That’s a whole lot of jargon for one title! I apologize. Let’s take a step back.
An index is essentially something that points to something else, such as the index at the back of a book. It is composed of indicators, which are essentially quantifiable ‘things’ that are indicative of less quantifiable ‘things.’ Indicators can be thought of as proxies or “metaphor[s] for phenomena that are not directly measurable” (Green 2001). Here, the concept of an index refers to a system designed to produce numerical scores across a range of entities (e.g., companies) based upon some set of indicators. More formally, indices of this type are “compound measures that aggregate multiple indicators” (Hawken and Munck 2013: 802).
For example, a website that rates local restaurants may develop scores (or indicators) on a variety of elements, such as food presentation or cleanliness, based on user ratings from one to five. Those scores (indicators) may then be aggregated into an overall indicator of ‘quality’ for each restaurant, which the public can then use to compare restaurants. In this case, the overall set of rated and ranked restaurants could be considered an index, based on indicators relating to the dining experience. Human-rights- and social-progress-based indices (from here on, ‘HR indices’) work similarly.
I recently published my findings from an evaluation of one such HR index – the Ranking Digital Rights’ “Big Tech Scorecard.” I argue in this paper that indices like RDR’s, while they might be seen as boring for lots of audiences, can actually provide very valuable resources for activists trying to create social change. I wrote a blog post about the paper for RDR’s website, so instead of writing another post here I’m just going to link to the one I wrote for them.