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Improving the Customer Experience by Storytelling with Maps

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For the past several years, the government has been making a large effort to improve citizen services through digital means. Separate from digital government – think registering a vehicle online or electronically filing your tax returns – harnessing digital avenues to improve citizen services and ultimately the citizen’s customer experience has really gained traction throughout the Obama Administration. At a recent event that focused on improving the customer experience, I began to consider, could maps play a role beyond just relaying standard data to help improve customer experience?

Maps are instantly familiar to everyone and we all know that communicating information spatially is an important form of communication. Some people just inherently think and relate to information spatially, and if you think about it – people have been using maps to tell stories for centuries. But this goes beyond those maps that hang on walls or linger in glove compartments. Today’s maps – the ones that could positively impact customer experience – benefit from new technologies and new media that have vastly expanded the potential of maps to help tell stories. More and more maps are used on web browsers, tablets and smartphones. The storytelling potential created by these exciting changes is immense.

Maps are interactive – they enable and reflect data analysis; they can be updated constantly, and they are enriched with multimedia content. Maps are newly supercharged by digital technologies: GIS , the web, the cloud, and mobile technologies.

As part of a government agency, you’ll want to make sure you are communicating with people in all mediums. Maps can help. And not just with the standard ‘where are things at?’ or through providing directions. Maps can provide insight, patterns, predictions, show relationships and lead to exciting discovery.

Consider this Presidential Campaign Travel Log Story Map. After the historic election last week, this map breaks down where the two candidates spent their time leading up to Election Day. It helps take basic travel data and allows that data to be presented visually in a Story Map – perfect for post-election Monday morning quarterbacking. And if quarterbacking is your thing, this College Football Air Mile Index Story Map allows data from season-opening top ranked teams and their recruiting efforts, and visualizes it on a map to help college football aficionados break down the numbers behind top teams successes and or failures.

What is significant about each of these maps is that they allow for the visualization of data – raw numbers – and help place it into a context that is easily understandable by the masses. And that is what data visualizations do: they allow for the transformation of complex data into easily digested and easy-to-connect-with presentations of information. Maps like these allow the creator to tell a story with the data, and that can be very powerful for improving the customer experience.

Why is this significant for government? Because our “customers” are the citizens, and the citizens are the linchpin of any successful government. We need to work to make sure that the people we serve feel just that – served. In our excitement for open data and providing everyone access to government-collected data sets, it is important that we help make the process of interacting with that data enjoyable and informative for our users, the citizens.

Let me give you an example of how communicating with maps can work. The USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program is tasked with updating and modernizing its annual reports. The FIA Program collects extensive information on the nation’s forests and is mandated by the farm bill to produce five-year reports on the status and trends of the Nation’s forest resources. In the past, FIA has historically also produced an annual report that provides insight into the incremental changes and trends observed in the data collected since the last detailed report. State foresters and industry experts can use that information to make policy or investment decisions.

Fifteen years ago, annual reports began as resource bulletins. These documents were at first printed, then delivered as PDFs. At the 2016 Society of American Foresters National Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, the FIA Program unveiled 10 FIA annual reports as story maps that are interactive and contain charts and graphs along with the maps. Talking with FIA staff, they say that the story maps have allowed them to explore different things, depending on their interests. For some, maybe it’s about design aesthetic, for others it’s finding creative ways to try different things to present information in new and different ways.

As our government continues the journey of open data and citizen engagement, finding meaningful ways to share that data and encourage interaction will only grow in importance. Maps are just one way to improve our citizens’ customer experience. It will be exciting to see how others interpret and embrace this challenge.

Jeff Peters is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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