Does the Federal IT Dashboard Come With a Decoder Ring?

Share on LinkedIn3Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Share on Facebook0

Major kudos to the country’s new CIO, Vivek Kundra for setting a vision for open and transparent information and getting right to work.  The amount of time between talking about his vision and starting to execute on it with this Federal IT Dashboard has been weeks, not months or years.  I thought government was supposed to be slow?  Not in this case.

Given the speed and the fact that the dashboard is labeled “beta,” I can cut the team that put this together a lot of slack.  As an organizing framework for my comments, I used the structure of the CIO Dashboard series from my last 4 posts: Audience, Attributes, and Dashboard Type.

Audience

Audience is an interesting topic as this IT dashboard is not for internal organization consumption.  Rather, the stated audiences are federal contractors and citizens in general.  In the commercial sector, it would be like publishing your CIO dashboard to any interested consulting and sourcing firms and your shareholders!  Can you imagine the headaches that would be created if you shared your IT portfolio spending plans to the universe of IT consultants?  A tough job Federal IT has, for sure.

After reviewing the dashboard, I would recommend separate views for agencies/contractors and the general public as each are quite different in their needs and IT sophistication.

Attributes

In my first CIO Dashboard article, I proposed 5 attributes of a CIO dashboard:

  1. One Page in Length
  2. Easy to Read
  3. Doesn’t Require a Decoder Ring
  4. Accurate
  5. Up-to-Date

Given that the tool is on-line, I’m not so worried about being a page in length.  What I am looking for, however, is how well the individual chunks of information are organized.  On the homepage, there is a nice master-slave relationship between the agency summary on the left and the investment details on the right.  Subsequent detail pages are well organized and easy to read.  Also, I am a big fan of the Google data analysis gadget in use under the Analysis tab under Trends.

My main issue with the dashboard is that it needs a pretty significant decoder ring.  On the right side of the homepage, two charts are presented for a particular agency.  The first is a pie chart that shows the number of investments rated by a 3-level scale, red, yellow and green.  Problem is that the red-yellow-green scale is not easily understood.  It took me about 10 minutes to find an explanation of the evaluation criteria and scoring scale.  Granted, the FAQs for Agencies do a decent job, but the charts should explain themselves (and I’m not an agency).  I don’t blame Mr. Kundra or his team with the cryptic initiative reporting.  However, this will be a significant issue in making this information truly accessible beyond the Beltway insiders.

In terms of accuracy and timeliness, the only dates and times that appear are the current time stamp.  I remember in my report writing days, we would have an “as of” date and a “printed” date.  These data snapshots do not seem to have the “as of” date, which is a significant omission.  That said, there may be the necessary dates in the detailed “Exhibits 53 and 300” documents, but they are not shown in the dashboard.

Dashboard Type

This is a great example of a portfolio style dashboard and does a good job of showing investment portfolios for several massive organizations in a pretty simple way.  Unfortunately, the dashboard uses the term “investment” throughout, which I would use to mean new projects and initiatives but seems to be the term used for all spending categories, projects, maintenance, etc.  I’d like to see a better distinction between project and maintenance type investments.  There is a “tree browser” that you can use to look through a budget, but it is not very intuitive and only shows percentages.

Summary

A major congratulations should go to the Feds for a fast dashboard deployment and some very innovative features.  I expect many of the early issues to be worked out with as much effort and openness they are demonstrating.  We can all learn from this effort.

Pros:

  • Dashboard up and running very quickly
  • Open data feeds
  • Simple charts and graphs
  • Ability to share chart and graph links via social media channels (eg, Twitter)

Cons:

  • Investment scoring criteria not easily found and understood
  • Comments provided by agency CIO’s regarding their rating are sparse, even for those deemed complete.  When this data is complete, it will be some of the most useful information available through the dashboard
  • Needs to simplify and clarify the relationships between “projects” and  “maintenance” and provide separate views for each
  • Several minor viewing and mouse over glitches (in Firefox)

Share on LinkedIn3Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Share on Facebook0
  • As the people who created the treemap visualization for the IT dashboard, I have to defend its usefulness. I’ve found treemaps to be uniquely qualified to show this kind of hierarchical data. It is easy for a user to answer the two most common questions of a portfolio of investments: a) what are the big spending buckets? b) where are the changes in spending? In fact, the combination of those questions is what people most want to know. The added bonus of a treemap is that it lets you drill down and navigate to areas of interest and continue to answer those key questions. All that said, I recognize that treemaps take a little getting used to.

  • As the people who created the treemap visualization for the IT dashboard, I have to defend its usefulness. I’ve found treemaps to be uniquely qualified to show this kind of hierarchical data. It is easy for a user to answer the two most common questions of a portfolio of investments: a) what are the big spending buckets? b) where are the changes in spending? In fact, the combination of those questions is what people most want to know. The added bonus of a treemap is that it lets you drill down and navigate to areas of interest and continue to answer those key questions. All that said, I recognize that treemaps take a little getting used to.

  • Chris Curran

    Thanks for your comments Zach – as you know, I’m a big fan of JuiceAnalytics.

    I agree that the treemap is effective in showing relative bucket size. Putting my “US Citizen” hat on though, I think it’s pretty daunting. As a CIO advisor who’s interested in the budget data, percentages alone aren’t enough – I’d like to see the dollars too. That may be user error on my part, though. -Chris

  • Pingback: The CIO Guide to Dashboards — CIO Dashboard()