Getting to the Ground Truth in Our Communities, One Step at a Time

In the field of geographic information systems (GIS) mapping, there is a term for verifying data and images collected at a high, macro level. The term is Ground Truth.

The concept is this, data that is gathered through satellite imaging is then verified by putting boots on the ground, by walking and measuring the contours of a landscape initially observed at a distance to confirm that the data and measurements are true and accurate.

The term was introduced to me many years ago not by a meteorologist or geographer or cartographer, but rather by a colleague who wore the dual hats of being both a researcher and a practitioner in the field of rural community and economic development.

The point he made in introducing this concept to me was a simple and intuitive one: No matter how much data we have gathered, no matter how much analysis we have done at a distance, we can never know the full picture of the communities we work in unless we both figuratively and literally put boots on the ground and walk the landscape. Why? Because data is an incomplete picture—only a partially developed negative of a fuller photograph. As much as we absolutely should depend on it and use it in the designing of programs and providing of services to communities, large and small, it is not the complete picture of a place, of a people, of the life of a community.

That requires a faithful and physical presence in a place.

The same colleague would often remind me as we were pouring over the most recent statistics and numbers from sources like the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics that economic data were often a lagging indicator. Much as we look up in the night sky to see the light of a distant star, often the data we are looking at is not a real-time picture of a place but a slightly delayed image from the past (granted, it is a much more recent past than the billions of light years it takes for the twinkle of a random star to reach our optic nerves, but it is still often one step behind the reality and lived experience on the ground).

Data and statistics are given a fuller and more accurate picture when the people whose lives make up those numbers—the individual pixels that comprise the high-altitude satellite image—are included in the data analysis. And that picture is most accurate when those individuals and communities also have input into what is to be measured from the start. If we are going to rely on data to develop the more accurate image of a place, start by asking the communities we are working in for their input. What is important to measure here? What do we want to track? How do we want to gauge our progress?

So, the next time you are launching a program or developing a new strategic objective for your organization, ask yourself how you will “ground truth” your work.

(If you want a deeper dive, a great place to start is the recent “Measure Up” report from the Community Strategies Group at the Aspen Institute.)

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