Articles

Dashboard Software Helps Parks District Boost Performance

The Park District for Oak Park, Ill., has found that dashboard software has boosted performance and efficiency, thanks to its enhanced reporting tools.

by / June 2, 2015
Austin Gardens Park in Oak Park, Ill. Flickr/ Kevin Zolkiewicz

Oak Park, Ill., is one of the most densely populated cities in the country, and has just 82.5 acres of park within its 4.5 square miles. With a population of more than 52,000, Oak Park is well below the national average of park acreage per resident. That puts a lot of pressure on the Park District of Oak Park — a special district separate from the municipal government — to get the most out of the assets it has.

Maximizing the park system is a priority, according to Bobbi Nance, project manager for the Park District. “It’s critical that we have a good understanding of what our residents need and how well we are serving them,” she said. Despite the park district’s small size, it has 50 full-time staff and 400 part-timers who oversee Oak Park’s programs, parks and facilities.

One big problem has been understanding what residents need in terms of park services, and whether or not the existing services were performing well. For example, there was the lack of detailed feedback as well as up-to-date data on the performance of program registrations, participant satisfaction and budgetary trends. 

Historically, the Park District tracked performance by collecting data via Excel documents. One person would manually input information, and then a group of employees would meet to talk about the results on monthly basis.

“The person who was in charge of this heard about the use of dashboards and wanted something that was going to be more practical,” Nance said. “We determined it would be better to find a tool where the software would do the collecting and displaying for us.”

Enter iDashboards, a provider of data visualization software that helps organizations gather data into one location. It also allows decision-makers to drill down into key performance indicators to identify trends and make decisions quickly and efficiently.

One important performance measure the Park District tracks with iDashboads is the quality of its park maintenance and infrastructure. Putting pressure on this key indicator was the recent news that the district can no longer count on $1.34 million in state grants it was expecting to receive for upcoming park improvements. But the new software has pulled data from the Capital Improvement Plan, which has helped ensure that those areas needing the most attention are still addressed.

The dashboard has also brought a degree of transparency to the Park District, as well as a detailed understanding of just how the parks' $15.3 million annual budget is used. “With pending legislation at the state level regarding permanent property tax freezes and financial transparency, we are much further ahead of other local governments in understanding how it will affect us and also in our ability to respond,” said Nance.

In the last year and a half, district leaders have expanded measurements so that anything can be tracked. More than 80 percent of today’s performance measures were not formerly items tracked on Excel.

“The biggest expansion has been getting an organization-wide view,” Nance said. “There are certain tasks within departments, and so we’ve been able to customize the dashboard so that the data people see is based on what is important to them. Our staff is all getting the same picture but they’re seeing it in a way that’s supports their job no matter where they are in the organization.”

For example, the district was able to look at one of its dashboards and learn that it was five passes short of meeting its annual target for passes sold. This information was shared with staff at the customer service desk.

“They got really excited,” Nance said. “When they’d sell a pass, they’d call and say, ‘We got one more for you!’ The dashboards are best used when the entire agency has access to it and sees the roles they play in helping the organization achieve its goals. Formerly, there was no way that the information would filter down.”

The work at the Park District directly impacts the lives of its community. Nance said that the parks are one of the top reasons people choose to live in Oak Park, making it important to track customer feedback about park facilities. By monitoring feedback about safety and security, district employees can respond before an incident occurs. With the help of iDashboard, the district can easily look at survey information and respond by engagement with the community.

The iDashboard can display data in real time from various data sources in a single location and allows for detailed permissions and access control. Users, such as the Park District employees, can create custom dashboards, set up “what-if” analytics, enable alerts and generate reports based on the data within a dashboard.

“The biggest thing that iDashboards has going for it is that it can do anything,” Nance said. “If our staff asks a question, there is not one single pre-determined metric.”

Park District leadership will measure the return on its investment with the software itself via a performance measurement report. This report tracks how many of the district’s measures met the target.

“We can never know with certainty that the dashboard attributed to achieving a specific metric,” Nance said, “but we can see where the things that we’re measuring are improving.”

In the district’s first year of using iDashboard, it came close to or met 70 percent of its performance measures.

Some of the improvements from the dashboard software include:

  • A time savings of three to four hours per month from reductions in manual work spent creating financial reports.
  • The Park District saves two hours every week with better access to information to determine which parks programs and facilities need marketing support the most.
  • An estimated six to 15 hours of labor saved for every annual report produced about individual programs and facilities.
  • Daily access to data about facility visitors, concession sales and program registration. Previously, the information existed in separate software programs.
  • Overall, the Park District is tracking five times as many data points as was possible without the dashboard. Nance estimates it would take an additional 1-2 full-time positions to track the amount of data they are capable of handling with the software.

“Ultimately,” Nance said, “there’s a huge savings in staff time, ease of reporting and something that we might not think of: having a culture where everyone understands what our strategic initiatives are and that we’re all working toward the same goals.”

Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.