The Longest Chart

CapMetro should release monthly ridership, financial, and performance data in an analysis-friendly format.

phx-ridership-reports

Phoenix’s transit agency releases monthly ridership reports

What data is useful?

One can quickly tell if a public sector organization is committed to transparent performance management by the quality of their public reporting. My personal “brown M&M” test for data usefulness is looking for the number of longitudinal trend charts in an organization’s highest-tempo report.

Unlike a report that provides snapshots of current conditions for a metric (e.g. “How many people rode the bus this month?” “How many property crimes were reported this quarter?”), longitudinal data empowers the reader to quickly determine if performance is improving, steady, or worsening.  Proper visualization of data makes it easier for the report consumer to figure out the trajectory of an organization’s performance (e.g. “Are more people riding than the same month last year?” “Is property crime up compared to last month?”).

The tempo of reporting is also a good tell on how important data-driven management is to an agency.  If they don’t have the capacity to assemble basic reports for the public, then they probably can’t do it for themselves, which means they can’t manage from data.  For some metrics, such as school attendance, daily data can be essential in fielding timely interventions before it’s too late.  But not all metrics require that level of granularity.  At the same time, its odd to find an important performance indicator that isn’t useful at a monthly granularity.

The format of reporting is also indicative of the culture of a public sector organization.  PDFs filled with charts at least provide the public with some basic information, but make any analysis or synthesis labor-intensive. The reader is left guessing at the precise units instead of being able to copy-paste them or write software that can easily crunch them. Providing source data, either through CSV files or through an API is much better.  Web applications with query functionality can be helpful (and potentially scrape-able). But if the querying is convoluted or the application is unstable, it can be worse than just uploading PDFs.

Can transit agencies feasibly provide useful data?

As the image at the beginning of this entry highlights, peer agencies to CapMetro are certainly capable of providing monthly reports for high volume data such as ridership counts for bus routes.  CapMetro presently does not do that.  Within its main monthly report – known as the ‘Monthly Financial Status Report’ – CapMetro doesn’t always provide contextualized trends.  This is a snapshot chart from the latest available report, dated November, 2014.

expenses-snapshot-11-14So salaries are under budget this month…but were they last month? Last year? What’s the trendline for the last 24 months? Certainly, the agency CEO and the Board are probably well aware of the answers to the questions.  But these are public documents that will be consumed at different times by media, transit activists, NGO analysts, Council aides, and other civic stakeholders.  The reporting could be a lot more helpful in answering the basic questions all of these report consumers will have.

Similarly, from time to time CapMetro will arbitrarily drop coverage of an important metric. For example, historically, the subsidy per passenger by service was featured in the monthly financial report.  It is a crucial indicator in determining the productivity of each service; it should be reported at the route level, which CapMetro hasn’t done in several years. Mysteriously, the aggregated version of the metric vanished in October of 2013 as the Project Connect process geared up.  Here’s the last one provided by CapMetro in the monthly reports:

rider-subsidy-by-service

Moving forward, it would be more collaborative if CapMetro publicly engaged its Board, its Customer Service Advisory Committee, the City’s Urban Transportation Commission, and representatives from stakeholder groups in making determinations about which metrics to cover and which to cut.  Further, the CapMetro Board should engage these entities in developing additional reporting, particularly for basic performance metrics such as ridership, timeliness, and safety.  The Board should also consider developing documents that impress upon City Council the importance of transit-supportive density, such as a “heat map” of parcels within walking distance to frequent transit that are low density.

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