In this issue, Swedish-Australian media theorist Nathaniel Tkacz discusses the essential characteristics of a dashboard and explains how this ubiquitous but overlooked ‘symbolic form’ for monitoring and understanding came to dominate the daily life of individuals, organizations, and firms, infiltrating both the sphere of work and that of leisure. The following text is an excerpt of Tkacz’s book Being with Data: The Dashboarding of Everyday Life, published by Polity Press in 2022.
Dashboards are generic digital artefacts that facilitate a specific relation to data. Dashboards and dashboard-like interfaces are everywhere, used all the time, by scientists, civil servants, economists, managers, factory workers; and by pretty much anyone who has a phone, tablet or personal computer. They are used for business, leisure and the murky in-betweens. Despite efforts by industry to sell them as part of broader visions of our data-driven future, it’s hard to get too excited by dashboards, comprised as they are of charts, graphs, tables, gauges and ‘key performance indicators’.
Cover of Being with Data.
You may already know what a dashboard is. If you hail from the overdeveloped regions or are otherwise connected to the digital world, you’ve almost certainly seen one and there’s a very good chance you’ve used one. Perhaps, like me, you have a line manager who uses them to oversee the performance of you and your co-workers, figuring you and them as lines on a graph or pieces of a pie chart. That is, perhaps dashboards know you even if you’re not properly acquainted with them. If you’re lucky, like me, your seniors will tell you about your dashboarded existence and you can look at it together; reflecting on how dashboards quantify the complexities of work; how they arrange and value your activities and outputs. Perhaps you’ve laughed at the shortcomings of dashboards or felt dismayed about a bad comparison or a low indicator.
In recent years, dashboards have been on the move. I first became interested in them around seven years ago. In what now seems like a more innocent time, politically speaking, I remember a colleague showing me a news article on then UK prime minister David Cameron testing a new ‘Number 10 Dashboard’. The first line of the article read: ‘David Cameron is testing an iPad app that helps him run the country.’1 The No. 10 Dashboard, readers were told, ‘lets Cameron and other ministers see key information at a glance’ and ‘keep track of live data relating to jobs, housing and other areas’.2 A Guardian article similarly reported that the No. 10 Dashboard ‘gives up-to-the-minute data about the UK’s economic and financial health, including GDP, bank lending, jobs and property data, as well as polling data and Twitter feeds’.3 From that point on, I started collecting materials relating to dashboards. I learned of the famous ‘Yellen’s Dashboard’ of Janet Yellen, then chair of the Federal Reserve in the US, for monitoring the labour market, with ‘a dozen of the most important measures of the economy’s vigor’.4 I saw many local councils experimenting with dashboards, quantified-selfers using dashboards, wearable fitness dashboards (such as the one I use while running), mood-app dashboards, pollution dashboards, finance dashboards, personal banking dashboards, voting dashboards – even an activist counter to the No. 10 Dashboard. Once I started paying attention, dashboards were everywhere. Before I knew it, I was knee deep in the business intelligence and analytics industry, where dashboards have been business as usual for a few decades. In a recent study of the proliferation of dashboards, Alper Sarikaya et al. note that while dashboards are ‘ubiquitous’ and ‘built and employed by nearly every industry, non-profit, and service organization to support data-driven decision making’, they are ‘rarely given … their due consideration’.5
Interactive rendition of Janet Yellen’s dashboard, by Lauren Nassef and Marcia Underwood. Source: https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/janet-yellens-dashboard/.
Being with Data is a book about dashboards, about what kind of thing they are and what they accomplish as they move across the social fabric, inserting themselves into different settings and contexts. It is about how they mediate our relation to data and how they leave their own mark on those data, formatting these in different ways. For the sake of clarity, I begin with a definition before furthering the case for placing dashboards at the centre of this inquiry. For a book about data and dashboards, this definition should be understood as more of a placeholder than the last word on the matter. Since dashboards are objects of visual perception, it makes sense to begin with a show-and-tell. Here’s a dashboard courtesy of the business intelligence company Qlik. It is suitably representative in its genericness. A web image search for *dashboard* confirms this.
Qlik’s example dashboard. Source: https://www.qlik.com/us/dashboard-examples.
