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Bringing Clarity to Sustainability Data

The National Sustainability Dashboard provides an information sharing platform that operates across multiple sustainability issues and at multiple scales.

A huge amount of data on sustainability performance is being gathered across the globe. The data are often made available through large organisations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Labour Organisation, amongst many others. While the data are available, they are often largely inaccessible to anyone without knowledge or experience of data analysis.

These plethora of data contain a story of progress against key sustainability indicators. However the story is often hidden, buried amongst screes of numbers held within tables and spreadsheets. The National Sustainability Dashboard seeks to make information on sustainability performance more accessible to a wider audience.

Data on sustainability performance cover a wide range of issues across multiple scales. Issues may be social, economic, environmental, or governance. And performance may be recorded at a national, regional scale, catchment scale, or enterprise level. There are few organisations which address all the different types of sustainability issues at each scale.

This report outlines the key features of the National Sustainability Dashboard. It describes the principles on which the National Sustainability Dashboard is founded and the framework of indicators it is built on. It details how indicators are selected, and how information is visualised. In doing so this report provides a background to the National Sustainability Dashboard’s development. It describes how the National Sustainability Dashboard enacts its guiding principles and it provides a pathway for future development and growth.

 

Explore some of the sustainability indicators from the National Sustainability Dashboard

 
 

FOUNDING PRINCIPLES

 
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Six Founding Principles of the National Dashboard


The development of the National Dashboard has been guided by six primary principles. Each of these principles has influenced how the National Dashboard functions, who it has been designed for, and how it presents information to the users.

Principle 1: Framework shared between sectors

The National Sustainability Dashboard is based on a framework of shared pillars, topics/goals, and indicators. It is also based on a materiality analysis and stocktake of NZ agricultural industry assessment practices.

Principle 2: Comparison across scales

Within each dashboard a user can compare the relevant entities at each scale (e.g. countries, regions, catchments, or sectors).Comparisons are made at an indicator level but have the ability to be aggregated at higher levels (e.g. pillar, outcome, or objective) due to the National Sustainability Dashboard's framework alignment. The user is also able to look at side-by-side visualisations of different sectors' performance trends. Additionally, the National Sustainability Dashboard allows for comparisons to be made against trends at international and regional levels.

Principle 3: Aggregation of sector information

The National Sustainability Dashboard aggregates data at a regional and national level by each sector. Some indicator dashboards (e.g. GDP) also allow for aggregation by industry sub-sector. The online interactive dashboards also improve aggregation through allowing the user to filter the data which is aggregated to their own interests.

Principle 4: Support reporting at regional and national levels

The National Sustainability Dashboard uses data and indicators aligned to MfE environmental reporting data. Additionally, the indicators in the National Sustainability Dashboard have been aligned to multiple sustainability frameworks (e.g. SDG’s, GRI, SAFA, NZSD, Global G.A.P etc.).

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This allows users to directly report against both legislative and voluntary sustainability frameworks using data exported from the National Sustainability Dashboard. The National Sustainability Dashboard provides the user the ability to export spreadsheet data, visualisations, images, and PDF documents in a format which can be used directly in their reports.

Principle 5: Integrate international benchmarking norms, standards or recommendations

The National Sustainability Dashboard framework has been aligned to multiple sustainability frameworks inculdine UNSDG’s, GRI, NZSD, and by extension – multiple others.

Principle 6: Meet needs of international markets and stakeholders

The National Sustainability Dashboard has been aligned to multiple international standards and also provides a comparative analysis of international performance against multiple sustainability indicators.

SUSTAINABILITY INDICATORS

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                                     +NZSD Indicator Framework

                                     +NZSD Indicator Framework

The Indicator Framework

Local and International Relevance

The New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard (NZSD) indicator framework from which the National Dashboard draws is closely aligned to the Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA) framework developed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), while also remaining locally grounded to ensure it is relevant to New Zealand society, ecology, and land.

