Data Analytics: Tableau public sector chief on what today's government leaders want in a data platform

The COVID-19 pandemic, fiscal transparency programs, and citizen expectations mean government decision makers need new tools to collect, analyze and disseminate information. ZDNet talks with the head of Tableau's public sector business about what the company's government customers are asking for.
Written by Bill Detwiler, Contributor

Governments are using data more than ever before, both to make decisions and to share information with citizens. Budget transparency efforts within state and municipal governments mean agencies are putting tax and spending data online. Public safety agencies are using data visualizations to share information on everything from their crime prevention efforts to fighting wild fires. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, there's never been more public health and safety data available, whether it's infection rates, test counts, or hospitalization and death rates.

But what do government leaders want in a data analytics platform? Are the needs of public policy makers different from those of private companies? ZDNet recently spoke with USAF Brig. Gen. (Ret) Steven Spano who is regional VP for Public Sector at Tableau about what he's hearing from the company's government customers. Spano has decades of experience as an IT leader and decision maker in both the public and private sectors. The following is a transcript of the interview edited for readability.

Public sector data has a uniqueness all its own

Bill Detwiler: Data is critical for decision makers, whether they are in the private sector, [or] whether they're in the public sector. And it's really important to be able to tell a story with that data in a way that the recipients understand the data. And, I think Tableau and other visualization platforms are critical to that. Can you talk a little bit about, just maybe the uniqueness of working with the public sector in government agencies and how you present data in a way that decision makers can understand and then take action on?


Brig. Gen (Ret) Steven J. Spano, US Air Force, Regional Vice President for Public Sector at Tableau

Image: Tableau Software a Salesforce company

Steven Spano: Sure. So, the ubiquity of data, from my perspective across the public sector is, has a uniqueness all to its own, right? Each state, each municipality has various functions and various methods and various processes for how they deliver services. Whether you are the State of New York working on COVID and trying to educate the public, or the state of California dealing with how do they deal with forest fires and how do they get information out. And how do you get it in a form that's digestible, believable, and trusted? And you could pull up all of the charts that you want. And many of the newscasts over the years, you can sort of look at how they try to justify the stories by pulling in data. But what Tableau does, is it allows you to literally walk through and tell a story that brings you inside the data in a way that it taps into your various curiosities, but it also is clear in it's methodology of how it's both connected, how it's tabulated, how it's formed and then how it's presented.

And so if you look at, like I said, New York City, Governor Cuomo, he was on the air every day. And, behind the scenes, was a lot of data that they were crunching, because they knew if they were to get the constituents, the citizens, particularly in New York City, to abide by the stay at home, they couldn't just throw data out there and expect that it was all going to be believable. It had to be a trusted source of data, a reliable source of how they were getting those facts. And Tableau was just able to easily connect them to the data, allow staff members, allow state employees across the state to access that data to verify its authenticity and then it'd be able to present it in a story that allowed the buy-in of the decisions that the Governor was making.

The same in the state of California. I mean, they attributed literally how they were able to present data that allowed the citizens to be able to say, okay, I'm willing to step back, stay at home, abide by these rules, which by ordinary circumstances are extremely difficult, stay at home, don't do anything. You saw all the pressures. But if that data wasn't a trusted source of data, wasn't presented in a digestible way, it would have been extremely challenging for any of the government leaders to convince people to buy into the strategy and into the plan.

And it's the same at the government letter, whether you're Department of Defense and you're analyzing intelligence data, or whether you're looking at immigrations and customs and trying to figure out how do you align immigrants with their families and be able to provide the tracking mechanisms to do that in presenting data. To USDA, to look at the way our food is presented, the analysis to ensure that it's safe, it's being processed safe. And so every agency has a story and every agency has that creativity, that curiosity, to be able to pull it all together and to be able to craft that story using data, right, to help persuade and convince and provide that trusted source to be able to gain confidence and trust of the people they're servicing.

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Data analytics can improve decision making and service delivery

Bill Detwiler: Do you think that there is a difference between dealing with the private sector and then dealing with the public sector when it comes to the importance of how you tell that [story]? I mean, I guess what I'm asking is, when we talk about the public sector, we're often dealing with large social issues that have significant social, political, economic ramifications, and maybe there's, you're also dealing with recipients of that information that may not want to hear the message you're telling them or it may be resistant to actually following the path that the data suggests you take. How do you handle that in a way that's, I guess, successful from your perspective? What is it about visualization tools or what is it about being able to ensure transparency within the data, that helps you overcome some of those special challenges, I think, that are unique to maybe the public sector?

Steven Spano: Well, I don't know that the public sector is that much different than a private sector, particularly now in the environment that we operate in, right? Businesses have responsibilities that are taking up more and more the mantra of how they can as companies, be able to look at bigger challenges and social issues and be involved in that and provide leadership. And so, while their motives may be a little bit different in the sense of profit and operational and a little bit more focused, the public sector, they do mirror how businesses operate. They have to be efficient, because they have to be accountable. Accountable to the citizens of how they're spending their money. So while the outcomes may be a little bit different, the reality is the inputs aren't, right? Being able to get speed to insight of data, to be able to make better, sharper and faster decisions in business, is the difference between profit and loss. It's the difference between surviving and enduring and building an enduring company and competitive environment.

But in the public sector, it's an issue about gaining the public trust with respect to the services and your mission area, right? And, there's always a political dimension to that, because if we always feel like our money is being wasted, then it creates some of the challenges where the access to data now has sort of that boomerang effect, where you can challenge the data, you can challenge the leaders who gathered the data in a much better way, which creates a degree of accountability that we've not seen before. When I grew up as a young officer in the Air Force in the 80's, the way data could be hidden, it could be manipulated much more easily. You could present the facts that you wanted, because there was a sense of a lack of transparency, both from a technological perspective, but then even if you had access to the data, it became really complex.


You had to be a real data geek. And so today, Tableau, as a self service tool, allows anybody to be able to explore their own curiosity looking at data. And when you couple that with the transparency requirements of the government, there is a sense of balance of being able to challenge how and what is presenting and the decisions that are presented. And it's a neat check and balance between the citizens and their government officials. And when used in the right way, collaboratively between the public and the private sector and government, it's amazing what can be done in our society to make better policies, to make better decisions in how services are delivered. And that to me, is exciting.

Reducing data analysis time from hours to minutes

Bill Detwiler: I had an old statistics professor that liked to say that statistics or data, most people treat it like a drunk treats a lamppost, right? More for support than illumination. And that's kind of an old adage, but I think it's kind of apropos, when you look at how people are able to manipulate data, just as you were saying, without that transparency. I'm wondering now, if, as you mentioned, sort of across your career, you were talking about 20, 30, 40 years ago, you would require armies of people to collect, to analyze, to create charts, to translate that data, interpret it in a way that technology now allows us to do a little differently and to do much more efficiently. Talk a little bit about some of the ways that you're seeing that manifest itself now. As budgets are constrained, as time is collapsed, how are tools that Tableau's producing, helping kind of governments do what used to take an army of staffers now to be done by anyone? Even people maybe that aren't trained as statisticians or data analysts?

Steven Spano: Sure. We have had customers and the government at some of our conferences come up to us, literally crying and thanking us for the number of hours that we have saved just these one or two people as they would come to us and just say, "My job is so much easier. It's so much more enjoyable. I get hours back in my day because of your product. What used to take me X amount of hours per week to get this data to my bosses, now is taking me minutes or hours, and now I can do so much more. And it's really exciting because now I get to explore the data." And so in the end, everything is about speed to insight, ease of use. It's no longer, like if you recall, even the early days of networking and network security, we used to call it the back shop, because they were the highly trained specialists in the back that boy, you didn't understand what they did, but man, it was magic when it came out.


And data was sort of that way. It sort of had its little place, its nice little tribe of specialists, because of the complexity it took to connect them to it and to create, and to try to tell a story. I was a PowerPoint ranger when I was in the military. I spent three years in the staff building charts from my senior officers to present and it would take me hours to do that. And that was mainly taking data and putting it in PowerPoint, analyzing it in spreadsheets. And now, when you can create a self service tool that the masses can use, and we're seeing some of the biggest enterprises now beginning to shift from the back room, these data miners, these data analysts, we'll have a few of them in every organization to saying, let's get this tool in the hands of everybody. It's not just the senior officer that needs that PC anymore, like it was in the 80's, or the typical analyst, right?

Once you put the power in everybody's hands and you were able to innovate and drive power to the edges, that's where efficiency, speed, and insight, and that's the difference between winning and losing in business or frankly, in government or the military having a decisive edge. And so for us, Tableau and its simplicity, and the self service nature of it to where it doesn't matter whether you're an employee in a major retail stocking shelves, having access to dashboards and visualizations that can instantly tell you what needs to be restocked. Or now, as we partner with our Salesforce brethren, being able to take artificial intelligence and do more predictive analysis together. It gets to be really, really exciting. And we are now even interacting with Ask Data, to be able to have a conversation with your data. Who would've thought of that 10, 15 or 20 years ago, that you literally can interact, ask questions and get responses back in seconds? And to me, that's exciting and we're only scratching the surface.

Avoiding data overload and analysis paralysis

Bill Detwiler: And what is it about the platforms and the technology that we have now and Tableau's platform that helps avoid one of the biggest problems you can get when you get access to data and give so many people access to data, which is a data overload...analysis paralysis. I mean, you can sometimes have access to so much information, that it's difficult to tease out the relevant points that are critical to making a good decision. How does Tableau help public sector, private companies kind of do that, because as you described it, you've got people who are using the tool because of its self service nature, who don't have maybe even an analytical background in terms of the subject or the data that they're working with or looking at.

Steven Spano: Yeah. So we have a thing called Tableau Blueprint, which literally is a blueprint for how organizations at a maturity level can begin to roll out at an enterprise level, right? To start to provide the governance aspects of how they are going to formalize data as a strategic asset, whether public sector, you're seeing organizations do it. In the private sector, they're doing it. Many customers have strategic roadmap for data of how they want to start that full journey to prevent some of the challenges that you have. Isn't it a great place to be where we would have been talking about the absolute inverse of what you just said, not too long ago, right? Which is, the leaders that I worked with years ago, where I don't have access to the data, now they have access to all the data they want, now how do they take a platform like Tableau that allows you to tap into data of all sources, cloud, on-prem, it doesn't matter.


At this point, we have over 80 sources of data to connect into, but yet have a platform that allows you to organize the data, prep the data, allows you then to use the powerful tools that we have to filter down to exactly what you want to do to be able to, again, I call it, tap into your curiosity and your creativity. Because, no two people can look at the same data. And as they start to think about questions and use their intuition to get different insights out of it, to be able to then, begin to make and act on that type of data. And then you've had the whole visualization piece, which is the importance of how do you tell that story in a way that customizes to the target audience, whether that's a CEO of a company, whether it's a four star general in the military, whether it's a senior service official within government, or the governor who probably doesn't know specifically how to use a tool like Tableau, but when he sees or she sees it, they understand the value of what that is and then they begin to drive decisions.

And we have numerous organizations that are at a high maturity level that literally come to their staff meetings and they're briefing and presenting off of Tableau. There is no PowerPoint slides. They are looking at data real time and each of the leaders and business leaders that come to that table are coming prepared, which begins to drive the culture in a way that transcends how data used to be looked at to make decisions and to be presented and to be analyzed. Then it's, like I said, it's no longer that offshoot specialty, that is what happens behind the door of the back shop where they're crunching numbers or crunching data. And now they're, here it is boss and it's okay, where'd you get this? I want some more of this. Reality is, now that all those walls have come down and data's now easily accessible by the masses and that's a powerful thing.

Governments don't want "lock in"

Bill Detwiler: What's the one 'ask' that the people in the public sector that you talk to on a regular basis want when it comes to data analysis?

Steven Spano: Yeah, I would say at this point, they want the freedom to be able to explore the data in the way that they want. They want a variety of options. Don't want to be locked in. They want a full menu on a full suite to be able to choose how and where they interact with data, whether it's in the cloud, whether it's on-prem, right? They don't want bolt-ons to do prep data prep. They don't want a separate bolt-on for the visualization. They want complexity reduced, and they want a tool that allows end to end self service that's scalable and it's presented in different forms. And it's accessed, whether again on-prem or in the cloud and portable and mobile devices as well. So I won't say that they want everything, but the reality is they, I think they like the simplicity, the ease of use, and then that creativity. They don't want lock-in.


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