Dashboards: cool tool

The lowdown on executive dashboards

What is an executive dashboard? A visual representation of some hidden or complex data, usually as a meter, gauge or graph

What is the best use of a dashboard? To reduce a complex situation to a simple, easily grasped display

What is the most important consideration in selecting a dashboard? How easily the dashboard can access the underlying data necessary to create the display

What human factors are involved with dashboards? Easily understandable display; accessible where needed; ability to interact with, or query, data

What agency-specific aspects of dashboards should I consider? Security and confidentiality of data; displaying information in a form agency workers are familiar with; ability to generate necessary reports automatically

Executive dashboards help agencies monitor critical operations

Are we there yet? The question applies to your agency's mission-critical programs as well as car rides, to routine operations as well as family vacations. As a driver, you use the vehicle's dashboard to monitor your progress and the status of your resources. As a manager, you can use an executive dashboard for the same purposes.

In its simplest form, a dashboard is a visual representation of data that is ordinarily hidden, the same way a gas gauge shows how much is in the tank. The actual data might be the status of a project, the amount of available bandwidth on a network, payroll expenditures for the current quarter, the status of aircraft in a squadron or any other piece of information.

However, the latest dashboards can perform more interesting tricks. They can acquire data from a variety of sources, filter that data according to logical rules, perform complex mathematical or statistical operations, transform the results into a variety of formats, and then display the outcomes in any of a myriad of graphical layouts. And they can usually make these displays accessible via the Internet from anywhere in the world.

The whole process starts with access to data. Your dashboard must be able to get data from a variety of sources. That may require a range of protocols to handle the kinds of data your agency uses. Database access is usually a given. But many dashboards can also extract data from spreadsheets, flat files and many other sources besides. Unless you want to hand-code these interfaces, make sure the dashboard can get at your agency's data.

Depending on the type and quantity of data, some kind of data staging may be necessary, temporarily transferring data from its original source to a local store. For example, if your users need continual access to data from a certain time period, it might be foolish to keep moving that data from its original source to the dashboard.

Instead, storing it locally may speed up user tasks as well as lessen network demand. Some dashboards come bundled with a data warehouse for just such purposes.

Once your dashboard has the necessary data, you probably want to perform some mathematical or statistical operations on it before displaying the result. This might be something as simple as an average, or as complex as a predictive forecast using specific algorithms and assumptions. If you routinely perform these operations with, say, a spreadsheet, you probably have a good idea of the kind of math smarts you'll need. However, you also need to anticipate what your users may need months or years from now. Selecting a dashboard with the right mathematical capabilities can save you problems down the road.

The actual graphical display requires extra thought and planning. The whole idea of a dashboard is to present hidden or complex information in an obvious and simple form. The visual outcome should be easy for the user to grasp and employ.

Most dashboards come with preprogrammed displays, including graphs, gauges, meters, and charts. But agency considerations may trump elegant design.

If your people are used to seeing information in a certain format, you should probably stick to that format unless you think you can change everyone's mind. Make sure your dashboard can display information the way you want it shown.

This is not to say that the display has to be dull. On the contrary, an engaging, visually appealing display is highly desirable. After all, some of your users may be staring at this display for hours at a time. Creative graphics, animation, or other visual enhancements can help a dashboard succeed at its most important task: informing the user.

These days, agencies and programs can be widely distributed geographically. That's why it may be important to make your dashboard accessible via the Web. Most dashboards do provide an Internet component, for just this reason. However, also keep in mind any issues of security or confidentiality associated with the data or displays.

Data is not one-way. Users don't just look at information; they use it, manipulate it and discuss it. The latest dashboards permit such two-way interaction. This may include drill-down capability to examine the raw data that underlies a display. Users may also be able to enter or modify data. Some dashboards support tagging information with comments or queries that can serve as the foundation for efficient problem solving. Investigate carefully, if necessary, to see if your dashboard has any of these capabilities.

Where would an agency be without reports? Many dashboards not only display results visually but also automatically generate various reports in different formats. This can be a real boon, saving your workers time and effort.

If this sounds like dashboards require careful consideration, you're right. In some situations, you can just throw a dashboard onto your system as a simple interface, but most deployments involve careful planning and strategy. You need to determine what users need to see, which users need to see it, where and from what data. You also need to ensure that your chosen dashboard is flexible enough to allow for future changes without much effort.

The chart on Page 16 will aid your advance research to ensure that the rest of the ride goes smoothly.

Edmund X. DeJesus is a freelance writer in Norwood, Mass.

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