Dan Greening is director of public sector at Tableau Software.
The DATA Act legislation means that federal agencies need to make their data open to the public: government leaders, watchdog groups, journalists, and citizen activists are demanding accountability and transparency. Everyone wants accountability into budget expenditures and mission success, and no one has a tolerance for fraud or inefficiency. This presents challenges for agencies that struggle to keep up with their data, much less share it publicly in a way that's timely and easy-to-use.
Thanks to data visualization software, such goals are easily in reach. While cumbersome spreadsheet tools tax the patience and eyesight of virtually everyone, data analysis software is designed with people in mind. The strengths and weaknesses of our visual processing systems inform every aspect of the software—using color, font size, page architecture, etc.—to make the viewing experience intuitive and pleasant, not painful.
Here are some specific ways data visualization can help share federal data in a transparent and accountable way.
Pick the most meaningful data and metrics
The public sector is one of the fastest growing industries with it comes to big data, so make sure you're not throwing every single scrap of data out there in a haphazard way. Information overload can overwhelm people and defeat the purpose of the open data movement. Instead, figure out the most important data, metrics, and case studies to showcase. Research to find out what people want to know. Be ready to adjust. If you throw everything at people, you've given them nothing.
Tell a story
Our brains think in stories: movies, TV shows, plays, and books tell stories, and so do advertisements, paintings, and conversations. We are narrative creatures. So don't let the narrative element slide when putting together data visualizations. Instead of expecting images or charts to stand alone, add some narration to help people understand the overall themes of the data. Data on its own can get lost. Data in a story can be unforgettable.
Think how boring a speech or one-way conversation can be. You don't want your data visualizations to have that mind-numbing effect, which you can avoid by giving people options to narrow or widen what they're looking at: data analysis software that allows for easy interaction and true collaboration creates a much more fulfilling experience. For example, dashboards created by the Department of Veteran Affairs use the power of interactivity to help allocate resources to veterans who need it most. Don't think of your data visualizations as one-way transmissions of knowledge. Give people options.
Make it accessible
Don't hide your portal in a labyrinth of links. Do extensive user testing and make sure it's easy to find. Also, publicize it. Use social media and email to let people know the portal is available. It's not open data if it doesn't turn up on search engines or takes a degree in computer science to use.
Of course, you want to make great visualizations of your data that ordinary citizens can easily access and use, but that's only the half of it: good data analysis software should also allow everyone in your agency to get their hands dirty with data, not just trained analysts or the IT department. This is a huge improvement on past practices. Instead of waiting days or even weeks for the IT folks to come up with a report, the people who need to use the data can get the answers they need now.
The revolution of data democratization has come along at the perfect time: just as the DATA Act is demanding open data. But that demand can't be answered by staying stuck in old ways of analyzing and publishing data. You must be willing to try new software that allows everyone—department leaders, co-workers, employees, and the public—easy access.
When you embrace what data analysts software allows you to do, create, and share, you'll see that open data isn't a scary new world: it's a much-improved world where everyone can use the data they need.