By taking this multi-level and multi-scale approach to sustainability, the NZSD provides a practical tool for participants to address their local challenges and a means for communicating this information internationally. The NZSD framework covers the core aspects of primary production industries and their associated operations in NZ across four pillars of sustainability; governance, economic, social, and environmental. In total there are 19 outcomes targeted, through 54 outcome focused objectives, and 110 indicators

While each of the indicators in the NZSD framework measure progress towards sustainability, they are not measures (metrics) in themselves. Specific metrics for each of the indicators (some of which will require multiple metrics) have not been developed as a generic set included within the framework. Rather, metrics are being developed within the context of each industry’s dashboard. While the NZSD provides a comprehensive and rigorous framework for assessing sustainability, not all indicators in the framework will be highly relevant for every industry

PRIORITISATION

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Discovering High Priority Indicators

Prioritisation is about establishing an imperative for adopting sustainability indicators as well as identifying important gaps in a sustainability trajectory.

The prioritisation process  used for the National Dashboard is based on the concept of materiality. Material issues in sustainability include those issues that have a direct or indirect impact on an organization’s ability to create, preserve or erode economic, environmental and social value for itself, its stakeholders and society at large.

The prioritisation process uses meta-analytic and content analysis techniques to assign materiality rankings to a range of sustainability issues. The process draws on multiple information sources including surveys, policy documents, scientific journals, and industry reports, amongst others.

A three step processes

The first step is to determine the importance of an issue. Importance is a measure of materiality and can be derived from multiple external stakeholder information sources. To derive a level of importance for an issue, the information sources are codified and ranked. 

Step two requires risk to be calculated for the issues. Risk is understood in the prioritisation process to include the potential severity of consequences an issue could have, and the likelihood of harm from an issue. The likelihood of harm is a function of the probability of a particular issue creating a consequence. For complex situations, probabilities are often unavailable or unreliable. In the case of complex sustainability issues, ‘secondary’ indicators are often used which relate to preceding physical conditions or events. An example of a secondary indicator is the number of authoratative sources discussing an issue. A further level of ‘tertiary’ indicators are also used such as qualitative communications, or community trust.

Accounting for multiple stakeholders

Information sources selected for prioritising indicators need to take into account a diverse array of stakeholder perspectives, as well as covering different spatial scales or levels of relevancy. The adjacent Venn diagram illustrates the different stakeholder perspectives and spatial scales to be considered. The four circles represent different stakeholder perspectives. Scientific knowledge is important for understanding the consequences of an issue, as well as informing policy formulation and societal perceptions. Regulation to address sustainability issues can have a direct impact on organisations through added costs or restrictions. Societal preferences and consumer demand relating to sustainability can influence the behaviour or viability of businesses. Finally, each industry has unique requirements and impacts that need to be considered, as they each affect and are influenced by sustainability in different ways. In addition, wider business initiatives, including voluntary certification or assurance schemes can affect a business’s ability to compete in a market. This is not an exhaustive list of stakeholder perspectives that should be considered, but rather a starting point to take into account the main drivers for sustainability.

Having outlined the different stakeholder perspectives, it is also important to have regard to different scales. The three segments shown in the Venn diagram define three spatial scales, or levels of relevancy from which the stakeholder perspectives can be considered. It is likely that not every stakeholder perspective could be compared from each segment. This section presents a guide for obtaining a balanced mix of information sources rather than setting any definitive requirements for those sources.

The pattern of information sourcing is from global to local, and from international scientific importance, to local business requirements. Using information sources ranging from international scientific publications, to local industry knowledge necessarily means that a huge amount of potential information sources are available, therefore care must be taken when selecting information sources.

