The Wow Factor of Data Analytics


So much data, so many things to look at, so little time to tackle everything. One thing is certain, there is nothing more eye opening than seeing data in a real-world context. As government executives and elected officials, you are faced with a wide array of issues that you need to address. Just when you get a handle on one item, up crops a whole series of activities you weren’t necessarily prepared to handle.  You rely on experts and your staff to provide the most accurate information to drive your decisions.

Enter data analytics. The discussion surrounding data analytics promises improved performance measurement and more intelligent decision making. And I guess that’s all becoming true. We are seeing more dashboards and statistical representation of data at a quicker rate. Sometimes we see the analysis of legacy data that has remained in a silo on someone’s computer or that ended up as a simple reference in a report somewhere.

I started my career in government producing and analyzing demographics. I personally have seen a lot of analysis in my career, but what always floors me is when I see a presentation of data that leaves me thinking, “I had no idea.”  It is usually an issue I hear about every day, but have no sense of how big or close to home it hits. I was recently looking at a story map from the City Controller of Los Angeles, California presenting the number of domestic violence calls they receive in a year. The number of calls was startling to me. It was one of those real “wow” moments. The story map presented even further insights with heat maps and questions on potential cause and effect once it was overlaid with household income data.

We have seen even more examples this year with the Opioid Epidemic map that showed us how deep the problem of addiction runs in the United States. The analysis moved beyond heat maps and dots on maps. The presentation of the problem exposed more insight by combining datasets from law enforcement agencies on arrests and mortality data from health departments, all of which was information typically housed in separate departments. More importantly we learned that the issue had a face, as individual’s shared the stories of their loved ones they had lost to the epidemic in a crowdsourced story map. A truly unique opportunity to communicate the story behind the data.

Data analytics is rapidly moving to real-time. We are watching cities like Rancho Cucamonga, California load the prior day’s workloads and combine it with historical data to adjust their approaches daily in law enforcement, public works, and public safety. We watched the Iowa Department of Transportation demonstrate real time cost of winter maintenance operations. Both demonstrate the cost of operations and performance in the context of neighborhoods, streets, and service areas that provide the opportunity for improvement and feedback.  We are witnessing organizations that are building maps that run the world.

With the technology available for almost any analysis, organizations can make steps to take advantage of the big data and data analytics trends. Governments should:

  • Take time to automate data collection and feed it directly into your systems of record. There are a lot of clipboards and paper forms still out there.  You will recognize return on investment just in automating your workflows. And don’t forget real time sensors are a way to regularly collect mass amounts of data.
  • Adopt a strategy to develop a data repository so all of your departments and staff can leverage the information you collect. Think of this as your organization’s open data approach. Combining new data from other disciplines is sure to provide new insight.
  • Extend tools that allow for data analytics to happen at all levels in your organization. This requires a little change in thinking. Whether it is using simple solutions that allow dragging excel files onto a web map to see new insights or leveraging geospatially enabled big data tools for your data scientists you should begin to raise the skill level across the entire organization.
  • Open your data to other organizations. Note that some of the great analytics we are seeing were made possible through data that was not readily available before.
  • Finally, learn to present the data in an approachable and compelling way. Storytelling makes even the most complex data understandable to the layperson and citizen alike.

Whether you’re just getting started with data analytics or becoming a polished pro, consider sharing your work through the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. To highlight the impactful work being done in the area of data visualization and mapping, the center announced the Map of the Month Contest.

They are seeking data visualizations and maps that illustrate, enhance understanding of, or solve a complex problem faced by the public sector. All units of government within the United States (federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial) and nonprofits may submit maps for consideration. We hope to see you apply.

Christopher Thomas 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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