Two New Jersey municipalities are using a data dashboard to track departmental performance and showcase their work to the public. Franklin Lakes and Millburn are both using a data tracking and visualization tool called Public Performance Dashboard, created by Revelstone, a startup launched in 2011 and assisted through Code for America’s Accelerator in 2012. The tool is giving local governments the opportunity to ask questions and change things for the better.
The dashboard enables governments to easily open their data and share it with citizens to build trust, said company co-founder Mark Nelson. “The dashboard is a website that provides a window into the operations of municipal services and delivers easily read trend charts of key performance data,” Nelson said in an email to Government Technology. “For example, you can view trend charts of the number of fire calls, fire inspections and education outreach events that may be keeping fire calls low. In public works, citizens can understand the change in tree canopy by viewing the number of trees planted versus those removed or the relationship of the tons of recycling collected versus tons of garbage collected. This information can help citizens be more informed and make their own evaluations on how their taxpayer dollars are being spent.”
Millburn was approached by Revelstone to become a beta member in 2012, said Alex McDonald, assistant business administrator for the township. “Our administrator is very interested in performance measurement and was thrilled at the idea, so we went with Revelstone to be a beta.” Since starting in 2012, Millburn has kept the system inward-facing, just recently opening the data to the public on Aug. 1.
“It’s been a good experience. We’ve involved in a variety of our departments, anywhere from public works, police, fire,” McDonald said. “We’ve really got buy-in from our departments in that performance measurement isn’t as scary a thing as some people may think. The goal was getting departments to look at how they operate and ask questions of specific data. This gave us the ability to do that where departments choose things they were interested in measuring and wanted to take a harder look at.”
Opening the data was easier for some departments than it was for others, McDonald said. One of the best examples, he said, came from an idea suggested by a public works employee who spends many days checking the pump stations for sanitary sewer water. The worker suggested putting rainwater gauges at each pump station to measure the flow rate. The program enabled the township to do that, and now it has more than two years of data that will show where there are problems with rainwater infiltration, McDonald said.
For police, getting the data out was easy, he said, because they began by picking information from the Uniform Crime Report and plugging it into the Revelstone tool. “It was just a matter of putting it in a clean, concise place instead of maybe an Excel spreadsheet that got updated every once in a while," McDonald said. "This was a new home for the department data to then be able to quickly put a view together or for everybody to see that data."
Using the Public Performance Dashboard is intuitive and fairly easy, McDonald said. The township gave each department access to the dashboard’s back end and the freedom to update the information on their own. Much of the information found on the website is generated automatically by the tool and customized by the municipality. Both Franklin Lakes and Millburn plan to update their data on a quarterly basis, according to Revelstone.
The dashboard is licensed as a software-as-a-service model, with the monthly subscription based on population size of the municipality. Millburn pays $3,900 for the service annually, according to the township.
The dashboard hasn’t been available to the public long, so Millburn hasn’t gotten any feedback yet, McDonald said. But he expects people will talk about it once departments start changing their operations based on the performance monitoring and posting the results. Ultimately, he said, the dashboard’s purpose is to prompt questions and improve how the township works.
“We all measure in some way, shape or form in government — some of us better than others and certainly some of us more than others,” McDonald said. “This program gives you the ability to put it all in one place and bring everybody together under the same umbrella of measuring data and performance and taking a look at the whole picture, department by department.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.