Technology Salon

New York

Sponsored by

a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

13 Tips for Creating Data Dashboards for Decision-Making


The private sector has been using dashboards for quite some time, but international development organizations face challenges when it comes to identifying the right data dashboards and accompanying systems for decision-making.

Our May 29th, 2015, Technology Salon (sponsored by The Rockefeller Foundation) explored data dashboards and data visualization for improved decision making with lead discussants John DeRiggi, Senior Data Architect, DAI; Shawna Hoffman, Associate Manager, Evaluation and Learning at The MasterCard Foundation; Stephanie Evergreen, Evergreen Data.

In short, we learned at the Salon that most organizations are struggling with the data dashboard process. There are a number of reasons that dashboards fail. They may never get off the ground, they may not deliver what was promised, they may deliver but no one uses them, or they may deliver but the data is poor and bad decisions are made. Using data for better decision-making is an ongoing process – not a task or product to complete and then relegate to automation.

Just getting a dashboard up and running doesn’t guarantee that it’s a success – it’s critical to look deeper to see if the data and its visualization have actually improved decisions and how. Like with any ICT tool, user centered design and ongoing iteration are key. Successful dashboards are organized, useful, include targets, and have trends and predictions. Organizational culture and change management are critical in the process.

Points discussed in detail*:

1) Ask whether you actually need a dashboard

The first question to ask is whether a dashboard is needed or possible. One discussant, who specializes in data visualization, noted that she’s often brought in because someone wants to do data visualization, and she then needs to work backwards with the organization through a number of other preparatory steps before getting to the part on data visualization.

It’s critical to have data dashboard discussions with different parts of the organization in order to understand real needs and expectations. Often people will say they need a dashboard because they want to make better decisions, noted another lead discussant. “But what kind of decisions, and what information is needed to make those decisions? Where does that information come from? Who will get it?”

2) Define the audience and type of dashboard

People often think that they can create one dashboard that will fulfill everyone’s needs. As one discussant put it, they will say the audience for the dashboard is “everyone – all decision makers at all levels!” In reality most organizations will need several dashboards for different levels of decision-making. It’s important to know who will own it, use it, keep it up, and collect the data. Will it be internal or externally facing? Discussing all of this is a key part of the process of thinking through the dashboard.

As one discussant outlined, dashboards can be strategic, analytical or operational. But it’s difficult for them to be all three at once. So organizations need to come to a clear understanding of their data and decision-making needs. What information, if available, would help different teams at different levels with their decision making? One dashboard can’t be everything to everyone. Creating a charter that outlines what the dashboard project is and what it aims to do is a way to help avoid mission creep, said one discussant.

3) Work with users to develop your dashboard

To start off the process, it’s important to clearly identify the audience and find out what they need – don’t assume you know, recommended one discussant. But also, as a Salon participant pointed out, don’t assume that they know either. Have a conversation where their and your expertise comes together. “The higher up you go, the less people may understand about data. One idea is to just take the ‘data’ out of the conversation. Ask decision-makers what questions they are trying to answer, what problems they are trying to solve. Then find out how to collect and visualize the data that helps them answer their questions,” suggested another participant.

Create ownership and accountability at all levels – with users, with staff who will input the data, with project managers, with grantees – you need cooperation from all levels noted others. Clear buy-in will also help with data quality. If people see the results of their data coming out in a data visualization, they may be more inclined to provide quality data. One way to involve users is to gather different teams to talk about their data and to create ‘entity relationship models‘ together.

“People can get into the weeds, and then you can build a vocabulary for the organization. Then you can use that model to build the system and create commonality across it,” said one discussant. Another idea is to create paper prototypes of dashboards with users so that they can envision them better.

4) Dashboards help people engage with the data they’ve collected

A dashboard is a window into your data, said one participant. In some cases, seeing their data visualized can help staff to see that they have been providing poor quality data. “People didn’t realize how bad their data was until they saw their dashboard,” said one discussant. Another noted that people may disagree with what the data tells them in the dashboard and feel motivated to provide better data.

On the other hand, they may realize that their data was actually good, and instead they need to improve ineffective programs. A danger is that putting a dashboard on top of bad data shines a light on the data, said one participant, and this might create an incentive for people to manipulate their data.

5) Don’t be over-ambitious

Align the dashboard with indicators that link to strategic goals and directions and stay focused, recommended one discussant. There is often a temptation to over-complicate with tons of data and visuals. But extraneous data leads to misinterpretation or distraction.

Dashboards should make complex data available in an accessible way to users, she said. You can always make more visuals if needed, but you want a concise story told in the data and visuals that you’re depicting. Determine what is useful, productive and credible and leave out what is exciting but extraneous. “Don’t try to have 30 indicators.”

6) Be clear about your data categories and indicators

Rolling up data from a large number of different programs into a dashboard is a huge challenge, especially if different sites or programs are using different data models. For example, if one program is describing an activity as a ‘workshop’ and the other uses ‘training session,’ said one discussant, you have a problem. A Salon participant explained that her organization started with shallow but important common denominators across programs. Over time they aim to go deeper to begin looking at outcomes and impact.

