Recommendations 2: Part 1 – Charts

Eastern Washington University

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Recommendation 2: Part 1: Charts!

Part 1 is the boring part. Parts 2-4 are much more interesting 🙂

In early 2009, I wondered what happened to so many manufacturing and technology firms that used to be around Spokane? I started collecting data, which grew into an amusing hobby.

A lot of data is available, and thanks to the Internet and Google, its is not too hard to find if you are a little persistent in digging. I have featured the EWU logo because they have many excellent resources available on their web site.

Much of the data about our area is presented as individual numbers, sometimes tables of numbers, and rarely, charts. It is hard to identify patterns or trends in individual numbers and tables of numbers – unless the data is converted in to some type of chart or we run the original data through a statistical analysis.

Translating data from numbers in to charts converts data into information and then into knowledge. We can quickly see at a glance that poverty has been increasing or that the percent of high school seniors taking the SAT have been dropping or that EWU graduations have increased while enrollment at WSU Spokane has decreased in the last two years.

In most cases, local data has been presented poorly probably because no one thought to take an extra step and turn the data into a form that would be readily accessible to the public: in other words, a chart.

Unfortunately, in other cases, the data has been hidden in hard to find places. Some agencies have translated data into charts, but selected start or end dates to present the trend they wished you to see and not what the complete set of data actually shows. Some provide the data in PDF files which cannot be copied into a spreadsheet. Turning the data into knowledge requires manually re-typing the data tables which discourages the public from turning data into useful information.

To improve local planning – and understanding – all local organizations that are producing data, and especially all public agencies, should present their data as data tables that can be downloaded, and as charts that can be quickly viewed by interested members of the public. This should be easily accessible and viewable on their respective web sites.

There is a fancy name for this called data visualization – its possible to produce some creative charts and interactive data explorers. That would be nice – but a good first step would be to provide the data and a simple chart!

Therefore, the first recommendation is Charts – and  – “share the data”. A sub recommendation is to provide the data table and explain why the data starts where it does and why it ends where it does. No more censoring the data to show the trend some one wanted.

Several agencies or organizations do an outstanding job of displaying the data they collect in relatively easy to use tables and charts. They are doing wonderful work that is under appreciated.

Examples:

  • Community Indicators of Spokane, operated by Eastern Washington University. Outstanding web site.
  • WorkForceExplorer.com, operated by the Washington State Employment Security Department. Click on Researchers/data analysts, and then Numbers and Trends or Industry Trends.
  • City of Spokane Mayor’s Office 2011 Budget Proposal. Good news is that the downloadable Powerpoint presentation has lots of charts.  The bad news is that this should be on a web page and not require installing special software, and the data itself is in text tables in a PDF file. It should be available in an .xls or .csv file format so that others can ask “What if?” questions. There also need to be some long term trend charts. How much was spent in 1995? 2000? 2005?  How much tax revenue was collected in past years?  How many employees were there in 2000 or 2005? See how the data could be turned into useful information?
  • This year, the City of Spokane produced a map showing where roads had been plowed of snow, and which roads were up next. Bravo!
  • Washington Regional Economic Analysis Project. “Regional analysis … without paralysis.” As they say, “Retrieve-Organize-Synthesize-Analyze-Diagnose … with the click of a mouse!”  Another outstanding web site.
  • Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction “State Report Card”. Excellent. Some school districts republish selected data on their own web sites (very good), some provide prominent links (very good too), some provide slightly hidden links on sub-menus or pages, and some provide no links (not good at all).
  • Washington State University Office of Institutional Research. Raw data is available as downloadable .xls spreadsheet files. Would be nice to have some charts of the data right on the web site but otherwise, this is very useful.  Strangely enough, though, an amusing example from WSU’s press releases will be featured in Part 2 regarding hiding something.
  • Spokane Community College Office of Institutional Research. Good but I could not find contemporary graduation rates, a rather important metric to understand how they are doing.
  • Eastern Washington Office of Institutional Research.

All of the above provide great templates for local government, other agencies and organizations to use in designing their own ways to improve their sharing of data with the public.

Recommendations 2: Part 1

This seems obvious but it is not yet widely adopted:

  • Use existing web sites to deliver the raw data and information directly to the public
  • Provide data tables in downloadable formats for public access
  • Present all data in readily accessible charts
  • Provide an explanation for the data – how was it measured, acquired, and why is data available only for the selected dates.

I worry that we may not see many charts from local agency and organization web sites today because they never created them for internal use either. They could be managing in the dark, making decisions without access to critical information, and making less than ideal choices.

Part 2 will look at great ways to “hide the decline”. When stuff goes south, there are many tricks to use to hide that from the public. Part 2 will look at some local examples.

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