By STEVE SOUTHWELL
Dashboards— web-based applications that display performance indicators for an organization— have been popular in the corporate world for years. Now they are finding increasing usage in government as well.
With support from the City Council, IT staff for the City of Lewisville have built an online dashboard to allow city management, department heads, elected officials and citizens to keep tabs on how the city performs in various aspects. A beta (or preliminary) version was demonstrated to the Council at the budget workshop earlier in August.
The system displays the key performance indicators, or KPIs, based on three major ways of classifying them: Priorities, Departments, and “Big Moves” from the Vision 2025 plan. Currently, there are 25 KPI gauges shown in the system. Each KPI can belong to a department, a priority, and possibly a big move.
Fed automatically with data from various departments, the dashboard shows visual indicators that look similar to the gauges on the dashboard of a car. Green zones on each gauge indicate preferred ranges, while “needles” point to the actual average values.
The dashboard’s safety and security section, for example, shows average response times for priority one calls for police and fire. The goal for police is eight minutes or less and fire is less than 12 minutes. The user can click a “Daily History” button to pop up a chart showing where that average has landed over the past year.
A “Detail Records” button shows the raw data points that feed into the average shown. For example, with police calls, it lists the type of call and response time. There is even an option to download the data as a .csv file type which can be manipulated in a spreadsheet program like Excel, for those inclined to do their own analyses.
Police and fire response time indicators have links to in-depth analysis pages where a pie chart shows a breakdown of call categories. Clicking one drills down into that category and updates a chart to the side, showing how that category is broken up.
Lewisville’s Director of Strategic Services Gina Thompson, who has been spearheading the project for the city manager’s office, said that while the public can view the dashboard now on the beta website (metrics.cityoflewisville.com), the actual launch would likely be next spring.
“We’re very excited about this project,” said Thompson. She said that the city had been working on it about six months. “We originally told the council it would take 12 to 18 months to be reliable and informational,” she explained.
“I’m okay with the public taking a look, but people need to understand it’s a beta version,” Thompson explained. She said that she did not want citizens to begin to use data to develop trends while the application is still in development.
Thompson said that she felt it was important for the departments whose data was being represented to have the time to look over the KPIs to ensure that they were capturing the data and interpreting it correctly.
For Lewisville Police Chief Russ Kerbow, the dashboard is already useful.
“I look at it every day,” he said.
Kerbow said the dashboard would help them to be quicker at responding to trends. He said his goal was to eventually have the dashboard show a feed of all crimes, not just priority one calls.
“I’ve sent a long list to [IT Director] Chris Lee,” said Kerbow.
Thompson said that vendors from various firms had pitched the city proposals ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 to build the dashboard, but in the end, they had decided to build it locally with in-house talent.
“All of those solutions required us to upload our data to the solution provider,” she said.
Thompson explained that the city’s various departments have a wide variety of systems and databases housing their data.
“[With this system], we pull directly from databases to be more timely and make it easier for staff,” said Thompson.
Thompson credited Lee and Technology Projects Manager Jason Kirkland for managing and designing the solution and Senior Business Information Analyst Elizabeth Mayes for programming many of the KPIs.
Thompson said the project was a top priority for staff. At the budget workshop, the City Council approved $77,387 in the utilities budget to hire an additional business information analyst for the public services department. Part of the duties of that position would be to help with data mining for the dashboard.
In addition to the 25 KPIs the system currently tracks, there are nearly another 15 the city is planning on building into the system, according to Thompson. She said there was no shortage of ideas for things to measure and ways to display them.
“We set up a framework on one of our servers so that we could write queries against all sorts of different databases throughout the city and consolidate those results,” explained Kirkland.
Kirkland said that since the display and data storage framework has been built, the business analysts can now write queries and register them into the dashboard in as little as a few minutes.
“By having this framework developed, the whole idea was we wanted to quickly get metrics out to the system,” said Kirkland. “So that was the big part that we worked on during the summer, was getting that whole system setup so that our analysts could go behind it and just start writing queries.”
Not all of the performance metrics will be available to the public though. Kirkland said that the system will allow some of the indicators to be controlled by login for internal departments to use. Kirkland explained that for certain of the public safety systems, there could be sensitive information.
Thompson said that from the City Council, the two biggest proponents were Mayor Pro Tem TJ Gilmore and Council member Neil Ferguson.
Ferguson said that at several multi-city conferences, he had examined dashboard products.
“City Manager Donna Barron and I concurred these powerful tools could simplify evaluating city performance and response from snapshot down to a single event,” he said. “IT staff then began working on a prototype.”
“I saw a video on how a dashboard system in Boston drives invaluable management action,” said Ferguson. “Ms. Barron and I decided to show it at the council’s spring retreat as a segue to unveil IT’s prototype. At the August budget meeting, we saw a near-complete demo.”
Ferguson said he was elated with the toolset built, and offered praise. “It squarely hits the target, offering rapid decision-making tools that signal problems before they become critical.”
Said Gilmore, “I think it’s not only going to help drive management decisions, but it’s going to help residents to better see what their city services do on a daily basis.”
Gilmore said there was a big push in municipalities for open government, and open data.
“So this I think is one of the more tangible results of that kind of mindset,” Gilmore said.
“You and I, as taxpayers— it’s our data. But we don’t necessarily get to look behind the curtains very often because we don’t go to city hall and ask for it. This is a way to push that information out to residents instead of making them come dig for it.”
The Lewisville Texan Journal will provide an update when the dashboard goes live.