A dashboard by any other name
When so many data dashboards offer few satisfying answers, we might wonder why local leaders default to building them again, and again, and again. Is it too late to give dashboards a new purpose?
City governments sit on mountains of operational and analytical data that they sometimes struggle to understand or use. When thinking about how to parse that data, people eventually think of dashboards — panels that visualize and compare information from different sources to help them make decisions.
If you’re someone who builds tech for governments or civic organizations, you’ve been asked to build a dashboard more times than you can count. Everyone wants a dashboard. But some have started to call the logic behind dashboards into question.
In 2015, Shannon Mattern wrote a piece for Places Journal about the history of the urban dashboard, which also appears in her latest book A City is Not a Computer. She talks about how dashboards give decision-makers a sense of control when they can see their city through a white-washed panoramic view.
Building on Mattern’s work, a recent paper by Jathan Sadowski blithely says: “Anyway, the dashboard is dead”. Sadowski explores the life cycles of two urban informatics dashboards built by a municipality in Australia to show that dashboards sometimes fail because of how harshly local leaders use them to try to succeed.
So, you might ask, should we build dashboards or not? It seems that’s not the right question.
Of course people need accessible ways to visualize and understand information so that they can act on it. But we need to ask how we use dashboards to ensure that they actually do inform and empower public servants and community members to change things for the better.
Too often, local leaders use data dashboards to control a public narrative about how cities are doing while keeping an unforgiving hold on internal operations.
On the surface, local governments publish data dashboards to keep the public informed of their work or local issues. But deep down, they need dashboards to project the image that they know what’s going on and that they’re in control.
Control is a necessary feature of governing, just as driving a car requires a wheel to steer. But when elected officials are the driving force behind designing public dashboards, the data might portray a controlled reality that is either convenient or beneficial for those in power.
Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat researches authoritarian leaders throughout history and wrote a book on strongmen, which provides the beginning of a framework for understanding how toxic masculinity and domination show up in our culture of governing.
Strongmen value security and mask all forms of weakness. They value their own absolute knowledge, which dovetails with our current post-truth moment. As Ben-Ghiat says in an interview with TIME, “What they said was the law… You’re not supposed to have alternate interpretations of reality.”
Sadowski writes, “Dashboards are meant to represent reality, but they can influence perception so much that they bend reality.”
City councils, for example, commission citywide dashboards to construct their own top-down view of the city. Public-facing dashboards signify that work is being done through data points like Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These KPIs are often determined by city council members, not by members of local communities.
According to Mattern, “Dashboards are not intended to merely allow officials to monitor performance and ensure ‘accountability’, but also to make predictions and projections — and then to change the system in order to render the city more sustainable or secure or profitable or efficient.”
Security, profitability, and efficiency are values that leaders might hold, but they might not represent the values of their communities, or even their employees. As Sadowski’s research showed, “People resented being browbeaten with KPIs. Thus, by extension, their ire was directed at the corporate dashboard; it became a despised tool of control.”
When former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley founded the nation’s first CitiStat program in 1999, the goal was to create a data-based process of performance measurement and internal accountability, which influenced other early data programs that used dashboards as control centers. But Baltimore’s program was based on NYPD’s CompStat program, through which Sadowski says “top brass” in the police department used ritualistic processes of humiliation on people who failed to meet performance standards and expectations.
In other words, since the beginning, the message behind dashboards has been that city workers have to use them because the guys in charge want answers.
Some public officials opposed these approaches because they sapped creativity. Using data as an accountability tool creates stressful environments where public servants are incentivized to manipulate numbers to reach higher-ups’ goals.
Now that dashboard governance is a fixture of performance management across the country, dashboards give local officials a chance to play out their need for control instead of trying to use them to unearth public truths.
People get frustrated when local governments try to use data to prove facts that are already deeply felt and widely known.
Peoples’ trust in state and local leaders has hovered around 70 percent since at least 1997. But, probably because of the severe need and more focused attention on local governing in the last year, trust in local government reached historic lows in 2021.
Just like people’s trust in leaders can fade if they don’t see results, people’s trust in data can fade if they can’t find stories in the data that they can agree with or understand.
As Michael Correll points out in his piece “The Spectacle of Dashboards”, too many dashboards “all proclaiming expertise but with differing data or implicit conclusions” will cause people to “either become increasingly skeptical of the value of expertise, or increasingly emboldened to come up with idiosyncratic explanations.”
Building on this idea, Mattern says, “this disenfranchisement may be the goal in some cases.” Government leaders may benefit from convincing people that the data is too complex for them to understand, that the problems are too intractable, and that further data analysis or more advanced technology is the only way we’re going to find the answers.
We see this over and over when governments try to map inequality through data. People call on local governments to close racial disparities and local governments respond by publishing more dashboards or funding more “data-driven” research on those disparities.
