Mike Daconta


3 tragic flaws of some well-meaning dashboards

If you avoid the pitfalls, dashboards can deliver a lot of value

I'm in the early stages of two dashboard projects: one for an enterprise architecture dashboard and one for a project-tracking dashboard. Given that, it is a good time to do a reality check on dashboards.

As you might know from past columns, I am a big fan of technologies with an intuitive value proposition, such as biometrics, Extensible Markup Language and today’s subject — dashboards. By intuitive value, I mean the ability to clearly see and sum up the value in a single sentence. For example, XML stores the context, or meaning, of data with the data in a text file.

In addition to simplicity, intuitive value can also come from a clean mapping between the real world and a technology. That is the case with dashboards, in which we have an analogy between the technology and automotive dashboards, heads-up displays and control panels. The power of those physical dashboards is in their ability to concisely monitor a state, such as fuel-tank quantity, and in their precise correlation to specific actions, such as changing speed.

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The value of the IT Dashboard, warts and all

The keys to the success of our virtual dashboards will follow that same formula of concise visualizations and clean, direct links to the data sources. These two points represent the pillars and perils of dashboard development. First, let’s examine the perilous side of that equation.

When beginning a dashboard project, there are three common pitfalls to avoid: using the wrong type of dashboard, using weak metaphors and using made-up data.

My very first conversation with the customer who needed project tracking was about the various types of dashboards. That was necessary because the customer’s only initial requirement was a dashboard. Thus, we first sat down and discussed the usage scenarios for dashboards, such as status monitoring, analytics or trend analysis, and workflow or process monitoring. After examining each dashboard type, we narrowed our focus to a status-monitoring dashboard for tracking projects.

Second, picking the right visual metaphors for your dashboard will significantly affect its popularity. For example, for a static or slowly changing percentage, a gas tank metaphor or pie chart is usually better than a gauge metaphor, which many people associate with a speedometer. For the project tracking dashboard, I needed to improve my metaphor for showing dependencies by replacing a list view of tasks with a tree, or hierarchical, view.

Finally, and most importantly, the population strategy for your dashboard should be automated and trusted. Do not bother creating fancy graphics for fake, manually input data that crumbles under its first critique. The source of your data should be as automated as possible and come directly from an authoritative data source.

For the enterprise architecture dashboard, a critical part of the population strategy is direct feeds from various existing development tools and repositories. To build trust in the dashboard, your population strategy must include lineage and data quality. Lineage is the traceability from source to resulting product and all intermediate repositories in between. In a nutshell, lineage is the roots of the data, so you can answer the question, “Where did you get that data from?”

In addition to lineage, the rest of the trust equation involves the assurance of the accuracy, completeness and timeliness of the data. Such characteristics, in addition to a few others, are delivered via a managed data quality program or initiative. Nothing will kill a dashboard faster than poor quality data. An example of that is the recent criticism of both the federal IT Dashboard and the recovery dashboard for inaccurate data.

Avoiding the common pitfalls discussed in this article will ensure that your investment in a dashboard pays off. For a deeper discussion of how dashboards fit into your overall information management architecture, you can download this white paper on outcome-based information management. Mastering dashboards will significantly improve your ability to monitor status, generate new insights and manage workflow.

About the Author

Michael C. Daconta (mdaconta@incadencecorp.com) is the Vice President of Advanced Technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and the former Metadata Program Manager for the Homeland Security Department. His new book is entitled, The Great Cloud Migration: Your Roadmap to Cloud Computing, Big Data and Linked Data.

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