Boston builds out data visualization

Boston builds out data visualization

Boston’s data-visualization journey began, as many cities' do, when the mayor requested a dashboard of key indicators and metrics so he could monitor government operations across departments, according to Matthew Mayrl, the city’s deputy CIO.

Built by the City’s Department of Innovation & Technology, the Mayor’s Dashboard uses Tableau Software to visualize metrics on human services, like visits to community centers, basic city service metrics, such as potholes filled or street lights repaired, and public safety.

According to Mayrl, however, the most important development in the project has been making the Mayor’s Dashboard available to the public.  

“The same [indicators] the mayor sees…are available on the city’s website, and you can get to it at any time,” he said. “I think that changed people's perceptions and understandings of how we’re trying to improve operations.”

Now the dashboard concept is spreading through city departments to help managers monitor and track the performance of their agencies.

In the Inspectional Services Department, for example, a process that used to require typewritten forms and piles of paper spreadsheets can now be done on an Android tablet using Tableau’s data analytics and visualization software.

The flexibility of Tableau’s software allowed Boston’s analytics team to develop a custom management-level dashboard that tracks the work of all building inspectors, so that managers could understand who is doing what where, what kind of inspections are underway and what the results of those inspections are, all in real time.  

“We wanted to develop a tool that got people out of the office and into the field,” Mayrl said.

Inspectors can use Google Sheets to record and log data from the field, and view documents online, all of which speeds up the inspection process and improves communication between inspectors and their managers.

“This is the beginning of our work there, so we’re hoping that we’re making the process of government inspections more visible,” said Mayrl.

For example, Tableau was used to help Boston’s fire department solve an internal scheduling issue.

The commissioner of the fire department wanted an easier way to track the swapping of shifts among firefighters across all city firehouses, but the data was locked in a complicated maze of legacy processes and systems.

Because Tableau is capable of connecting to multiple data sources, the city’s analytics team was able to develop a visualization tool the commissioner can use daily to make sure no one is inappropriately swapping shifts.

“We need to be delivering the technological tools that help a manager manage,” said Mayrl. “If a manager’s priority is to get [shift-swapping] under control, then we need to be able to be in the position to provide the tools to solve that problem.”

The Tableau platform includes Tableau Desktop, Tableau Server and Tableau Online.

Tableau Desktop is an interactive data analysis program that uses a drag and drop interface to graphically query data from spreadsheets, databases or data warehouses.  It transforms charts and graphs into optimized database queries, making it easy for users to see trends, patterns and relationships.

Tableau Server allows organizations to share published dashboards, embed dashboards in company portals and comment and collaborate on findings – from either a web browser or mobile device. Cloud-based Tableau Online makes the dashboards securely available anywhere, anytime.

In the future, Mayrl envisions a Tableau dashboard that tracks the efficiency of the new Inspectional Services Department process so administrators and managers can better set priorities.

“All this work that we’re doing in inspectional services, they are individual components of a broader picture the Mayor has,” explained Mayrl.  And as demand for transparency grows, Boston’s IT department will continue building better tools for analysis of government operations.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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