Hyperlocal news dashboards

Can dashboards offer a framework to bring together hyperlocal data and storytelling for smart communities not just smart cities?

We all know how dashboards work. Most commonly they offer us an at-a-glance overview of the way our car is performing- real time feedback on speed and fuel levels. It’s a simple idea that scales i.e somewhere in an Airbus cockpit you’ll find a speed dial! So it’s no surprise that the principle and language of dashboards commonly appears in attempts to manage and monitor complex systems.

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City dashboards give an overview of the city predominantly driven by open and real-time data sources (Image from UCL’s Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis)

The Smart Cities movement is one area where dashboards have found a good deal of traction. These make use of the mix of sensor, real-time and open data that cities generate, giving an overview of way cities function.

However dashboards in this context can be problematic. Whilst smart cities dashboards offer a useful overview there is an argument that the picture they paint is at best never complete; at worst its not accurate. Dashboards are by their nature simulations. Can they really reflect the level of detail, the complexity and humanity, that makes a city work?

As part of the MediaMill project, the Solomon Dashboard was developed to try create a platform that would strike a balance between the representation of a place and its issues by mixing data and a more contextual approach. As well as a data components and a set of social media and aggregation tools, users can add text ‘stories’ allowing a more traditional format of storytelling that, when put together, echoes a similar structure to a hyperlocal news site.

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A mock-up example using the Solomon Dashboard showing a mix of data and text ‘stories’ on a page that echoes traditional hyperlocal news sites and smart cities dashboards.

From portal to hyperlocal service

This approach might at first glance, draw more from a portal design approach than a the data-driven approach of smart city dashboards. But combining data and storytelling in this way might mean a ‘smart village’ dashboard that balances the interaction of data with the context of local storytelling.

It also begins to open up opportunities for integrating personal data. In a world where smart technology and ideas of thequantified self are becoming the norm, why wouldn’t a local resident want their Strava data or smart meter output next to their local news? That may also begin to open up opportunities for sharing data creating shared data sets that could be used to lobby public bodies or even create a shared data resource.

Data can go a long way to help quantify a community but its not always the full picture. In the same way, the limitations of resources that often beset hyperlocal reporting can often mean opportunities to develop and explore are missed. Data and more directly data journalism and visualization are seen as a way to put that exploration and development into stories — dig deeper by digging into the data.

Like the first wave of online publishing tools that enabled hyperlocal and community sites, freely available tools to processes and visualize data are emerging and will take time to become as accessible as current publishing tools. But beyond the specifics of the tools (and in this case the Solomon platform and the Media Mill project), perhaps its useful to start to think about hyperlocal sites more as dashboards. How do we use the tools available to give people an at-a-glance idea of how their community is running?