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Using Dashboards to Distill, Compellingly Sell Complex Sustainability Stories

From sustainability consultants to environmental compliance professionals, and from emissions or waste monitoring specialists to Vice Presidents of Sustainability, the challenge is the same: to tell their story. Perhaps the most difficult — and arguably the most important — part of their job is communicating: communicating with the media, with their executive team and in-house decision-makers, with professional partners, and with the general public.

The difficulty is that these sustainability stories are not easy to tell. They revolve around complex and sometimes abstract topics, and many sustainability metrics are notoriously difficult to visualize. You can’t see a carbon footprint or get a good feel for what a metric ton of greenhouse gases looks like, much less what it means in the big picture.

AdIronically, this area tends to have an abundance of high-quality data. The difficulty is not finding the information, but contextualizing that data, and presenting that data in a clear and compelling way.

That is where dashboards come in. Dashboards, which are visual displays designed to consolidate and contextualize essential information in a single place, can be an effective and engaging way to bridge the gap between information and communication. Whether you are making a point, making an impression or making a sale, visual media is a powerful way to connect with your audience by creating a visual narrative.

A thoughtfully designed, high-quality dashboard provides an efficient and effective way to present that visual messaging, and do so in a way that integrates a wide range of disparate data into a cohesive and coherent palette. Progress toward selected goals can be tracked, and custom metrics can be compiled in a way that is accessible, intuitive and visually appealing.

Beyond the aesthetic potential of this technology, dashboards provide a mechanism through which critical (and not always obvious) connections can be drawn between different variables. This ability to generate new insights from layering and connecting existing data is enormously important. For example, a large manufacturer could access a Google map image of all of the company’s different buildings and drill down into each one of them to view detailed granular data.

Today’s dashboards are not static displays, but interactive tools. Users can plot different data points and experiment by moving around different variables. The best dashboards have a predictive capability, with the ability to perform a “what if” analysis and predict how different changes will affect the overall picture. The result is not just valuable clarity, but invaluable context.

Consider the wide range of sustainability metrics that may be captured and presented via a custom dashboard:

  • Year-over-year reduction in carbon emissions;
  • Droughts and climate trends;
  • Utilities measurement, such as electricity usage and bills/costs;
  • Waste management (including recycling volume, landfill waste reductions, water waste/recycling, manufacturing waste, etc);
  • Community outreach and educational initiatives;
  • Building metrics and progress toward LEED goals and other benchmarks;
  • Creative ways to track how a company is marketing its sustainability efforts.

Take the real-world circumstance of the ongoing California drought. Understanding how water levels and precipitation trends are impacting the environment are critically important questions for many companies and municipalities. A California drought dashboard might include maps and information such as the percentage of the state currently experiencing drought conditions, snowmelt trends and the monthly water usage/availability by hydrologic region. The ability to overlay charts, break information down to usage categories like industrial, irrigation, livestock and personal use, and convey powerful messages through the use of before and after imagery makes for a powerful analytical and storytelling tool.

Dashboards are a natural fit for a professional segment that tends to be younger and fairly tech-savvy, people who are energized by using new and interactive technology tools for business purposes. Consider the advantages to a platform that enables users to log on via an iPad or other tablet device in the field, to utilize that same interface to run analytics or prepare presentations in the office, and to use those same ready-made visuals in the boardroom or at a press conference. The transparency and flexibility to monitor data and infrastructure alike means that users can essentially track anything from anywhere.

Convenience and efficiency are also important. For a Chief Sustainability Officer, the difference between getting handed a stack of spreadsheets (and then subsequently trying to analyze, summarize and present that information in a meaningful and compelling way) and simply opening up a dashboard that integrates multiple data streams from different sources in real time is profound.

The reason that sustainability perspectives have begun to gain traction at the C-suite level in recent years is because of the growing recognition that this is not a theoretical abstraction: These are issues that directly impact the bottom line. Conserving resources and minimizing waste saves time and money. Beyond the direct cost savings, the value in terms of positive publicity confers a major organizational benefit. It is simply good business. Yet, for all of this welcome focus on the bottom line and cost savings, many professionals that work in this arena do not see it as quite that cut and dry. The people and companies that create these programs, monitor them, hold their teams accountable and invest a great deal of resources do not view this as simply data to be sifted through. They view it as a story that needs to be told. Dashboards are a powerful and increasingly popular new tool that can help tell that story.

This article was contributed by iDashboards.

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