Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard

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Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard
Mission Control Center, Houston, 1965 // Photograph © NASA
Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard
Mission Control Center, Houston, 1965 // Photograph © NASA

We know what rocket science looks like in the movies: a windowless bunker filled with blinking consoles, swivel chairs, and shirt-sleeved men in headsets nonchalantly relaying updates from “Houston” to outer space. Lately, that vision of Mission Control has taken over City Hall. NASA meets Copacabana, proclaimed the New York Times, hailing Rio de Janeiro’s Operations Center as a “potentially lucrative experiment that could shape the future of cities around the world.” The Times photographed an IBM executive in front of a seemingly endless wall of screens integrating data from 30 city agencies, including transit video, rainfall patterns, crime statistics, car accidents, power failures, and more.

Futuristic control rooms have proliferated in dozens of global cities. Baltimore has its CitiStat Room, where department heads stand at a podium before a wall of screens and account for their units’ performance. The Mayor’s office in London’s City Hall features a 4×3 array of iPads mounted in a wooden panel, which seems an almost parodic, Terry Gilliam-esque take on the Brazilian Ops Center. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned an iPad app – the “No. 10 Dashboard” (a reference to his residence at 10 Downing Street) – which gives him access to financial, housing, employment, and public opinion data. As The Guardian reported, “the prime minister said that he could run government remotely from his smartphone.”

This is the age of Dashboard Governance, heralded by gurus like Stephen Few, founder of the “visual business intelligence” and “sensemaking” consultancy Perceptual Edge, who defines the dashboard as a “visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.” A well-designed dashboard, he says — one that makes proper use of bullet graphs, sparklines, and other visualization techniques informed by the “brain science” of aesthetics and cognition — can afford its users not only a perceptual edge, but a performance edge, too. The ideal display offers a big-picture view of what is happening in real time, along with information on historical trends, so that users can divine the how and why and redirect future action. As David Nettleton emphasizes, the dashboard’s utility extends beyond monitoring “the current situation”; it also “allows a manager to … make provisions, and take appropriate actions.” ….

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