Don’t Build A Dashboard Until You Read These Three Tips

If you’re thinking about building a public, online performance dashboard to update your constituents, you’re not alone. Dashboards are a popular way to get a bird’s eye view of city operations. It’s easy to see their appeal and to understand why almost every city manager and mayor I have met during the course of our What Works Cities engagements is interested in developing one for their city. To ensure your dashboard is as effective as it can be, consider these three tips before you begin to build a dashboard for your city, department, or organization.

Tip #1: Design with your user in mind.

This tip is number one for a reason. To have the most effective dashboard, you must construct it by always putting the needs of your users (not yourself) in the forefront of your mind. Your users could be internal stakeholders like the mayor, city manager, department leaders, or frontline employees. Or…

If you have plans to make your dashboard public (and you should!), you must also consider the needs of key stakeholders outside of your organization. These stakeholders can include everyone from academics, members of the nonprofit community, civic technologists, and community activists.

Stakeholders inside of city government need a dashboard that works for them. Before you begin development on a dashboard, you should first review your city or government’s priorities and challenges you are devoting resources to solve. These priorities can range from ending homelessness to improving the quality of service provided by the public works department. The information you choose to display on your dashboard should be connected to these priorities.

Prime Example: User Dashboard

CountyStat is the performance management data analytics team for Montgomery County, Maryland. CountyStat’s website clearly identifies its eight primary objectives, including affordable housing, an effective and efficient transportation network, and a strong and vibrant economy.

Screenshot of CountyStat dashboard
Screenshot of CountyStat dashboard

When users click on one of the icons, they can view the indicators the County is tracking related to each priority area. For example, under the affordable housing priority area, users can view results from the 2014 Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) Rental Housing Survey, data on affordability from DHCA, and and data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

CountyStat Indicators
CountyStat Indicators

One way to vet whether something should be included on the dashboard is to determine whether that piece of information would inform a decision that can be made by a leader or frontline employee. Simply ask yourself: Will this piece of information have an impact on any of the decisions my colleagues or I have to make? If you cannot think of one instance where a program or policy may change based on the metrics or outcome you’re tracking, then the metric probably has little to no value. You are wasting valuable real estate on a metric that has no impact on your operations and the dashboard quite frankly will not be utilized as often as it should.

Prime Example: External Facing Dashboard

If the dashboard is public-facing, include labels to help your residents and other external stakeholder better understand the information being presented to them. This may include adding an explanation about why you selected these measures to track. You should avoid jargon and define every acronym you use.

Screenshot of KC Stat Dashboard
Screenshot of KC Stat Dashboard

Kansas City, Missouri’s public dashboard supports KCStat, its performance management program. On the dashboard’s homepage, Kansas City explains that KCStat monitors the city’s progress in six key areas: customer service; finance and governance; infrastructure and transportation; neighborhoods and healthy communities; planning, zoning, and economic development; and public safety. The site links to Kansas City’s Citywide Business plan, which provides users with a clear understanding of the city’s vision of becoming a “diverse community of choice for people to live, work, and play” and the goals associated with that vision. Between the business plan and the additional context they provide around the city’s metrics, it becomes easy to understand that each of its key performance indicators is tied tightly to the City’s priorities and the vision it has for its future.

Tip #2: Avoid clutter

It’s tempting to include every piece of information you have on your dashboard. Don’t do it! Strategize what to release and when. A great first step, as mentioned above, is to prioritize by only including information only connected to citywide goals or priorities.

Clever design helps you avoid clutter. When designing your dashboard ask yourself (with your end user in mind!) How much copy should be included on this page? How many charts or graphs are needed to tell your story? Do your charts and graphs contain information you want to emphasize? Are visualizations necessary or is there a better, clearer way to communicate.

Prime Example: Gov.UK

The United Kingdom publishes performance metrics on government services online. The site design forgoes all of the bells and whistles and opts for a simple, direct design. There is minimal text on the website. It is easy to locate and understand the information that is presented.

Screenshot of Gov.UK
Screenshot of Gov.UK

 

Tip #3: Experiment

Before you commit to a particular graph, chart, or approach to displaying your data, experiment with different styles and formats. You’ll want to include data visualizations on your dashboard. All of your visualizations should complement the data or information you want to display. ( To learn more about data visualizations, we encourage you to read GovEx’s data visualization guide.) To figure out what is best, experiment with types of graphs displayed, the colors you use, and iconography.

Reach out to colleagues outside of your organization, department, or division to get their feedback on what you create. Some of the questions you should be prepared to answer include: Is this chart or graph easy to understand? What story are you trying to tell with these visualizations? What type of decisions do you want people to make based on the data visualizations you decided to include on your dashboard?

Prime Example: Los Angeles

Your experimentation should not end when considering which types of data visualizations to include. Some cities have started to experiment with the software they use. The City of Los Angeles built an open source Mayoral Dashboard. The code is available on GitHub and is powered by Google Documents (both free tools!), making it simple for another government or organization to deploy.

Screenshot of Mayor's Dashboard
Screenshot of Mayor’s Dashboard

In summary, an online dashboard is a great way to update on the public on your government’s progress and to provide both city leaders and frontline employees the information they need to monitor performance and improve service delivery.

If you have an example of a great government dashboard, we want to hear about it! If you still have questions about a dashboard you’re designing, we’d love to hear about that too!