This week’s topic explores how cities use ‘dashboards’ to collect, analyse and display data in various ways.
Kitchen et al (2015: 6-7) set the scene:
“Since the early 20th century, social and economic indicators, such as unemployment rate [and] inflation […] have been used by governments to assess how a nation is performing (Godin, 2003). Likewise, in the post-Second World War era, many supranational agencies […] measure, collate, and track the performance and productivity of various health, economic, and social phenomena across nations and regions.”
“Since the turn of the millennium, these indicator suites have been accompanied by numerous city benchmarking projects that compare and rank the relative performance of cities against one another. […] Whilst many urban indicator and benchmarking projects are relatively closed in nature […] there has been a recent move to open up the data underpinning indicators and share them with citizens through online, interactive data visualizations, often termed ‘city dashboards’”.
An example of such a dashboard can be viewed at https://data.london.gov.uk/ which describes itself as “a free and open data-sharing portal where anyone can access data relating to the capital” (London Datastore, n.d.). Figure 1 shows examples from the health section of this website, where data has been selected to support the Greater London Authority (GLA)’s promotion of London as a healthy place to live.
These graphs show a trend of life expectancy at birth being increasingly higher in London compared to England and Wales, and mortality rates declining and lower in London compared to England. It should be noted that data for Wales is only included for the life expectancy at birth comparison, even though mortality rates for England and Wales are publicly available from the Office of National Statistics. This raises the question of whether the GLA are distorting the image of London by excluding the Welsh mortality rates, to support their narrative.
An increase in childhood obesity is highlighted in the text about health, and the graph displays the data in an exaggerated way to imply that it is much higher in London compared to England. The scale used in different graphs are inconsistent. It may be highlighted to support a decision to prioritise work and funding for this issue. The tooth extraction for children graph lacks meaning as it has no comparison to other geographical locations or historic records, although it could be seen as being linked to childhood obesity if it is caused by an unhealthy diet. Kitchin et al (2015:14) note that “some municipalities use indicator and benchmarking initiatives to underpin forms of new managerialism, wherein they are used to guide operational practices with respect to specified targets and to provide evidence of the success or failure of schemes”.
Figure 1: Screenshot of some of the health data graphs displayed on https://data.london.gov.uk/
The data used by the GLA is selective, and the way it is displayed is inconsistent. According to Kitchin et al (2015:18), the “indicator, benchmarking and dashboard initiatives […] do not simply act as a camera reflecting the world as it is, but rather act as an engine shaping the world in diverse ways”. This dashboard demonstrates an attempt to influence people’s perceptions of London. By presenting the dashboards as factual evidence, the GLA is using data to give credibility to their claim that London is well governed and successful.
Kitchin, R., Lauriault, T.P. & McArdle, G., (2015). Knowing and governing cities through urban indicators, city benchmarking and real-time dashboards. Regional Studies, Regional Science, 2(1), pp.6–28.
London Datastore (n.d.), Greater London Authority (GLA). Available at https://data.london.gov.uk/