Data visualization in government

Ahead of his presentation at this year's Data Visualization Summit, we sat down with Andrew Aiton, data visualization manager for the Scottish Parliament


Data visualization is all about gaining a deeper understanding of collected data through visual means. It is a valuable tool in both the private and public sector because, whether it be to make a larger profit or figure out the best way to allocate resources to citizens, you first need to know what the data is indicating.

In the spirit of this and in anticipation to his presentation at this year's Innovation Enterprise's Data Visualization Summit, we spoke to Andrew Aiton, data visualization manager for the Scottish parliament to gain some insight into how they are using visualization to better the lives of the Scottish people.

Innovation Enterprise: How does the role of data visualization manager at the Scottish Parliament differ to similar positions at private organizations, and what does the role entail?

Andrew Aiton: It is probably quite similar in terms of the work, producing and overseeing the production of content. However, where it probably differs is that we work in a political environment. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) is there to provide factual, accurate and timely information and analysis to Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) in support of parliamentary business. We therefore have rigorous processes in place to ensure that what we produce is objective and impartial. When working for cross-party parliamentary committees, I sometimes have to make changes, at the committee direction, to ensure that all MSPs political stances are accommodated.

IE: What are some of the ways data visualizations have directly helped or led to societal changes in Scotland?

AA: MSPs are responsible for making the law of the land and we have a unique role in providing them with impartial research support and analysis. How we present data and information, and the accessibility of that has an important role to play in influencing their thinking and the direction of policy. We recently produced some visuals for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee for their inquiry into the gender pay gap. One of the key concepts to come out of the inquiry was the "leaky pipeline" – the points in a womans life where she is discouraged to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or maths. We produced a visual to explain this concept, allowing MSPs to reinforce the point visually in their report. During a parliamentary debate on the report, the deputy convenor highlighted the visual saying, "if people do not look at anything else in the report, looking at the infographic on [the leaky pipeline] is worthwhile." So, we are seeing evidence of our work being valued by MSPs, and used to emphasize key areas where they consider policy action is required.

IE: As a data manager for the Scottish Parliament for more than five years, you recently made the switch to data visualization manager; what can you tell us about what led to that switch and what are some of the most significant changes you've noticed since you changed roles?

AA: The switch came off the back of a report that I helped to produce, which looked at how the Parliament could make better use of data visualization. For the report, we spoke to all our internal offices in the Parliament, and a wide range of external experts in the public and private sectors. The key message internally was that staff wanted to do more data visualization and to do it better. So, we proposed setting up a small, flexible, dedicated team for producing visualizations. As well as the change in my role, we are also introducing a range of other staffing changes, and developing new templates and guidance. The main difference is that now my role focuses solely on data visualization and the implementation of the recommendations in the report. This involves going out and speaking to people to promote data visualization and the benefits it can provide.

IE: Who is your work predominantly directed toward and what type of data do you find yourself dissecting?

AA: Our main customers are the MSPs and their staff. But all our reports are available to the public on the Parliament’s website, we tend to find journalists using our material more and more. As data manager for the Financial Scrutiny Unit within SPICe, I mainly looked at economic and demographic data to produce briefings and inquiry responses. But in my new role, I will have a much wider remit, as I will be producing work on all subject areas in the Parliament, which could be areas like health, culture or climate change.

IE: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing any data visualization professional working in the public sector?

AA: As part of our report on the future of data visualization in the Parliament we went out and spoke to colleagues in other public-sector organizations. One of the most highlighted issues was that they find it difficult getting funding. This includes getting access to professional software and resources. But most have got around this issue by making use of open source software and resources like Inkscape, R or the Noun Project. But this brings other challenges as there are security issues when using programs like R, which means that they may not get the most out of these programs.

To find out more on how you can transform your data into actionable insights, see Andrew Aiton speak at Innovation Enterprise's Data Visualization Summit in London on October 31–November 1, 2018.

Book your place HERE.

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