Effectively Communicating the Message
The key to effective communication/presentation of TIM performance measures is to understand the audience. When speaking to external agencies, political or legislative office holders, or even the general public, the golden rule of “less is more” is generally applicable. While the presentation should be sure to portray a fair and accurate assessment, the display of significant levels of detail, with countless charts, tables, and figures, can be confusing. These types of audiences need an overview and the bottom line—the numbers associated with the bottom line are generally not as important. When communicating to the public or an agency not involved in the day-to-day operations of a TIM program, one recommended approach is:
- Start with the message – Identify the reason for communication.
- What is the area of concern? – Identify it as a roadway, a corridor, the region, a particular location, etc.
- What is being measured? – Keep it simple – incident clearance time, roadway clearance time, etc.
- How is performance being measured? – Provide a brief description of the performance measure and its purpose.
- Where did the data come from? – Identify the data sources used and an overview of any necessary manipulations.
- What are the results? – Strive for clear, effective, concise information.
- What do the results mean for the audience? – Make it personal; relate this information back to them.
- What are the next steps? – Identify the options or future actions.
In essence, this same outline can also work for presenting material to a more technically oriented audience. While the steps remain the same, the level of detail presented at each step may increase.
This approach is certainly not intended to imply that audiences are incapable of understanding the details associated with TIM performance measures. It is likely, however, that the details of data collection, manipulation, storage and more are not necessary for the audience to understand the results and, more importantly perhaps, the actions or next steps.
Perhaps the most difficult step in the above process is item 6, the clear and concise communication of results. For engineers, a typical approach is to use charts, tables, and figures to graph or otherwise illustrate large amounts of information. This typically works well; however, caution should be used to avoid the common pitfalls described at the end of this section.
Data Reporting Timeframes
By definition the target for any performance measure includes a timeframe. The selection of appropriate timeframes is purely based on the overall agency goals and objectives and the interaction with stakeholders and customers.
In general, timeframes for reporting performance can be said to be (1) long-range, (2) mid-range, and (3) short-range. A long-range timeframe may be a horizon of 20 years or more, while a mid-range timeframe generally focuses on a 10-year period. A short-range timeframe is most often 3-5 years.
Within the context of TIM, most selected measures will be reported within the short-range, with a focus on what improvement can be seen in an even shorter timeframe—typically within 6 months to a year of focused activity.
The tracking of measures can, and should, take place for the long-term so that progress can be viewed at a glance. Of critical importance in showing trends over time is relating any significant changes (increases or decreases) directly to the influencing factors, so that explanations exist for changes in graphics or tables showcasing various performance metrics.
Methods of Presenting Data
In terms of TIM program data, presenters must ask: What method(s) will be most effective for presenting that particular performance measure to the intended audience(s)? Oftentimes, there is more than one way to present a given piece of information.
Charts are easily understood, can be adapted to a variety of audiences and situations and can be used at multiple levels of detail, as the audience warrants; however, some guidance on when to use what type of chart is warranted. The information below applies to typical situations. Like most aspects of engineering, individual judgment, and consideration of the audience should be used to determine the most appropriate method of displaying information.
- Line – Highlights trends or changes over time. Can be used to show multiple series of data, but be careful of overcrowding the chart.
- Pie – Shows the relationship of the parts to a whole. Good for expressing percentages.
- Bar – Shows variations over a period of time. Horizontal bar charts typically give people the impression of time flow. Vertical bar charts typically give people the impression of movement in space, e.g., different roadways.
- Area – Shows the variation of data over time, but emphasizes the overall magnitude of the change, not the individual changes or rate of change.
- Combination – These charts excel at showing the background data but also highlighting the significant trend. A typical combination chart would utilize a bar graph in conjunction with a line graph.
- 3-D charts – Creating a chart in 3-D may help to highlight the information or improve the visualization. There are 3-D versions of all of the charts above.
- Strip or heat charts – A heat chart is a graphical representation of data where the individual values contained in a matrix are represented as colors. For TIM programs, the axes are typically spatial and temporal coordinates. While heat charts can be effective illustrations, they are typically not used for a non-technical audience due to the complexity of the data presentation.
- Dashboards – A popular choice for displaying high-level TIM data is the dashboard, which visualizes the subject data in an easy to read interface. Dashboards typically show the current status or snapshot of the data in question and have the ability to reference it to the historical trends. Computer dashboards are often interactive and can merge multiple data sources into an effective decision-making tool.
For brief examples of methods of presenting data select one of the following:
Common Presentation Pitfalls
There are a number of common pitfalls in presenting performance data. Below are a few to try to avoid.
- Using a chart to show every piece of data. While technically accurate, this approach typically leads to needless complexity and can actually hide the bigger picture or trends. If data are collected at 5 minute intervals, but the illustration of performance measures is for a daily basis, only one data point is required, not the 288 individual 5-minute intervals.
- Making information on charts or displays too small. Before presenting any information, view it from the back of the room. If it can’t be read or seen clearly, it won’t be effective!
- Using excessive or inappropriate colors and fonts. Colors and fonts can be used effectively to separate and group information, but too much is overkill and distracts from the message. Also, charts designed for a color presentation do not translate well to black and white. If information will be printed in a local newspaper or other publications, make sure to provide displays that are tailored to that particular media. In particular, patterns may need to be used rather than solid colors.
- Presenting too much information. Trying to convey too much information to the audience will only create confusion. Be selective when choosing what to present and consider the points that are of most interest or are most relevant to the audience.
- Assuming that the charts alone will communicate the message. The presenter must perform that function. Charts are a backup and a visual aid—they are not the primary method of getting information across to the audience. Follow the presentation outline provided above for a consistent and tried and true approach to communicating information.