At Summersault, we’ve got a strong appreciation for the value of making good decisions based on good data. In building high tech tools or proposing solutions to our clients` technical problems, it can be tempting to make a choice based on a single example case or a speculation about how things work: “I got lots of website traffic on the day I blogged about monkeys, so I will convert my entire blog to be just about monkeys!” Sometimes these choices can even be the right ones, but sometimes the absence of good data can mean uninformed or even disastrous decisions (“was it really the monkey blog entry, or was that also just the day your site was featured on another website?”). We know that over time we can make even better choices based on measurable trends and performance indicators.
For many organizations, the challenge of making good decisions based on good data starts with finding out how to get access to the data in a convenient, consolidated way in the first place. Sure, you can get last quarter’s figures on where your sales leads or website visitors came from, but if you have to ask someone to poke around in a database or read confusing reports to make it happen, are you really going to look at those numbers as often as you should? Probably not; we can be lazy creatures, and if we have to work too hard to get information, we often won’t bother, even when it would be useful. Good decision-making tools are the ones that let you dig deep when you need to, but otherwise focus on giving you the “executive summary” view in the form of a dashboard you can take in at a glance.
This is why some of us at Summersault have been yearning for our own highly visible office “dashboard” for a while now. Ever since seeing Panic, Inc.’s Panic Status Board in 2010 and various derivations of the same concept, we’ve been plotting to make our own a reality.
I’m happy to announce that the flagship version of the Summersault Status Board (a.k.a. the “panic board”) is now up and running:
The status board shows us – in a prominent, easily digestible way – things like:
- Number of technical support tickets in various states of needing attention
- How we’re doing in meeting our work goals for the month
- The mood in the office (a happy-sad meter powered by staff quick-surveying throughout the day)
- Upcoming office meetings and events
- Tweets by staff members
- Trends in visitor traffic to our company website as well as social media engagement
- Number of open sales prospects
- Number of active client projects
- Recent acknowledgements of above-and-beyond individual performance
- Local news headlines
- How many days until features need to be finished to be included in an upcoming code launch
- Recent programmer contributions to the source code tree for a client project
- A pie-chart breakdown of how we’re spending our time on a given client project
- How long since a bug has made it into the production version of a website for a given project
Every organization is going to have different “key performance indicators” and other information they want to track, these are just some of the things that we thought might be useful for our staff to be aware of as they wander around the office. Some folks here are already reporting that an increased awareness of some of these statistics are helping inform their daily work in new and useful ways.
Sure, you could ask everyone to read a report on a web page, or sure, you could send it out in a daily e-mail, but it’s a lot more fun to put it up on a big screen! (And it shows our office visitors that we’re not just sitting around checking Facebook all day.)
Here are the tools we used to create the Summersault status board:
The data being aggregated comes from a lot of different systems, some on our network, some at third party websites. We created an internal central database where the information can be stored in summary form for re-use in the status board. In most cases we have custom Perl scripts that regularly update that central database from wherever the data originates, adding new information as it changes.
To visualize the data, we’re using Geckoboard, a great web application that has really taken off in 2011. It has a wide variety of built-in “widgets” (numbers, percentages, charts, green-amber-red indicators, RSS feed readers, Google Analytics, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and with add-on tools like Geckofuel, you can extend the functionality even more. Many of our widgets are just a number with a label, but we have started to make more creative use of some of the other visualizing options. We currently use two “dashboards” that automatically rotate, one for general-purpose company data and one for a specific client project.
Geckoboard polls a custom Perl CGI script that talks to our internal database and returns our data in the JSON or XML format that Geckoboard wants. (They’ve done a good job of thinking through API key access options for such things, so your data isn’t available to just anyone.) Geckoboard has a few bugs to work out, but their support team has been responsive and helpful.
To display the data in the office environment itself, we’re using a Sony NSX-32GT1 32-Inch TV that has the Google TV system already installed on it. This allows us to have a display and computer/web browser all in one low-power device (estimated at $30/year in energy usage). It really did just work right out of the box, with a little configuration to tell the included Chrome browser to load our Geckoboard URL at boot time. We mounted the TV on a Peerless flat panel display stand. (From what we can tell, at under $800 in total startup expenses this is a much more flexible and lower cost solution than some of the other display boards out there, where the cost of the display itself is over $1,500, and that’s before you attach a computer with a fancy graphics card to it.) We may eventually add more display locations, but staff also have the option of visiting the Geckoboard display on their own workstation computers.
That’s the Summersault status board. If you create your own status board, let us know what tools and hardware you end up using, and post a link to the result!
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