Christa Montani, director of enterprise analytics in FEMA's Office of Policy and Program Analysis, relies on data dashboards to provide responders with more context for a disaster area.

Aug 07 2023

FEMA Drives Better Decision-Making for Disaster Planning and Relief with Interactive Dashboard

Agencies including OMB and HHS OIG use data visualization tools to let information tell a story.

Surf through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Resilience Analysis and Planning Tool for a few minutes, and you can learn a lot about where you live.

RAPT can tell you the portion of people with a disability; the number of hospitals within a 10-mile radius; how much nearby land will be underwater if sea levels rise by 4, 5 or 6 feet; and the risks and incidents of natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes.

This interactive dashboard is just one of the many ways that FEMA — and agencies across government — are using data visualization tools to bring information to life.

For several years, the federal government has been recommending that agencies collect and present their data through dashboards, which provide easy ways to visualize patterns and changes in everything — from spending to retirement — for both internal and external consumption.

For instance, in late 2021, the Federal CDO Council ran a pilot project to implement HR dashboards in agencies using Microsoft Power BI and Tableau, with participation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as the Treasury and Transportation departments.

Brittany Johnston, research director at MeriTalk, says these data visualization efforts are helping agencies to make strides toward long-standing goals.

“We’ve been talking about the benefits of shared services for decades,” she says. “But recent federal efforts around data visualization, dashboards and data operations have really taken this opportunity to the next level.”

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Data Visualization Tools Share Info to Drive Better Decision-Making

Christa Montani, director of enterprise analytics with FEMA’s Office of Policy and Program Analysis, says the agency uses Microsoft Power BI with a suite of other data visualization tools to better share data that drives decision-making.

“At the end of the day, it helps make our data actionable,” Montani says. “It helps facilitate the conversation, and it’s particularly important in the emergency management community. It’s our job to very quickly bring folks together, orient them to a set of challenges or problems and get to the best solution.

Data visualization helps us to efficiently, effectively take complex data sets, synthesize them and then present them back to folks in a way that’s easily digestible. That’s just incredibly valuable.”

Montani says that a cluster of disasters and emergencies — including the destructive punch of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria during one month in 2017, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic — spurred FEMA to innovate and grow its data visualization capabilities in a short time.

“The tools that we create for disasters are the most impactful,” Montani says. “But the tools we use day to day to manage our programs actually get some of the more advanced statistical modeling. Those things are equally important because that’s what’s setting us up for the future.”

FIND OUT: How the State Department and other agencies display data to tell their stories.

Dashboards Enable lmportant Insights at a Glance

In the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services, officials are using data visualization tools to look for patterns that can help them uncover waste, fraud and abuse.

“Auditors can use the dashboards that we make available to plan their audits, to make sure that the topics that they’re looking into make sense, given the data, and identify which grant recipients they want to include in a sample selection based on identified risks or the amount of funding they receive,” says Miranda Fanning, a senior analyst in the OIG’s office of the chief data officer.

Christa Montani
Data visualization helps us to efficiently, effectively take complex data sets, synthesize them and then present them back to folks in a way that’s easily digestible.”

Christa Montani Director of Enterprise Analytics, FEMA Office of Policy and Program Analysis

The office uses a mix of ​visualization solutions from a variety of commercial vendors that include capabilities for rapid dashboard creation and geospatial analysis. The tools, Fanning notes, make it easier for people to quickly interpret data with a quick scan rather than poring over data tables.  

For instance, auditors might use data visualization tools to uncover suspicious information, such as different grant recipients who have identical board leaders or physical addresses.

Recently, staff used a data dashboard to identify suspicious relationships between three HHS funding recipients — a finding that led to criminal action.

Looking ahead, Fanning says, officials plan to make dashboards even more accessible and intuitive. “We’re looking at opportunities to proactively send visualizations to users, rather than them having to seek out those answers,” she says.

“We’re also thinking about ways to make the data more searchable and how we can design dashboards so that people can come in without a lot of background knowledge and be able to get to the answer they’re looking for.

DIVE DEEPER: Learn how to transition critical infrastructure toward post-quantum cryptography.


The portion of technology leaders who say that real-time data is a must-have capability for their organization

Source: DataStax, “The State of the Data Race 2022,” August 2022

OPM Says 'Think Big' When It Comes to Data Management

Ted Kaouk, deputy director for human capital data management and modernization and chief data officer for the Office of Personnel Management, says he favors the use of a single enterprise data visualization tool across an agency to create a consistent customer experience. OPM uses Microsoft Power BI, while USDA used Tableau during Kaouk’s time at that agency.

“At OPM, we have data on the federal civilian workforce across the life cycle, so that’s everything from recruitment and employment to retirement,” Kaouk says. “We’re in a unique position to provide decision support to agency leaders across government on metrics like attrition, demographics, talent, acquisition and hiring.”

Kaouk says the key benefit to data visualization is the ability to quickly spot trends and make comparisons. “You want to be able to find the patterns in the data,” he says. “For instance, where is attrition most acute? Are people transferring? Is it related to a promotion, remote work positions available elsewhere or to employee engagement?

“All of those different factors can be visualized in a way that makes it easier for someone to explore the data in new ways and to find connections that they might not find in a data table.”

In addition to choosing effective tools, Kaouk says, it is important for data leaders to bring stakeholders into the process and carefully think through what types of questions data visualization can help them answer.

“We bring customers into ideation sessions where they surface their most important questions,” he says. “We really try to get them to think big and get them out of the tendency of thinking about only what data they have access to.”

“Then, we can develop products to answer those questions,” he adds. “And there may be areas where we need to fill data gaps. Just because we don’t have the information to answer a question today doesn’t mean we don’t want to answer that question in the future.”

Photography by Jonathan Thorpe

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