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Smart cities with urban dashboards

By Emma Crameri

Urban dashboards are online systems and digital signage that present a user-friendly visual display of information which consolidate complex data into easy-to-understand visual elements. They may include elements such as graphs, donut charts, histograms, gauges, maps, interactive elements, and statistics. They can display data from sensors and video from cameras. 

Urban dashboards can provide citizens with a real-time snapshot of data about where they live. They have a range of different uses and these depend largely on whether there are reliable data sets available, and if the data sets are proprietary owned or not.

They come in two main forms: one version that it is used internally as part of a control and command centre, and the second version displays urban data as is as a civic engagement tool. 

Global urban dashboards

Dashboard are becoming increasingly popular around the world. 

The City of Boston’s Mayor has the dashboards mounted on a wall near his desk to display a range of daily statistics, covering areas like public safety (and homicides), basic city services (potholes filled, graffiti removed, trash pickups missed, street lights repaired), human services and economic development. 

London’s City Dashboard features live information on weather, air quality, train status, traffic cameras, as well as local news and Twitter feeds. 


The Dublin Dashboard provides real-time information, time-series indicator data and interactive maps about aspects of the city. This is a publicly accessible dashboard that provides intelligence to help citizens and the city staff know and understand the city. It consists of a series of webpages which visualise data to provide real-time and administrative data about Dublin. The web application uses open source technologies, which has resulted in an affordable solution. 

Glasgow City allows users to personalise the data shown on their dashboard based on the user’s interests and preferences. 

Here are some other examples of dashboards with their websites which are leading the way: 

Benefits of Dashboards

The benefits of urban dashboards are:

  • Establishes trust between the city and the residents with data transparency
  • Useful tool for encouraging and facilitating civic engagement
  • Provides useful information to citizens, public sector works and companies
  • May lead to better decision making and risk management
  • Dashboards can be used as an educational tool
  • Real-time data for performance monitoring

Limitations of Dashboards

There are several limitations of dashboards including:

  • There is an enormous amount of data available, but it’s not practical to display most of it
  • Data may not be useful or can be misleading
  • Inconsistent data measurements, formats and data standards
  • Datasets often contain human error, bias, and may have little veracity
  • May not change behaviour unless it is supported by educational programs and user guides
  • Not all residents have access to a smartphone or the internet
  • Technology itself can’t solve complex, urban issues

Case study: Environmental dashboard

Every day each of us makes dozens of decisions that affect the health of our cities and environment.  Amazing things happen when an entire community can see a visualisation of their impact in real-time. 

For over a decade a team of staff and students at Oberlin College in Ohio, America have been perfecting The Environmental Dashboard. Dr John E. Petersen (Professor of  Environmental Studies and Biology), Dr. Cindy Frantz (Psychology) and Dr. Rumi Shammin (Environmental Studies) have teamed up with the local council to display environmental dashboards on digital signage throughout the community. The platform leverages social psychology, graphical design and the internet. 

The Environmental Dashboard ( shows a real-time display of electricity use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. These can be customised to a time period or a location, such as schools, homes, public facilities and businesses. 

The city of Oberlin dashboard

The online system aims to educate, motivate and empower citizens. While the overarching goal of the system is to encourage smart environmental decision making. 

A map of the town visually shows the flow of water from the river and water treatment plant to the major buildings in the town. Another map shows where the wastewater goes. It is also possible to see the real-time usage rates of electricity and water through the entire city as well as in numerous monitored buildings.  

Oberlin has placed digital displays of the dashboards in various spots around town, including at a café, the local library, a hotel lobby, city hall and finance office, in dormitories of the Oberlin College campus, and all of the local schools. The dashboards display the personalised energy and water use of the buildings in which they are placed. 

The information is displayed on large screen televisions to show the real-time statistics. Graphs, colour coding and cartoon characters provide users with visual feedback. The data can be displayed for today, a week, a month or a year and with two-hour increments. 

There are gauges to show the current rates of resource consumption in the community, including: 

  • Electricity – total amount of electricity consumption (per resident), amount of electricity used for water treatment, amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere as a result of electricity usage; Current outside air temperature (as this influences the heating and cooling and as a result electricity consumption) 
  • Water – total amount of piped fresh water (per resident), total amount of wastewater being treated, amount of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) released into the atmosphere per resident as a result of electricity used to clean both drinking water and wastewater, and reservoir storage
  • Watershed – current depth of water in major watershed areas, dissolved oxygen, turbidity (water clarity), pH and dissolved solids
  • Weather – air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and precipitation. 


Environmental Education

The main benefit of the Environmental Dashboard is that it allows complex data to be repackaged in a graphical way that is readable to members of the community, including primary school age and kindergarten children.

In the classroom, the dashboards can facilitate conversations about where their water comes from, resource consumption, and what are some conservation methods that can be implemented. 
The local schools compete in an annually run program called Ecolympics. The competition aims to reduce their percentage of electricity and water use. Teachers encourage the students to come up with innovative strategies. 

The college dashboards aim to capture and translate technical data on campus resource use into non-technical information that engages, motivates and empowers sustainable behaviour.


Impact on the City of Oberlin

Dr John E. Petersen says, “Our team of faculty, students and collaborators from the City of Oberlin has been committed to research as well as technological development.  We conducted extensive surveys of residents in each location that we intended to install the digital dashboard signage and then resurveyed in these same locations three years after the dashboards were installed. 

The interesting thing is that most people do not report that they spend very much time looking at the signs.  And yet the results of our surveys demonstrate that community members in this locations are now significantly more aware of where there resources are coming from, more aware of the consequences of resource use and have a better appreciation of the ways in which community members are taking action to move the community towards sustainability.

 Our research also demonstrates that “Ecolympics” resource reduction competitions in the public schools on at Oberlin College that we use environmental dashboard to promote have resulted in significant reductions in water and electricity use.  Participants also report learning new habits that they report they are now continuing to employ without the competition. 

From a psychological standpoint, one of our core goals is to promote ‘systems thinking’ skills – the ability to see an expanded degree of connections within cities and to perceive oneself as on important agent of positive change.”

It would be great to add recycling statistics, humidity, air pollution, fire danger. The screens could also show examples of people who are demonstrating good environmental practices via social media. This user generated content can be displayed as a curated feed or by a dedicated hashtag.

The Environmental Dashboard concept has expanded to other communities like Cleveland and Toledo Ohio, DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, Antioch College and Yellow Springs, Ohio and Albion College and Albion, Michigan in America.

Urban dashboards will increasingly become an important tool for local governments to communicate with their residents, providing an open, transparent and real-time solution for public administration. Watch this space. 



Local Government Association of Queensland
LG House, 25 Evelyn Street, Newstead Qld 4006


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