Coding information sources

The information sources are analysed for content that would suggest a high importance or risk is attributable to a particular issue. The frequency of such content, or the strength of the content within the information source can be used to infer significance. The content of information sources can be presented in vastly different ways. Coding must therefore be tailored to the information source and may be based for example of frequency of chosen terms, quantity or quality of discussion about chosen topics, urgency indicated in the source etc. Coding is achieved in the prioritisation process by classifying the information sources based on a simple high, medium, low ranking. Each of these rankings are then assigned a numerical score; high = 3, medium = 2, and low = 1. Where a side by side comparison of different information sources is conducted, a fuzzy logic approach to determining an overall ranking can used as shown by in the adjacent table. This approach can be extended to account for any number of additional rankings that need to be summed.

Presentation of the results

After determining a ranking or score for the importance and risk presented by an issue, these results can then be plotted on a matrix as in the adjacent chart. Issues that appear in the top right quadrant are both high in saliency and present a high risk. These issues should therefore be the highest priority for the organisation to address. The obverse is true of issues that appear in the lower left quadrant.

 
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     + Three step prioritisation process

     + Three step prioritisation process


                       + Stakeholder perspectives and spatial scales

                       + Stakeholder perspectives and spatial scales


                                 + Materiality matrix of sustainability issues

                                 + Materiality matrix of sustainability issues

METRICS

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A performance-based indicator measures the performance towards target outcomes (OECD, 2003)

Performance Based Metrics

There are two primary types of metrics used to measure sustainability performance, practice based metrics, and performance based metrics.  A practice based metric inform on how well certain practices are being adopted. These types of metrics assume that a certain practice will have a beneficial outcome. For example, creating a sustainability plan for an organisation is assumed to lead to higher levels of sustainability. Performance based metrics on the other hand measure actual changes in progress.

The National Dashboard is driven by available data. As desirable practices differ dramatically across nations, regions, and industry types, practice based indicators are much more difficult to incorporate into a National Dashboard. Additionally, it is the measurement of outcomes which determines whether a practice is successfully achieving its intended purpose. Without establishing a clear link between practice and outcome, it is not possibly to definitively state whether a particular practice is desirable.

While limiting the types of metrics used in the National Dashboard does impose limits on the types of indicators that can be included, the wealth of performance based data available means that there is already an enormous task in focusing solely on performance based indicators.The data presented by the National Dashboard can be used in a complementary manner alongside an entities practice based metrics to help inform their use.

The selection of performance based metrics over practice based metrics is one of several considerations that informed the National Dashboards strategy for selecting metrics. A document titled; Signs to Look For: Criteria for fit for purpose indicators (PwC, 2017) outlines several other considerations that were also taken into account, particularly, that metrics are:

  • accepted by stakeholders
  • valid
  • clearly defined and standardised
  • based on available or easily accessible data
  • easily communicable
  • performance-based

 

DATA SOURCES

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Selecting Appropriate Data Sources

Data sources used in the National Dashboard range from very large institutions like the United Nations, to industry body data such as that provided by New Zealand wine. For each of the indicators that arose from the prioritisation process, we evaluate the data sources available and consider the tradeoffs between the quality and precision of the data available. The founding principles of the National Dashboard and the data requirements described in the previous section limit the data sources that can be drawn upon.

The data available differ in quality and quantity across the four pillars of sustainability that the National Dashboard seeks to monitor. This is particularly true for social and governance data, which have only recently been subject to the large-scale surveys and measurements required to provide effective measurements of social issues across countries. The UN and its various entities, the World Bank, and the International Labour Organisation are leading the collection of this type of data at an international scale and therefore provide a key data source for the National Dashboard.

For some metrics, the National Dashboard relies on specialist organisations such as the Aquastat which provides specialised data on the specific issues related to water. The National Dashboard is uniqie in covering multiple scales, from an international scale, to a regional and catchment scale, through to individual industry types. At each scale there are different relevant organisations, which provide the appropriate data.

Geographic coverage is often a key limitation.  The National Dashboard seeks to provide comparability between different entities within a particular scale. This requires standardisation of measurement, and a single data source. We sought indicators that were measured by the same organisation for all the countries and regions. This means that many high-quality indicators were excluded from consideration as they only covered a sub-set of nations or regions. At an industry level it is often not possible to achieve this standardisation as there is usually no single entity gathering this data. Instead each industry type gathers its data for its own use, using its own metrics. The industry scale of the National Dashboard is therefore handled differently, with comparisons being made at an indicator level rather than at the metric level.

