How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Wanted: An MVP Index

No, not the kind at the back of your new scholarly book. And no, not a Most Valuable Player. I’m talking the kind of index (like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index or Yale’s Environmental Performance Index) that draws on your research and analytic power to define trends and storylines, get headlines, change behavior and provide an unparalleled tentpole around which researchers and research-driven organizations can organize their outreach. There are few better ways to package and promote your research expertise and gain authority.

And by MVP, I mean: a minimum viable product. One even a small research and comms team could pull off.

Most indices are made up of dozens of indicators and heavyweight number crunching, along with cool, dedicated interactives that cost an arm and a leg and are a pain to update. Is a lightweight version possible?

First, here are the basic requirements of a successful index:

  • It pulls together data on the state of things for a certain topic or issue (e.g., global water quality or health of democracy globally) that people care about;
  • It renders that data into a single number or small set of numbers (the index) that can be compared across countries, regions, sectors, time scales, etc;
  • It can be updated at least annually (usually not more frequently);
  • The index — the fact of it, the fact that you are framing a big issue with a single, comparative number — can move decision making by some key audience for your research or organization;
  • It’s attractive to media, particularly because it can highlight trend storylines for, say, countries or indicators;
  • It renders shareable results, particularly through dramatic map or chart graphics.

Indices are one of the things researchers and research-driven organizations (theoretically) have an inside track on producing, versus the media:

  • Researchers have the data, or can get it;
  • They can vet the data;
  • They’re experts in the issue, so they know which datasets are most relevant to solving the issue’s foundational problems and components, and so can designate those as key indicators for the index with a high degree of confidence;
  • They can also usually figure out a defensible methodology for weighting and combining the indicators into a single number that illuminates important trends;
  • Above all, they’re committed to the issue or a problem and sustain a commitment to an index.

When it works — as with Transparency International’s long-running Corruption Perceptions Index — it generates reliable headlines, brand awareness and the kinds of conversations (with funders and decision maker) research organizations want to have.

So, what would constitute an MVP?

  • Highlights a new or underpublicized issue or problem, or highlights it from a new angle — one that you or your organization are expert in;
  • The index can be assembled from a small numbers of indicators (<10);
  • Both the indicators and the index are easily calculated (indicators preferably straight from primary data);
  • At a minimum, the index tool (the way you present it online) can compare countries and highlight countries;
  • It doesn’t require extensive graphics or additional webwork to make results vivid (for instance,something you could render straight out of a Google Sheet into a map that you could publish on your website);
  • But it translates easily to dramatic map graphics, so is vivid for presentations and easily shared on social.

For instance, the Actuaries Climate Index feels like such an MVP:

  • It’s made up of a basket of six indicators (all primary data) measuring extreme climate events and sea level rise;
  • To calculate the Index requires just one standard equation pulling from the six indicators;
  • The Index as well as the indicators map to the United States and Canada as well as subregions of those countries, so viewers can create simple clickable maps for the indicators, for the index as a whole as well as for subregions, all across several decades.

And the audience for the index is well-defined: actuaries.

I’m exploring the world of indices, reaching out to those who make them, and I’ll report back on what I find. Which indices do you like, and why? And which ones do you think might be good models for an MVP?