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The North Carolina city is shaving months off project time and keeping data closer to the staff who know it best, thanks to some new technologies and receptive attitudes.
Colin Wood is the managing editor of StateScoop. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine. Before that, he taught Engl...
With enough time and manpower, a city technology department can do almost anything — the problem is that both commodities are in short supply. In Asheville, North Carolina, an easier, faster way of creating data dashboards is relieving the city's technology office and empowering nontechnical staff to take data reporting into their own hands.
In May, the city launched its first public-facing dashboard — on the proposed budget for 2017-18 — based on a new version of a platform developed in-house called SimpliCity. And now the city is using Google Data Studio to quickly build dashboards for internal use and streamline public dashboard launches. City Chief Information Officer Jonathan Feldman said data dashboards are in high demand, but have traditionally required more collaboration, time and planning than his office has immediate capacity for. A shift in attitude and embrace of new technologies is already proving fruitful for the city of 90,000 residents.
"We've done a couple of dashboards and they're such a heavy lift. They're such a heavy lift," Feldman said. "What ends up happening is peoples' native inclination in terms of where they would like to store data is generally not in an enterprise system."
People usually store their data in a spreadsheet somewhere, he said, and then his department has to build a "gigantic" system to synchronize the data while ensuring it's web accessible and plays nice with the city's increasingly cloud-based technology. But when someone at the city discovered Google Data Studio, he said, the whole process changed.
Asheville digital services architect Eric Jackson reports the city's geographic information system (GIS) team is building a story map. A public-facing homelessness data dashboard is scheduled for release later this summer. And Melissa VanSickle, an executive assistant in the capital projects administration department — who is "absolutely not IT" — built an "awesome" set of dashboards for tracking projects, Jackson said.
"What this means is that for ad-hoc dashboards and internal purposes, we can actually empower the non-IT staff here to go out use their data, use other peoples' data that has been shared with them and start creating some of this much more digestible information delivery," Jackson said. "It's a simple way of presenting data without having to do a whole engagement with IT."
In the past, it often took months of waiting before the technology department could even begin a dashboard project, Feldman said, citing a three year old graffiti dashboard that feeds from the city's internal work order system. Its purpose was simply to show how much the city was spending on graffiti, but the project was a big production, he said — they had to configure Amazon Web Services, create a server, do data integration, coordinate across several teams, get feedback from city council, and then hold one-on-one meetings with council members. Now that process is greatly simplified.
"The fact the people closest to our governing board can be the ones mapping this out is a huge advantage," Feldman said.
While building dashboards for internal use is faster than it used to be, it's still more "intensive" to build public-facing dashboards, Jackson said. But a lot of the groundwork has already been set by using Google for the backend.
"It's very quick and easy in terms of what it allows us to do is really focus on the hardest problem in building a dashboard," he said. "One is figuring out how you're going to get the data automatically connected up. That always requires a lot of thought and effort."
This frees up the city, he said, to focus on messaging and what message it's presenting to the public with the technology, rather than the technology itself.
"Allowing people to get out and start doing stuff and playing with it is really valuable to get them thinking about the problem, but then getting guidance as you take it out to the public and make sure you're accomplishing your goals — that's where slowing down a little bit is actually not such a bad thing," Jackson said.
Feldman said the city is becoming a more nimble, data-driven organization thanks to a move toward enterprise access and cloud technologies, along with an open mind. Government will realize its operational aspirations by changing the bureaucratic attitudes of people inside its offices, he said — replacing the fear of what could happen if too much data is shared with the understanding that transparency and data sharing are the fuel for new possibilities. Feldman shunned the convention of government doing everything on its own schedule and its own terms.
"Wouldn't it be great if you could access all that not as spreadsheets on a G Drive somewhere, but as data on a cloud API?" Feldman said. "It unlocks half of your organizational data, at least, when you start storing it in a cloud platform that allows for structured access."