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Virginia DOT Shows What Visual Data Can Do

An award-winning prototype from a team at the Virginia Department of Transportation shows how emerging tools are bringing data closer to the people who need it.

Virginia is showing how to cut out the middle man when it comes time to finding answers in data.

In October, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) won a statewide competition for its data visualization project called TechCenter Virginia. The project was created in two days, and was launched as a public-facing prototype demonstrating one way the state can turn open data into something useful and accessible to everyone.

Hosted at, TechCenter Virginia uses a visual analytics platform from Tableau Software and shows why the state believes Virginia is a great place to work in technology. Through a series of data-rich maps and tools, the website demonstrates things like Virginia’s average Internet speed (fastest in the nation), low unemployment (lowest in the nation) and high median income (third highest in the nation). A school finder tool provides links to university websites, LinkedIn and admissions pages, while employee- and job-finder tools make use of data provided by job websites and allow the user to search narrowly by field.

The website is just an example of how the state might make better use of its data to accomplish a variety of goals, such as advertising the state to prospective students and employers, said VDOT Assistant Division Administrator Keith Donley, who also is the lead on the project.

“Gov. [Terry] McAuliffe, when he took over back in April, he proclaimed we should have this open data thing, so they started gathering up all the data that was available by the different agencies and put them in one place on,” he said.

While creating the visualizations with Tableau was fast and easy -- and Donley said he’s a proponent of the technology and open data in general -- he cited problems with trying to use government data and data from other sources in tools like the one he and his team developed. For example, when his team was grabbing tag data for the admissions page of each school to be used in the tool, they discovered there was no standardization, which made gathering the data difficult. Also, there was no promise that the information won’t change, which could lead to broken links in their tool. Greater standardization around open data could assist with that, he said. 

“The more granular you look at data, the more problems you see. The more use you try to get out of it, the more issues you have,” Donley said, adding that when some users began plugging their data into Tableau, they thought the tool was broken because it wasn’t displaying properly. But really,  the data was bad, he said – no one had ever looked at the data that thoroughly.

VDOT's Traffic Engineering Division tracks all traffic collisions in the state, about 120,000 annually. About 15 percent of the crashes are missing location data. “It’s driving people to look at their data, and they are cleaning it up," Donley said. "As a result, they’ve got to be making better decisions, because the data’s more accurate."

VDOT uses Tableau internally, and Donley said he thinks it could be used in more government offices to more closely connect decision-makers with the answers they seek. Christine Carmichael, head of marketing for government and education at Tableau, said VDOT is a great example of how data visualization is bringing data closer to the people who need it.

“You want nimble organizations, regardless of if you’re in the private sector or the public sector. And that means fast decision-making," she said. "We want to put the power of technology in the hands of all users throughout the organization … and that the information is presented in a way that is easily consumable and easily understood so that quick nimble action can be taken around it."

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.