Dashboard dream and data dysfunction

The dashboard as a concept became popular in the mid-nineteenth century as a defence for mud splashing up onto a carriage’s occupants. Later, automobiles retained the protective feature but used this space to co-locate a variety of gauges so that the driver had a ‘one stop shop’ overview of core component activity.

In modern cars, with dashboard controls looking more like a pilot’s flight deck, there is ongoing and early notification of a change or a problem. With the amount of technological monitoring there is also the ready availability of diagnostic analysis and tuning, to use machine data to dynamically assess and fine-tune for optimum performance.

When the Ford Model T was first launched in 1908 it had just one instrument on its dashboard – the ammeter – so even your speed or how much fuel you had back then was down to driver guesswork! If the car broke down, there was no diagnostic history data to turn to, you simply had to go over the vehicle for as long as it took to try and find out what had gone wrong.

The reason for mentioning dashboards is to draw an analogy between driving and overseeing policing performance. If you have just one or two instruments you are limited in monitoring what is happening and spotting interdependencies. You are left with more guess work.

In cars, as the technology got more sophisticated, the overview in instrument panels progressed with it. Has that happened in policing?

How do you know what’s going on?

As in many large, complex organisations, policing has many interdependent things happening at any one time, and maybe as a social entity rather than a machine, its workings are perhaps even more subtle and complex than the most sophisticated car or plane. But the fundamental issue of ‘how do you know what’s going on?’ (in real-time) cuts across the metaphorical analogy.

The dashboard data dream for policing could presumably offer a view of how all the various interdependencies at any one time were performing, and also offer an automated diagnostic and analytic capture to inform problem solving and performance enhancement.

Just like in a car or a plane. The concept has been around for a while now.

Is it that policing has perhaps too little data to be coordinated into a dashboard? So it’s hardly worthwhile having a dashboard for?

That doesn’t appear to be the case. Conversely, it seems policing, like many large, complex organisations are swimming (maybe drowning) in data streams. So the reservoir of data isn’t the issue then – there’s plenty of it.

Is the issue then how to channel it to a place where it can be overseen? To an extent, but that’s not the main issue. The dysfunctionality of systems is the reason the policing dashboard is but a dream still: lots of systems talking different languages leaving the operational world trying to work despite little joined-up data, rather than being supported and informed by it.

As we’ve already discussed, the interdependencies that are collated in a dashboard (like a plane cockpit) are critical to both real-time decision making and debrief analysis. If the dashboard principle collation didn’t exist it would be like having an irritating chaos of jigsaw pieces: data dysfunction.

Without the dashboard, metaphorically, policing has to go under the hood at regular intervals to check if things are OK and whenever there is a breakdown. It means overviewing performance is way more hard work than it should be, and makes optimisation even harder.

In a dashboard, the autonomous data streams converge into a cohesive monitor, that allows real-time observation and inform decision making. It means a driver can keep an eye on performance and focus on driving, rather than worrying if things are perhaps going wrong.

Dashboards are a simple concept. To make a good dashboard means you need engineering that brings multiple sets of data to a nexus point.

What’s the opposite of a dashboard? Chaos maybe? Everything in those individual bits and pieces will still be there, doing its own thing, but you just can’t see the picture (quickly or maybe at all) or it takes an age to find things out and piece an overview together. You’ve probably got some good intuitive hunches about what might be happening but might be frustrated you can’t quite put your finger on the data when you really need it. Does this resonate in policing?

Dream it, design it, do it

Steve Jobs was one of those pioneers in innovation who pursued end user concepts first, thereby driving the science and technology to catch up (rather that the technology driving the concept – which can be very incremental, limiting,  unambitious and slow). Kennedy’s insistent push for the Moon landing was the same notion – engineers were asked to find a way and fast.

Maybe here we need a conceptual innovative leap to find a way to make that policing dashboard a real-time reality, to alert and inspire a fresh generation of engineers to make it happen?

John Coxhead is Visiting Professor of Policing Innovation and Enterprise at Loughborough University and founder of the UK national Innovation in Policing competition. j.coxhead@lboro.ac.uk