Monday, April 27, 2015

Thinking about metrics

Reading about effective altruism, the Open Philanthropy Project, GiveWell, etc, and thinking "good lord, how can they possibly hope to put a number on what's The Best Thing to do with your money?" It feels like they're taking a (to use the one design concept I sort of understand) wicked problem and trying to make it tame. Usually this doesn't go well; as the Vox article above hinted, you often end up only representing a couple of viewpoints, or making it worse by playing whack-a-mole by iteratively solving whatever problem you're thinking about at the moment.

But, I've got reason to assume, based on what GiveWell's done so far, that at least some of the Open Phil people are thinking about it in this broad sense.

And metrics aren't all bad! I think about WalkScore, which is limited and flawed, but is still a pretty solid and useful indicator of how nice it is to live in a place. And really, the thing is, we're often making decisions by metrics anyway, and often those metrics are suuuper flawed. Like GDP. So if I'm reading about a Social Progress Index on TED, sure, it might be a TED blowhard with another half-assed idea, but it doesn't have to be that good. I'd love to start talking about SPI instead of GDP, not because it's great, but because it's better.

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