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Cincinnati Uses Visual Dashboards to Demystify Government

CincyInsights, a new Cincinnati Web portal with 15 dashboards, uses city data in different ways to make city services more interactive and easy to understand.

It’s been a busy year in technology for the city of Cincinnati, which redesigned its permitting process and its website months ago. On Wednesday officials went live with their latest achievement, CincyInsights, a new portal to 15 different dashboards that educate and inform residents about their city.

CincyInsights aggregates information — trash collection, snowplow location, police calls for service — already available in Cincinnati’s open data portal, which launched about a year and a half ago. But it reconfigures that data into elements like heat maps and charts that are engaging, quickly relatable and more easily understood.

City Manager Harry Black, who was hired in September 2014 and created the Office of Performance and Data Analytics as well as CincyStat, which provides data on city services, said officials want to make government more useful and valuable to residents.This, he said, is what comes after the open data portal.

"It’s one of those things where it’s like when the whole open data portal movement started, people made this decision ‘Let’s build it and they will come.' But guess what? They have not come," Black said.

Black discussed the problem with Chief Performance Officer Leigh Tami and both agreed that more needed to be done. "Leigh and I had several discussions about this notion of the open data portal and I don’t think either one of us had gotten to the point of being impressed, even, with what we had. The question was how do we make this more valuable and more open and more relevant," he said.

Roughly six months and about $55,000 later, CincyInsights is the result. It's gotten around 3,000 hits in its first 24 hours, and visitors are already submitting ideas to the Viz of the Month, an icon on the portal's home page asking for ideas on what data sets Cincinnati should visualize next.

The first Viz of the month, suggested by a city intern, transforms census data into colorful charts and graphs explaining who lives in Cincinnati. Visualization software takes arcane or hard to connect data and makes it pop. The city's biggest challenge, Tami said, may have gone to its chief data officer, tasked with bringing in all that data.

A data stream that's getting traction with Ohio TV news is CincyInsights' new snowplow tracker, which lets residents see where plows have been and whether they’ve cleared a path to their doors.

City snowplows already had GPS trackers, but the new dashboard is based on information now pulled from Zonar, a fleet management company, which houses it. The data is updated every three minutes, when snowplows are active, to the portal, which is powered by Socrata.

Five staff workers and several interns handle the city's portal operations, a mix of on-premises and cloud operations.

Trash collection also is monitored on an interactive map that displays colored lines, which correspond to individual trucks, with updates every 10 minutes showing where trash has been picked up.

Other interactive data streams show the city's progress on filling potholes, and where police officers and firefighters have responded to calls.

Portal pages include a mix of narrative and links to newspaper articles, city apps and social media feeds, medical information and dashboards.

The Emergency Medical Services response data dashboard, linked from a page on the heroin epidemic, features a heat map plotting medical responses throughout the city. It's not all happy news but officials say making information palatable will help Cincinnati learn about itself.

"Really, the goal of CincyInsights was to create something people can access, but something they can also interact with," Tami said. "People consume information in the form of data and I think the fact that government is trying to adapt to that is really significant."

“Having this data at our fingertips will enable us to enhance City services and become a more efficient organization,” Mayor John Cranley said in a statement.

Black praised the mayor and the Cincinnati City Council for embracing data and technology, noting the issues of performance and data analytics had been raised when he interviewed for the city manager position.

"Once I realized there was interest in that here throughout the entire city, I realized there was a major opportunity for us," said Black, who applauded citizen interest.

"They get this whole data and performance thing," he said. "They like it, it excites them and they have an appetite for" it.

The new portal examines data via six categories, five of which are Black's priority goals first set forth in the one-page strategic plan forged during his first 100 days as city manager: safer streets; growing economy; thriving and healthy neighborhoods; innovative government; and fiscal sustainability and strategic investment.

These goals have been integrated into performance reviews and the city's budget development process, according to Black. They also should continue to inform Cincinnati's drive to become even more tech-savvy and in tune with its residents.

Now CincyInsights is up and running, officials aren't resting on their laurels. Next steps include fine-tuning its dashboards, bringing in more and better data, and creating a solid base of predictive analytics.

"We now need to begin to have an insatiable appetite for data from wherever it is, and pull in as much data from as many different sources as possible," Black said. "Particularly as it relates to these dashboards because we want to add layers to them."

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.