Special thanks to Adena Bowden for co-authoring this blog post.
We’re halfway through the first cohort of our twelve-week virtual data literacy series, “Data Literacy for Data Stewards.” Over the past six workshops, we’ve discussed different topics including missing data, stigmatization, context, and data classification systems. This past Friday, December 2nd, we discussed data dashboards.
Dashboards “are a way to aggregate, analyze and visualize various data streams from different sources” (Sadowski, 2021). While dashboards can provide important context about urban spaces in a central interface, dashboards also have implications for how communities are understood, experienced, planned, and managed. It is important that we think critically about such technologies, understanding and acknowledging their limits and the consequences of their use.
The outcomes of our discussion on Friday included (1) understanding the power and privilege people have in defining issues and communities through dashboards, (2) developing better practices for designing community dashboards, and (3) becoming more informed consumers of data dashboards.
We started out in breakout groups, asking participants to dissect one of the following four dashboards:
- Charlotte/Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer
- Durham Neighborhood Compass
- City of San Diego’s Strategic Plan Dashboard
- Performance Seattle
We asked participants to reflect on some of the following prompts or to add their own observations when thinking about their assigned dashboard:
- Who is centered in the design of the dashboard?
- What is its purpose?
- What level of data literacy is needed to use it?
- How does it approach data context issues?
- How appropriate is the data being used? Is anything missing?
- Does the dashboard highlight structural causes of issues?
- Could use of this dashboard lead to harm?
- What actions might you take as a result of using this dashboard?
Participants noted that both the Charlotte/Mecklenburg dashboard and the Durham dashboard present a more contextual story that portrays the complexities of a community through data without reducing it to management targets and performance metrics. The scope of the data is broad, and data is presented in different ways, including maps, charts, and figures. While these dashboards aren’t perfect, they do allow people using them to get a better sense of what the community is like.
The dashboards for San Diego and Seattle are a performance management tool. These two dashboards create the impression that cities can be managed by pulling a lever when monitoring analytics and data visualizations. Participants found these dashboards to be less accessible and useful than the other two. They are not community or resident-centered, but rather focus the design on things that are important to people in power. One participant likened these performance-based dashboards to Lego sets, where the designers seem to think that they can add, remove, and replace blocks to improve communities,
In the workshop, people believed that data dashboards can be very useful, but felt that we can take a more-critical approach to designing and using them. They also acknowledged that by reducing the experience of living in the city to data on a dashboard, we lose nuance, context, and human experience.
Participants created a list of practices that we can adopt to design better dashboards
- Ask ourselves, do we need this?
- What is its purpose?
- Keep it simple, especially for dashboards that are designed for residents.
- Keep broad usability as a central guiding principle.
- Understand who the intended audience is and their purpose for using the tool.
- Consider how the information will serve the audience.
- Provide enough context enabling people to understand the data along with its limitations.
- Include input from communities in the design process.
- Provide ways to capture and incorporate community feedback
The group also thought about questions that we should ask frequently to become better dashboard consumers:
- How are people’s lived experiences reflected in the data?
- Who made this dashboard?
- For whom was it created?
- Why was it created?
- Where does the data used to create the dashboard come from, and what do we know about it?
- What was the reason for selecting the data and visualizations featured on the dashboard?
- What isn’t being presented?
- What is the dashboard telling us (intentionally and unintentionally)?
- How will this dashboard impact the community it represents?
- What do people need in order to access and use the dashboard?
For more information on creating and using data dashboards in a way that accurately reflects and contextualizes the range of experiences of people and communities represented in data, we encourage you to check out the following resources:
- Shannon Mattern, “Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard,” Places Journal, April 2014.
- Shannon Mattern, “Interfacing Urban Intelligence,” Places Journal, March, 2015.
- Designing Data Platforms for Action and Influence: Lessons Learned From a Case Study of Five Data Platforms. USC Price (Sol Price School of Public Policy) and USC Annenberg (School for Communication and Journalism). September 2021.
- Kitchin, Rob & McArdle, Gavin. (2016). Urban data and city dashboards: Six key issues. Working Paper
- Sadowski, J. (2021). ‘Anyway, the dashboard is dead’: On trying to build urban informatics. New Media & Society, 0(0).
- Rob Kitchin, Sophia Maalsen, Gavin McArdle, The praxis and politics of building urban dashboards, Geoforum, Volume 77, 2016, Pages 93-101, ISSN 0016-7185
- Rob Kitchin, Tracey P. Lauriault & Gavin McArdle (2015) Knowing and governing cities through urban indicators, city benchmarking and real-time dashboards, Regional Studies, Regional Science, 2:1, 6-28
This coming Friday (December 9, 2022), we will discuss data visualization. We’ve asked participants to create a data visualization based on a dataset from the Household Pulse Survey and then to remake their visualization after reading the “Do No Harm Guide: Applying Equity Awareness in Data Visualization” by Jonathan Schwabish and Alice Feng published by the Urban Institute. We will discuss practices we can adopt to approach data visualizations through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
If you are interested in participating in the next cohort of our Data Literacy for Data Stewards peer learning series starting in the first quarter of 2023, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will let you know when registration is open.