Humans tend to be visual learners. Something about a graph or map makes information easier to comprehend than an intimidating mass of numbers spread across a spreadsheet’s rows and columns.
The idea that visual aids assist in learning isn’t new. What’s new is that dashboards and charts can be generated in real time, displaying and contextualizing the latest information.
“We now not only have the ability to look at the data. But we have the ability to look at the resources for when and how we do things,” said Chris Thomas, Director of Government Markets for Esri, a geospatial technology provider, on a recent GovLoop webinar.
For local governments, this means they can analyze a problem, and have the solution be as apparent and user-friendly as routing directions on a cellphone. Technologists and luddites alike can see what’s plain in front of their eyes: clusters, spikes, trends and anomalies.
In practice, this looks like tracking electric rental scooters in Nashville or examining historical park investments in Philadelphia.
Nashville’s government layered maps with data, using what’s known as geographic information systems (GIS), to track where electric scooters were dispersed throughout the city. To prevent scooter sprawl – or clogging up sidewalks, as the small electric vehicles are wont to do – the government spotted clusters in busy parts of town and directed the scooter companies to shepherd wanderlust runaways from off the beaten path back to city centers, where they’d get the most usage.
Philly’s investment in GIS reckoned with the city’s history, and put equity to the test. By plotting out park investments on a map, local government was able to track where funding lacked and identify areas that had been overlooked. In addition to funding information, the interface contained demographic and income information, as well as walkability scores.
“They could see if they were spreading the money across the city evenly,” Thomas said.
Historically, Black and lower-income neighborhoods have not received the same government investment as whiter and richer zip codes. GIS technology can point out where this occurred in the past and as events unfold, helping to stem inequities when leaders choose to act on that information.
Recently, location data has prominently featured in tracking the spread of COVID-19, identifying hard-hit areas and coordinating recovery efforts. Data dashboards have gained entry into everyday vernacular, as opposed to being a technical, one-off item.
That trend is expected to outlast the pandemic.
“We are seeing an explosion of data-driven performance coming out of the pandemic,” Thomas said.
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