UKA correspondentWednesday 5 April 2017

Think tank urges caution on data dashboards

New Demos report lays out principles and says ‘off the shelf’ may not always meet organisations’ needs

A leading think tank has said government bodies should look carefully at the type of data dashboards that they use in designing and managing services, claiming that some ‘off the shelf’ models may not be up to the job.

Fingers on keyboardDemos has made the claim in a report, Governance by Dashboard, that looks at the potential and limitations of dashboards that present huge quantities of data intelligible to non-technically trained officials.

Its assertion that sometimes there is a need for bespoke models goes against much of the recent best practice advice on governmental IT emphasising the capabilities and cost-effectiveness of commodity systems.

It claims some based on off the shelf programmes do not always respond to the keenest challenges faced by organisations, and can be prone to bias users towards short term operational issues. Also, staff often lack the skills needed to operate them effectively, or fail to ‘buy in’ to the change in operations.

“Organisations will need to appreciate the danger of off the shelf models,” it says. “Government or private bodies will have to choose between using a commercial provider or designing something bespoke.

“While bespoke dashboards allow for more flexibility and more tailored design – as well as often being cheaper – pre-existing dashboards will often be easier to learn to use, supported with external training courses, and so are often better suited for organisations with high staff turnover.”

Principles

The report outlines three principles for government use of dashboards. First it to identify its purpose and use, then communicate them clearly to designers and intended users.

Second is to understand its limitations. Dashboards usually leave out more than they include, often with the user having no knowledge of how the data was created.

They will also prioritise operations rather than long term strategic issues, and their metrics can be ‘gamed’. Subsequently, users need to develop a critical eye for their limitations.

Third, organisations have to ensure they have the right staff and skills to use dashboards effectively, providing the relevant training. This could involve the creation of a new generation of analysts with skillsets such as data analytics, design, social science and public policy.

Image by Reategui12, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons