Spring 2020 will forever be remembered as the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK. Everyone was affected and everyone wanted information. The trouble was there were too many sources of information, and the number was growing.
We were tasked to produce a dashboard containing information from a number of these data sources using PowerBI. We had to get the relevant information delivered to those that needed it but we had only been looking at PowerBI for several months - it was still a new technology to us.
In the early days this was a very reactive environment, data sources were being identified all the time, some new, some replacing others. Some data sources were published daily, others weekly, there was no ‘standard’ and the only way we could work was iteratively, making small but frequent changes as new information came to light. By the end of April we had produced eight iterations of the dashboard – after just five weeks of the pandemic - each iteration building on the previous. This would turn into over twenty iterations by the end of August.
Throughout we had to work closely with colleagues across the organisation, Public Health was obviously key, Education, HR, Customer Services, Registrars, Estate Management, Finance, all pushing out information around the pandemic.
We hit a major hurdle in June after Public Health England changed the format of their data to use an API. When the Office of National Statistics started producing data in relation to number of deaths due to the pandemic we switched data sources. When schools initially resumed after the first lock down, for children of key workers, we had to incorporate statistics on attendance. Data was changing constantly and it was almost a full time job just to keep the dashboard published.
By the end of August we had published v5.2 of the dashboard, and we were still drowning in data with over 40 distinct data sources and reports. As a result and following discussion with Public Health each data source was categorised as appropriate for certain audiences and that reduced the number of data sources to seven, for the time being at least. But this also meant a major rewrite of the dashboard and v6 is to be published in October.
For all the problems we have had around data, the experience has been extremely useful for two reasons. Firstly, it has demonstrated how Agile as a methodology can work effectively. A new dashboard was produced almost weekly for the first few months, delivering critical information to users as soon as possible. A traditional development might not have delivered anything in the first few months considering the number of changes that were occurring. Secondly, it has significantly extended our knowledge and skills around PowerBI. Prior to the pandemic our early work with PowerBI had been limited to two data sources and a very tabular based dashboard for Customer Services. Barely six months later we could produce visually appealing, dynamic and interactive dashboards for a wide audience.