StellaSpark has just released the very first version of its first product called StellaSpark Nexus: an open digital twin platform for the living environment. Nexus is intended for governments and utilities, enabling data-driven decision making. Time to explain a bit more about the rationale behind this product.
Data-driven decision making, say what?
Data-driven decision making means not relying on gut feeling, incomplete information, outdated facts or past experience when taking decisions, but instead relying on up-to-date facts. By doing so, one is likely to take better decisions, benefiting an organization in its entirety in the form of lower failure costs, higher overall quality of service and general cost reduction due to optimal timing of interventions. In reality, many organizations already work data-driven. It may however not look exactly how we want it. These days when a decision maker faces an important decision, the typical workflow is to ask analysts or hire external consultants to review the baseline situation, explore the decision space and evaluate the consequences of decision alternatives. This however comes at a cost, as even minor policy interventions or policy evaluations need to be backed up by extensive research and consulting projects, model studies and design reviews. Larger projects can take ages to complete for this reason alone. In such situations, it becomes tempting to save the effort and go for gut feeling or past experience instead. Due to the project-based way of working, it often happens that a detailed study is once conducted and hefty reports are written, only to become outdated just a few months later.
There is a clear reason for why this situation exists. The data that underlies useful information is normally stored in specialized software applications, inaccessible file formats or corporate databases. It is locked into departments of people who know how to use it, spread out over different parts of an organization. Unless you are a specialist, you won’t be able to access it in your day to day work. Organizations can only become efficient if data freely flows between those people that have it and those who need it. Data should flow in an organization like water; using it should be as easy as opening the tap. This is in fact similar to the way people themselves function. Our eyes, ears and nose are our specialized sensors, generating data about the world around us. Yet our mind does not process data from all these observations individually. Instead we instantly combine everything we see, hear and feel to get a complete picture of what’s going on. We then use that combined picture to consider and evaluate our options, decide, and move on to the next thing.
Obstacles for using information
In order to enable people in an organization to take most daily decisions in a data-driven fashion, one should take away any barriers currently in place to obtain relevant information. Information needs to be:
- Quick to access. When it takes half an hour to get information needed for a minor decision, it becomes tempting to save the effort take a decision right away. Nobody wants to first wait for a hefty software application to start, then navigate through a forest of menus and settings and search for the required data to finally get the information needed. When a question pops up during a meeting, when you have a busy daily schedule, or when someone is waiting for an answer on the other side of the line, you want the information in seconds, not minutes or hours.
- Reliable. When data drives your decisions, you want to be sure it is correct. The data source should be traceable, any subsequent calculation and processing methods transparent and tested, and the data visualizations up to date.
- Specific. The level of detail needs to match the nature of the decision. Information needs to tell you exactly what you want to know, nothing more, but also nothing less.
- Easy to interpret. Cryptic numbers are just as useless as a graph without units. Units of measurement and uncertainties should be clear.
- Complete. Needless to say, how can you take smart decisions if you only know half the story?
How can data-driven decision making help improve the quality of our living environment?
Decisions about the living environment have profound impact on people. If we build something big now, it is likely to stay there for the next 50 to 100 years. At least. Any decision about the living environment affects a community of people that live, work or recreate there. Decisions on this topic determine whether one has access to clean drinking water, whether one is condemned to be in a traffic jam for most of his career, and whether a child can play outside on a playground or not. Truth is, the quality of your living environment determines how likely you are to die from the effects of air pollution, how likely you are to get robbed on the street or die in a traffic accident.
Given that decisions in this domain carry so much weight, it makes sense that governments and utilities spend a lot of effort to ensure they make the right choices. But, revisiting the aforementioned criteria for true data-driven decision making, the current project-based consulting practice often produces answers in a rather slow fashion, delivering static reports that quickly become outdated once published (gradually getting less reliable as time passes). As traditional reports are limited to standard static paper print formats, a reader cannot play with the results interactively. Hence, results may be hard to interpret or lack sufficient detail for a reader.
In a data-driven way of working, real-time facts about the current situation are instantly available to a decision maker. Impacts of design alternatives or recently implemented policies are evaluated in near real time by using standardized calculation models, and results are presented to a decision maker in an interactive way. So the two crucial transformations here are to go (a) from the current project-based way of gathering and analyzing data towards continuous and automated data gathering and analysis, and (b) from static output (paper reports and pdf’s) towards presentation media that allow for instant access, user interaction and always up-to-date display of information.
Why StellaSpark Nexus?
StellaSpark enables governments and utilities to become data-driven organizations by offering a solution that connects existing data sources and makes them available through a single and secure online web application. This solution, called StellaSpark Nexus, also allows calculation models to be run on the incoming data stream, producing real time policy performance indicators, spatial interpolation and statistics from the base data. StellaSpark Nexus allows anyone in an organization to quickly look up information such as current condition of assets, neighbourhood livability scores, recent population growth rates, recent service interruptions, infrastructure locations and maintenance plans, thereby empowering all employees to do their work data-driven. Interested to know more? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.