Tracking Australia’s largest cities

We’ve released a new dashboard that tracks the performance of Australia’s largest cities. Product manager Mariam Ibraheim shares the story of how it was developed.

Tracking Australia's largest cities

The dashboard team has been hard at work designing and building a way to display key information and statistics about the largest cities in Australia.

Drawing on our expertise in user-centred design, we worked with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to bring to life around 50 data sets from across 21 cities and one region.

The National Cities Performance Framework Dashboard tracks the similarities and differences between our cities on measures like planning, housing, education and employment — and will help government understand which cities are performing well and which cities need more support.

The dashboard is simple to use, accessible and provides open and transparent information. Users are able to explore data about a specific city or compare how cities perform on a like for like basis.

We had a tight timeframe to build the first iteration of this dashboard. A multidisciplinary team of digital and data visualisation experts — developers, a user researcher, interaction designer, business analyst, data visualisation expert and a product manager — released a working alpha in just over two months.

Starting with user needs

As always, we started this process by looking at what users of this dashboard would actually need.

Although we have already built a number of dashboards here at the DTA, finding a solution that allowed users to interact with statistical information about our cities in a simple and meaningful way was a new challenge for us. There’s no point in visualising a whole lot of indicators if no one can understand or make use of them.

Taking a truly user centred approach to product development is one of the key strengths of our Service Design and Delivery process. We made sure that we were testing with users at each step, to learn what worked and didn’t work, and made continuous improvements to the dashboard along the way.

While the data on the dashboard was collected to inform government policy, it has a lot of potential for use by researchers, journalists, industry groups and the public. So that’s who we spoke to as we moved through discovery and into alpha.

Taking on the challenge

So how did we make it easy for users to understand this large amount of data?

Through our research we learned that there was a strong user need to have a single point for information and statistics about our cities. They told us they wanted to see how their city was performing, but also how it compared to other cities.

So that was the brief that we followed, and we set off to create paper prototypes and quickly iterate from this starting point.

When we began to put the prototype in front of users, we heard immediate feedback like ‘why is this important to me’ and ‘I would be more interested in you showing me where services are in my city’. But as users continued to explore the prototype, they became more engaged in the information and the data being visualised and were able to better connect the dots and tell a story about their city’s performance.

Thinking about accessibility

In time, there will be more information about the smart cities, and that’s going to be really useful for people like myself. The smart cities idea has the capacity to really make huge changes for people with a disability.

Our Digital Service Standard not only puts the focus on users and their needs, it also puts a real emphasis on accessibility. For us that means that it was really important to build a dashboard that is accessible. This means building something that works for everyone, not just the majority of users.

To do this, we put the dashboard in front of real users who use assistive technologies. It gave us an opportunity to understand how those users navigated through the dashboard, and how well they could understand and interpret the data. We made sure to include descriptive text for screen readers, keyboard navigation, and colours that had enough contrast so that our dashboard meets WCAG 2.0 AA compliance.

The other thing that became really obvious to us was that the dashboard could have a real impact on people’s lives. The power of bringing rich information and statistics together in a way that was accessible, meant that people had greater access to information that was previously hard to find or is not made available to them in an accessible way.

During our accessibility testing, we spoke to a vision impaired user who found the experience of interacting with the dashboard good. He even thought the dashboard would be great for school children to use, as it gives them easy to digest and reliable information about cities around Australia.

We love hearing stories like this. It helps us to make sure we are continuing to iterate on our dashboard. In fact this is important for all of our dashboards — ensuring that all users not only have better access to information, but have a meaningful experience at the same time.

What’s next?

Now that we’ve delivered a working alpha product we’ll continue to iterate and update data as it becomes available. We also plan to extend the dashboard to include more sub-regions.

We’re proud of this alpha, and would really welcome your feedback. This helps us continually iterate and improve our dashboard.

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