Indicators are representations of trends that place data in context. That context can be geographic, temporal, or goal-based. Geographical context (i.e., a map comparing several neighborhoods) illustrates whether the location is better or worse off than other places. Temporal context (i.e., showing data from each year in the last decade) helps uncover whether things are improving or worsening. Context could be a widely-used national or international standard or a community-chosen target against which the measure is benchmarked. Indicators, as opposed to raw data, aim to be accessible to a wide range of users and should be expressed in the most visually appealing form possible.

Community indicators are numeric tools that help governments, citizens or businesses understand the health and vitality of their communities, alert them to problems and help them recognize what to do to fix those problems. Community indicators span a wide  levels of generality or precision, geographies, durations, and range of topics that support community’s sustainability, such as cultural, economic, environmental and social trends.  They can apply to the community as a whole or to specific interests and identities. The same project may include objective measures as well as subjective ones. For those community indicator systems that are based on geography, some scale their focus at the block level or postal code level, others at the neighborhood level, others around a geopolitical construct, such as a metropolitan region, and yet others choose eco-regions, such as a watershed.  Community indicators projects use data in the form of a set of indicators to tell the story of a complex system and serve as a map to guide priority- and agenda-setting for the work of groups involved in improving community-level conditions across the full spectrum of challenges affecting the community.

As opposed to traditional indicators, that measure such things as the GDP or demographic data independently of how they affect society, community indicators try to capture those measures that reflect the values and priorities of a region and as such are powerful motivators for consensus-driven change.  Community indicators are also different from community-level indicators, which are indicators of community conditions regardless of the level of involvement by the community and the intended audience and actors.

Community indicators are a product of the community, embracing the idea of “nothing about us without us.” In order to be used to understand, predict, and improve a system, community indicators need to be developed through a meaningful participatory co-creation process with, and be grounded in, the community they aim to describe. Because these projects strive to guide and support action, the process of identifying priorities and selecting the correct measures should also involve stakeholders with resources and the will to effect change.