Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard

Futuristic control rooms have proliferated in dozens of global cities. Baltimore has its CitiStat Room, where department heads stand at a podium before a wall of screens and account for their units’ performance.  The Mayor’s office in London’s City Hall features a 4×3 array of iPads mounted in a wooden panel, which seems an almost parodic, Terry Gilliam-esque take on the Brazilian Ops Center. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned an iPad app – the “No. 10 Dashboard” (a reference to his residence at 10 Downing Street) – which gives him access to financial, housing, employment, and public opinion data. As The Guardian reported, “the prime minister said that he could run government remotely from his smartphone.”

This is the age of Dashboard Governance, heralded by gurus like Stephen Few, founder of the “visual business intelligence” and “sensemaking” consultancy Perceptual Edge, who defines the dashboard as a “visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.” A well-designed dashboard, he says — one that makes proper use of bullet graphs, sparklines, and other visualization techniques informed by the “brain science” of aesthetics and cognition — can afford its users not only a perceptual edge, but a performance edge, too. The ideal display offers a big-picture view of what is happening in real time, along with information on historical trends, so that users can divine the how and why and redirect future action. As David Nettleton emphasizes, the dashboard’s utility extends beyond monitoring “the current situation”; it also “allows a manager to … make provisions, and take appropriate actions.”….

The dashboard market now extends far beyond the corporate world. In 1994, New York City police commissioner William Bratton adapted former officer Jack Maple’s analog crime maps to create the CompStat model of aggregating and mapping crime statistics. Around the same time, the administrators of Charlotte, North Carolina, borrowed a business idea — Robert Kaplan’s and David Norton’s “total quality management” strategy known as the “Balanced Scorecard” — and began tracking performance in five “focus areas” defined by the City Council: housing and neighborhood development, community safety, transportation, economic development, and the environment. Atlanta followed Charlotte’s example in creating its own city dashboard.

In 1999, Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, confronting a crippling crime rate and high taxes, designed CitiStat, “an internal process of using metrics to create accountability within his government.” (This rhetoric of data-tested internal “accountability” is prevalent in early dashboard development efforts.) The project turned to face the public in 2003, when Baltimore launched a website of city operational statistics, which inspired DCStat (2005), Maryland’s StateStat (2007), and NYCStat (2008). Since then, myriad other states and metro areas — driven by a “new managerialist” approach to urban governance, committed to “benchmarking” their performance against other regions, and obligated to demonstrate compliance with sustainability agendas — have developed their own dashboards.

The Open Michigan Mi Dashboard is typical of these efforts. The state website presents data on education, health and wellness, infrastructure, “talent” (employment, innovation), public safety, energy and environment, financial health, and seniors. You (or “Mi”) can monitor the state’s performance through a side-by-side comparison of “prior” and “current” data, punctuated with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon indicating the state’s “progress” on each metric. Another click reveals a graph of annual trends and a citation for the data source, but little detail about how the data are actually derived. How the public is supposed to use this information is an open question….(More)”