A dashboard is first and foremost a visual display. What dashboards display are data, data formatted into specific numbers, words, colours and shapes. A dashboard is not a single visual representation, but a number of visual representations brought together, typically on a single screen. A bar chart may sit next to a scatter plot, below a map, above a key performance indicator (KPI) and so on. Dashboards gather data, often from disparate sources, and bring them into a relation. In order for something to be a dashboard, the visual elements need to be active (and possibly interactive). A poster is not a dashboard. Many data visualizations are not dashboards. A display of measures represented simply by numbers may be a dashboard, even if there are no graphs or gauges. Dashboards change over time. There is a temporality to them. They may strive to accomplish a ‘real-time’ liveliness, but the pace of ‘refreshing’ data varies depending on use. A final quality: dashboards are purposeful things, and their purpose is to enable a cognitive functioning. This is both entirely obvious – dashboards are made for a reason! – and in need of much further elaboration later (in what way are they cognitive?). For now, consider two definitions from within the industry. Stephen Few, who has made a career out of dashboard design, describes dashboards as a ‘single-screen display of the most important information people need to do a job, presented in a way that allows them to monitor what’s going on in an instant’.6 Steve Wexler and his co-authors offer the following: ‘A dashboard is a visual display of data used to monitor conditions and/or facilitate understanding.’ In common are not only a visual display bit and a data/information bit but also a function bit: ‘monitor what’s going on in an instant’ and ‘monitor conditions and/or facilitate understanding’.7 Dashboards are for monitoring and understanding. Condensed to the bare essentials, today’s dashboards are comprised of three things: display, data, cognitive function.
Screenshot of image search query results for dashboard.
Dashboards are worthy of attention because they are designed to produce precisely the relation or ‘way of being’ with data. The degree to which any particular dashboard realizes this relation is of course contingent and can only be determined empirically, but an attempt to do so is written into dashboard design. In fact, as I hope to show, it is in part through the development of the dashboard as a format that this particular way of being with data emerged. That is, the very idea that data can be brought together on a single display as a cognitive aid, and can change along with the unfolding of a situation, is heavily indebted to the format of the dashboard.8
Moreover, as data have spread further into the contours of everyday life, so too has the dashboard as a format. As recently as ten years ago, talk of dashboards was largely limited to the automotive industry and business/IT management. Following the development and general adoption of this format into new contexts, then, offers a different narrative line through the contemporary discourse on data. If we entertain the notion of a ‘data revolution’9 for a moment, dashboards are literally on the front lines of this revolution. They make this data revolution accessible and intelligible; they tame it, put it in context, give it form and make it useable. Without deflating discussions over AI and machine learning, or downplaying concerns over surveillance and profiling, what would it mean to put this ‘ubiquitous’ but overlooked actor at the centre of this data revolution? What kind of story might we tell if we focused on the most common ways that people consciously encounter data in their everyday lives?
Other Worlds is a shapeshifting journal for design research, criticism and transformation. Other Worlds (OW) aims at making the social, political, cultural and technical complexities surrounding design practices legible and, thus, mutable.
OW hosts articles, interviews, short essays and all the cultural production that doesn’t fit neither the fast-paced, volatile design media promotional machine nor the necessarily slow and lengthy process of scholarly publishing. In this way, we hope to address urgent issues, without sacrificing rigour and depth.
OW is maintained by the Center for Other Worlds (COW), at Lusófona University, Portugal. COW focuses on the development of perspectives that aren’t dominant nor imposed by the design discipline, through criticism, speculation and collaboration with various disciplines such as curating, architecture, visual arts, ecology and political theory, having in design an unifying element but rejecting hierarchies between them.
Editorial Board: Silvio Lorusso (editor), Francisco Laranjo, Luís Alegre, Rita Carvalho, Patrícia Cativo, Hugo Barata
More information can be found here.
Mark Prigg, ‘The iPM: David Cameron Testing “Number 10 Dashboard” iPad App to Help Him Run the Country’, Mail Online, 8 November 2012. ↩
Prigg, ‘iPM’. ↩
Charles Arthur, ‘David Cameron Tests Real-Time Economic Data App on iPad’, The Guardian, 8 November 2012. ↩
Brookings Institution, ‘Janet Yellen’s Dashboard’, Brookings (blog), 10 June 2014. ↩
Alper Sarikaya et al., ‘What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Dashboards?’, IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics 25, no. 1 (January 2019). ↩
Stephen Few, Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data. Cambridge, MA: O’Reilly Media, 2006, xi. ↩
Steve Wexler, Jeffrey Shaffer and Andy Cotgreave, The Big Book of Dashboards: Visualizing Your Data Using Real-World Business Scenarios (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2017), xiv. ↩
Of course, I do not presume that the dashboard is solely responsible for this idea. ↩
Rob Kitchin, The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014). ↩