October 2, 2018Article

Governing: How to Turn Government Data Into Clickbait

by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene

State/ 2018/

For years we’ve been asking people in state and local government how they let people know about useful data-based information they’ve collected. We wanted to get an idea of what they considered the most effective way to communicate key findings that can impact constituents and inform decisionmakers.

Most of them answered by referring us to the wonders of their online dashboards, which are basically a graphic approach to displaying data in a way that helps policymakers and the general public easily grasp the information. There are dashboards that show road conditions, citizen health measures, air quality, crime data, and on and on. But on closer examination, we’ve found that pride in dashboards is not necessarily warranted.

In the best of all cases, dashboards can be updated in real time or close to it. The California Correctional Health Care Services Dashboard, one of the best in its field in the country, is refreshed daily for internal use. State leaders can see when rates in any one of a multiplicity of efforts have either leapt forward or fallen behind.

But the simple act of putting up a dashboard doesn’t mean it’s going to find an audience, either among decisionmakers or citizens. Consider the comments of Guenevere Knowles, associate director for performance management at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations: “We thought dashboards were going to help inform decisions. But I know that the tons of data that we put out doesn’t get that many views.”

Underuse is also an issue in Tennessee, which has about 30 dashboards and was listed this August by Results for America as one of the five states that does the best job in disseminating data. That conclusion was validated by the two of us as we scanned other states’ dashboards.

Yet, the many dashboards in Tennessee only get about 120,000 hits a year — in a state of some 6.7 million people. It’s addressing this shortcoming on a number of fronts. One is an attempt “to get an understanding of who our viewers are,” says Terry Cowles, director of Tennessee’s Office of Customer Focused Government.

One of the problems confronting a number of state and local dashboards is that they don’t deliver the information their audience covets. “When we see dashboards that aren’t as successful as they should be,” says Jennifer Horne, senior digital marketing coordinator for iDashboards, a data visualization company, “the problem is that the creators don’t have a clear sense of what the audience wants.”

There are, of course, sensible ways to making any graphic display useful and well-visited. Stephen Few, the author of Information Dashboard Design, has recommendations for graphic presentations. These include supplying a framework or context for the data; choosing the appropriate media display as the brain responds better to certain ways of illustrating information graphically, such as using lines to show patterns of change through time; avoiding the proclivity to jazz up graphics and risk adding confusion; and arranging gathered facts sensibly as some bits of knowledge are more important than others.

Will managing dashboards this way guarantee that citizens and state officials turn to them on a regular basis? Probably not. But at least it heightens the chance that they might. The important point is to make sure that people who could benefit from the dashboards know the data exists. That’s called marketing. Many states and localities don’t have that skill in abundance, but it’s worth acquiring.