7) Think through how you’ll sustain the dashboard and related system(s)

One discussant said that her organization established three different teams to work on the dashboard process: a) Metrics – Where do we have credible representative data? Where do we have indicators but we don’t have data? b) Plumbing: Where are the data sources? How do they feed into each other? Who is responsible, and can this be aggregated up? And c) Visualization: What visual would help different decision makers make their decisions?

Depending on where the organization is in its stage of readiness and its existing staff capacities, different combinations of skill sets may be required to supplement existing ones. Data experts can help teams understand what is possible, yet program or management teams and other dashboard users also need to be involved so that they can identify the questions they are trying to answer with the data and the dashboard.

8) Don’t underestimate the time/resources needed for a functional dashboard

People may not realize that you can’t make a dashboard without data to support it, noted one participant. “It’s like a power point presentation… a power point doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s a result of conversations, research, data, design and more. But for some reason, people think a dashboard will just magically create itself out of thin air.” People also seem to think you can create and launch a dashboard and then put it on autopilot, but that is not the case.

The dashboard will need constant changes and iteration, and there will be continual work to keep it up. The questions being asked will also likely change over time and so the dashboard may need to shift to take this into consideration. Time will be required to get buy-in for the dashboard and its use. One Salon participant said that in her former organization, they met quarterly to present, use and discuss the dashboard, and it took about 2 years in order for it to become useful and for people to become invested in it. It’s very important, said one participant, to ensure that management knows that the dashboard is not a static thing – it will need ongoing attention and management.

9) Be selective when it comes to the technology

People tend to think that dashboards are just visual, said a Salon participant. They think they are really cool, business solution platforms. Often senior leadership has seen been pitched something really expensive and complicated, with all kinds of bells and whistles, and they may think that is what they need.

It’s important to know where your organization is in terms of capacity before determining which technology would be the best fit, however, noted one discussant. She counseled organizations to use whatever they have on hand rather than bringing in new software that takes people 6 months to learn how to use. Simple excel-based dashboards might be the best place to start, she said.

10) Legacy systems can be combined with new data viz capabilities

One discussant shared how his company’s information system, which was set up over 15 years ago, did not allow for the creation of APIs. This meant that the team could not build derivative software products from their massive existing database. It is too expensive to replace the entire system, and building modules to replace some of it would lead to fragmenting the user experience. So the team built a thin web service layer on top of the existing system. This exposed the data to friendly web formats from which developers could build interactive products.

11) Be realistic about “real time” and “data quality”

One question that came up was around the the level of evidence needed to make good decisions. Having perfect data served up into a perfect visualization is utopian, said one Salon participant. The idea is that we could have ‘real time’ data to inform our decisions, she explained, yet it’s hard to quality check data so quickly. “So at what level can we say we’ll make decisions based on a level of certainty – is it when we feel 80% of the data is good quality? Do we need to lower that to 60% so that we have timely data? Is that too low?”

Another question was around the kinds of decisions that require ‘real time’ data versus those that could be made based on data that is 3 to 6 months old. Salon participants said this will depend on the kind of program and the type of decision. The sector in which one is working may also determine the level of comfort with real time and with data quality – for example, the humanitarian sector may need more timely data and accept a lower level of verification whereas the development sector may be the opposite.

Another point was that dashboards should include error bars and available metadata, as well as in some cases a link to raw data for those who want to dig into the data and understand what is behind the dashboard. Sometimes the dashboard process will highlight that there is simply not much quality data available for some programs in some countries. This can be an opportunity to work with staff on the ground to strengthen capacity to collect it.

12) Relax

As one discussant said, “much of the concern about data quality is related to our own hang-ups as data nerds and what we feel comfortable putting out there for people to use to make decisions. We always say ‘we need more research.'” But here the context is different. “Stakeholders and management want the answer. We need to just put the data out there with some caveats to help them.” One way to offer more context for a dashboard is creating a dashboard report that provides some narrative alongside the visualization.

Dashboards should also show trends, not only what has happened already, she said. People need to see trends towards the future so that decisions can be made. It was also pointed out that a dashboard shouldn’t be the only basis for decisions. Like a car dashboard – these data dashboards signal that something is changing but you still need to look under the hood to see what it is. The dashboard should trigger questions – it should be a launch pad for discussion.

13) Organizational culture is a huge part of this process

The internal culture and people’s attitudes towards data are embedded into how an organization operates, noted one Salon participant. This varies depending on the type of organization – an evaluation focused organization vs. a development organization vs. a contractor vs. a humanitarian organization, for example. Outside consultants can help you to build a dashboard, but it will be critical to have someone managing organizational change on the inside who knows the current culture and where the organization is aiming to go with the dashboard process.

The process is getting easier, however. Many organizations are thirsty for data now, noted one lead discussant. “Often the research or evaluation team create a dashboard and send it to the management team, and then everyone loves it and wants one. People are ready for it now.”

More resources on data dashboards and visualization.

Special thanks to our lead discussants and to our hosts for this Salon! If you’d like to join our Salon discussions in the future, sign up at the Technology Salon site.

*Salons run under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made in this post.

Comments are closed.