and video narrative features that provide personal accounts from Winnipeg residents and their experiences with various issues relating to the indicators. The stories were developed to add meaning and context to abstract data, and the stories section is equipped with a story viewer semantic component, which allows Peg users to view indicators the story relates to and access other stories associated with said indicators.

A beta version of the Peg website and user-interface was launched in 2010, that contained a collection of stories, an interactive map, and indicators identified under the cross-cutting theme of poverty. As a part of this ‘soft launch’, the United Way and IISD presented the development process, function and purpose of Peg to the WPRC (WPRC, 2010). The launch of the beta version of Peg has allowed the United Way and IISD to continue to develop the indicator system and user-interface with the guidance of user feedback, allowing them to better identify areas for improvement. For example, the beta version of Peg presents the stories section and data components in a separate fashion, when the original intention of developing the stories aspect was to add meaning and context to data. Since the ‘soft launch’, the United Way and IISD have been strengthening Peg and its user-interface, while also working to complete the system by finalizing the indicator themes.

Peg has not undergone a formal, official public launch as the system is still in beta phase and under development; however, many different organizations, sectors and individuals in Winnipeg are now aware of the project because of its highly inclusive and participatory development process. In addition to the indicator working groups, organizations and institutions participated in Peg’s development through a series of advisory groups and consultation processes, and, through these, Peg received advice and aid on different aspects of its development, including engagement with community organizations, marketing and communications (i.e., dealing with sensitive issues), development of Peg’s stories component, and learning and operating the technology driving the user-interface.

The official launch of Peg will be announced on December 3, 2013. This event will be held in the United Way’s offices, and invitees will consist of leaders from local NGO, municipal government (staff and elected officials), business leaders, and the local universities. In addition, unlike Peg’s soft launch, representatives from local media will be invited for the purposes of publicizing Peg and its website. Following the launch, the United Way and IISD plan to release studies on the indicators over the next year, continually adding stories and video narratives, and release annual ‘report cards’ on findings derived from the indicator system (United Way of Winnipeg, 2013).

The future objective for Peg is that it will become an integral part of the city accounting and reporting infrastructure. Integrating PEG into the traditional reporting system will then expand its metrics and allow the city to assess its progress towards becoming more sustainable and changing development paths. However, incorporating Peg into Winnipeg’s community infrastructure is at this time uncertain, as the long-term governance of and funding for the system has yet to be decided.

A critical consideration for any community indicator system is that it must be relevant to the local community. Therefore, although technical aspects (such as the user-interface and system components) of Peg are transferable to other communities, ultimately a community will need to ask questions about what are the issues their communities face, what is a meaningful local indicator, and what does it mean to be a local (i.e., what is the community identity). In addition, the Peg development process has demonstrated the importance of engaging and involving community members in order to develop a comprehensive set of indicators, and thus engagement will differ from community-to-community depending of the local relationships and cultural contexts. In essence, a community indicators system needs to be developed by the community to be integrally indicative of the community.

The city of Winnipeg stands on the cusp of being a leading innovator and the first city in Canada to implement a comprehensive sustainable development indicator system. The system, however, is now highly dependent on becoming institutionalized within the municipal infrastructure to sustain the continuous accuracy, integrity and refinement of the system.

Strategic Questions

  1. How does one ensure the long-term survival of a useful and relevant community indicator system?
  2. What is the optimal model of governance for a community indicator system?
  3. Can a community effectively progress and maintain their vitality without a community indicator system?

Resources and References

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Dale, A., & Newman, L. (2010). Social capital: a necessary and sufficient condition for sustainable community development?. Community Development Journal, 45(1), 5-21.

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1European Commission. Beyond GDP - Measuring progress, true wealth, and the well-being of nations.
2Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.