The National Dashboard is a living and evolving system. There are additional indicators we hope to use in the future. Some are not yet measured broadly or in a standard way. While others are already available and will be included as we work our way through the prioritisation process. The next section provides a decision tree, based on key details outlined in previous section of this report, which is used to guide the selection of an appropriate data source.

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DECISION TREE

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Indicator Decision Tree


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VISUALISATION

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                                                    + Map view

                                                    + Map view

                                                   +Trend View

                                                   +Trend View

Data Visualisation

A crucial feature of the National Sustainability Dashboard is its ability to synthesise data and communicate it succinctly and clearly to a diverse audience. Targeting information succinctly to each stakeholders’ unique interests is difficult in paper based reports or PDF documents. Online interactive dashboards provide a means of overcoming many of the limitations of traditional reports. Online dashboards can be widely distributed, requiring only that the user has an internet connection. Online dashboards can compile and simplify large datasets into easily understood infographics. Online dashboards provide the ability for the user to interact with the information being presented, and delve deeper into the underlying data. And perhaps most importantly, online dashboards allow the user to filter the information they receive to only what they are interested in. 

There are multiple different platforms on which to create interactive online dashboards, which have been explored in the NZSD. While each has its advantages and downsides, Tableau offers a suite of features which meet all the requirements of the National Sustainability Dashboard. Tableau is a data analytics and visualisation programme which has over 50,000 clients, including many of the world’s largest companies. It offers a well-established and highly functional platform on which to visualise data for the National Sustainability Dashboard.

There are two primary visualisations used in the National Dashboard. The first is a map based visualisation which allows for direct comparisons at a geographic level across a large number of nations, regions, or catchments for a single point in time. The second is a line chart. The line chart visualisation is used to investigate trends over time as well as compare trends in different entities. A feature of all visualisations in the National Dashboard is the ability to filter the data. Each stakeholder interacting with the National Dashboard will have different interests. Filters allow users to tailor the visualisations to their particular interests. To improve the usefulness of the visualisations for reporting and communication purposes, the visualisations offer several ways to share and present data. Static copies of the visualisations can be downloaded as either a PDF or a picture. Shareable links to the visualisations are available, and so is an embed code so that users can embed the visualisations, tailored to their own interests, into their own website. Where appropriate, the data underlying the visualisations can also be downloaded directly from the visualisation.

Through a combination of clear visualisations, flexible filters, and a range of options to share and communicate, the National Dashboard is able to provide an excellent platform for conceptualising sustainability data and communicating results with others.

                                               +Catchment View

                                               +Catchment View

CONCLUSION

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Conclusion

This report has discussed many of the crucial aspects of creating a National Sustainability Dashboard, from the founding principles, to the selection of highly salient and implementable indicators, through to strategic operational and design considerations.  This indicator framework is limited in composition compared to the wider NZSD framework, however, it is intended that indicators will be added gradually to the National Dashboard over time.

While the initial indicator framework is limited, it is not restricted in any sense to the current indicators. The intention of the first version of the National Dashboard is to establish a National Sustainability Dashboard in the most expedient, practical, and beneficial manner. Providing a low barrier to entry allows for the involvement of multiple stakeholders from the beginning, a necessary requirement for a National Sustainability Dashboard. Over time, it is expected that the indicators tracked will expand in comprehensiveness and grow in depth as the system evolves. Additionally, it is expected that the National Sustainability Dashboard has the potential to provide a catalyst for greater alignment between industry sustainability practices. This would also provide grounds for a National Sustainability Dashboard that is able to grow in sophistication over time.

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The National Dashboard is an output of the New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard project. The prototype version of the National Sustainability Dashboard and accompanying documentation were developed by Jay Whitehead from the Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit - Lincoln University.