Open Data Dashboard Helps Track Sustainability in Austin

Funded as part of the Austin Office of Sustainability’s operations, the dashboard served as a tool to unify sustainability efforts.

by / October 14, 2016

We are a nation of goal-setters — we set a goal, work toward it and track our progress until we reach it. From how many pounds we’ve lost to how much money we’ve saved, it’s how we learn to do better. The same is true at the Office of Sustainability in Austin, Texas, where officials recently launched a new dashboard to boost transparency and track citywide progress with sustainability initiatives.

Housed on the city’s website, the dashboard is an open data portal that covers information across about 50 performance indicators and is organized into 10 categories, including climate, built environment, ecosystems, food & health, zero waste, economy & creativity, water, mobility, equity & livability, and energy. 

Each category lists the city’s vision, goal and current performance based on four years of collected data. For example, the Climate section of the dashboard shares that the city’s goal was to “reduce the carbon footprint for the city of Austin operations to 51,913 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by December 2015,” and shows that the goal was achieved.

The dashboard also shares areas that need improvement; such as Zero Waste. The city fell short of its goal of 52 percent recycled waste, reaching just 21 percent waste recycled at city buildings. Each section also includes a link for individuals to explore the raw data to better understand where the numbers are coming from.

Funded as part of the Office of Sustainability’s operations, the dashboard served as a tool to unify sustainability efforts.

“Being transparent helps build trust in the community and helps our city managers now have a level of detail to make better data-informed decisions,” said Lewis Leff, senior business process consultant with the Office of Sustainability, adding that the dashboard also helps departments understand what officials mean by "sustainability."

"Understanding, educating and engaging departments helps to further enhance what we want to accomplish," he said. "If you don’t know where you stand, it’s hard to make progress toward goals and outcomes."

The new dashboard will help the city see where it stands much faster than ever before. Data will be updated on a monthly and quarterly basis, whereas the city previously had to wait a year before data was available. This fast turnaround is expected to improve performance results and shed light on areas the city needs to work on.

The dashboard, which launched in early October, is already having a positive impact, Leff said, by creating a large network where knowledge is shared.

“They like the connection back to the reports and goals and how we tied it back to policies and plans,” he said. “It’s starting that conversation with the community. We want folks to see the numbers and have them reach out with interest. Having the conversation is exactly what we’re after.”

Sustainability aside, a dashboard that highlights progress and performance gaps could be a potential tool for any city across the nation.

“It really does help to clarify for an organization what they track and what the community benefits are for those investments,” Leff said. “For mid-sized cities, a dashboard could be a great entry point to show what they’re requiring.”

Julia McCandless Contributing Writer

Julia McCandless is a journalist passionate about finding the story and telling it well. She currently works as a freelance journalist and communications expert in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and son.