But those of us who drive through the neighborhoods that suffer from divestment daily could draw their boundary lines like the back of our hands.
In Houston, local housing advocate Zoe Middleton has spotlighted the “Houston Arrow,” a shape that shows up in every single map of socioeconomic data, covering the area where the wealthiest and whitest people in our city live.
Patterns like the Houston Arrow show us that there’s knowledge of structural inequity that we’re unable to address through dashboarding or visualizations. For people in the community, it feels like local officials are seeing the same information appear on dashboards and in maps over and over again and aren’t doing a thing about it.
But there’s a cottage industry around building dashboards and visualizations for local governments. There’s value in pretending that a new tool is all it would take for our local governments to finally get a handle on those big, intractable issues.
As geographer and political scientist Brian Jefferson says, control centers offer an “innovative way of finding value in devalued urban populations and places.” In this way, local governments exploit communities of color for insights every time they build a new dashboard.
People start to get the impression that their local leaders are ignoring what they already know; that they’re constructing just-honest-enough political realities to be suitable for public consumption.
But what if we could use information about our cities to bring a different future into being?
Data dashboards might be useful if they gave more grounded, truthful answers in the present and asked more creative, speculative questions about the future.
Mattern says of the modern dashboard, “The dashboard-as-talisman, when deployed in municipal buildings, on trading floors, and in operations centers around the world, is intended to aggregate data for the purposes of divining the future — and shaping policies and practices to bring a desired world into being.”
In the current paradigm of data dashboarding, everyone suffers. Public servants feel the tension of being told they’re empowered by new data tools while checking over their shoulder to make sure their metrics still look good. The general public sees a sanitized version of what is actually going on, which reflects leaders’ priorities more than their own lived experiences.
If the current paradigm of dashboard governance relies on control, certainty, favorable visibility, and keeping public servants in line, the new paradigm has to feature creativity, uncertainty, and acceptance of the messy parts of governing, flaws and all.
Dashboards aren’t dead because they’re not useful tools, but because they’re a bandaid for lack of power and agency in local governing to solve big problems. They scratch at the surface of structural inequities repeatedly and without effect, like picking at a wound without ever allowing it to heal.
We need a dose of the creativity that has been drained from public service in order to make data meaningful again. Making meaningful, accessible public dashboards and removing them from toxic cultures of performance management could make all the difference in how big problems get solved.
Local governments tend to ask the same questions of their data over and over again. These questions are influenced largely by the motivations of the people in charge.
Where are the hotspots?
How much is it costing?
Are we meeting our leaders’ goals?
How have we performed over time?
But when you speak to public servants themselves, there are questions they have that never make it into the public domain.
Why isn’t this program working?
What are our constituents’ biggest barriers?
Where is our money actually going?
Why doesn’t the community like what we’ve done?
These are some of the meatier questions that would help cities get to the bottom of what is actually going on. And it would benefit people in the community to be able to see what their local leaders are truly interested in and working on, especially if they can lend a hand.
As Sadowski notes: “Stories of failure and frustration, of delays and dead ends, are extraordinarily typical features of the work done in government and technology. But these stories run counter to the narratives of innovation meant to sell smartness.”
Some cities are already showing that they have trust in their constituents’ abilities to help solve problems. The City of Cambridge publishes a Civic Innovation Challenge Inventory (updated January 29, 2022 ❤️) that invites people to use city open data to address challenges the city is facing, like “How are food trucks geographically distributed throughout the city?” or “How can Cambridge better support the performing arts?”
It’s not a dashboard, but it connects disparate sources of information in a tabular, visual way so that people can understand and act on the public information that’s available.
Local governments should admit that sometimes they don’t have the answers; that the data they have is sometimes not sufficient to answer the questions people have about their communities. Decision-makers could use dashboards to allow people into that process of questioning, letting down the strongman facade that might is being right.
When cities do need answers, they could let those answers come from the bottom up. As Mattern points out in her book, new models of visualizing urban information, like this work from Lydia Jessup, could prioritize themes of equity, environmental sustainability, and maintenance/care that center the built environment and lived experiences instead of more common smart city values.
Dashboards are an abstracted concept, at this point encapsulating everything from an embedded map on a webpage to an augmented reality experience with data overlay. Getting caught up in the language is the wrong move, and putting all our faith in leaders to choose the right data is the wrong move, too.
By flipping the script and allowing questions to become our new modes of public discourse, allowing people to provide answers about their own communities, maybe dashboards can live again.
A City is Not a Computer - This newsletter is heavily influenced by Shannon Mattern’s work and I highly recommend checking out her book!
Vaccine Questions and How Data Empowerment Happens - A piece by Michael Canares on how data empowerment requires an environment that allows questions to be asked and the capability of people to ask questions.
The Story of the Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard - An organizing effort led by favela-based collectives and allies in Rio to design and build a data dashboard to track the spread of Covid-19.