Data can be a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it can help fleets run better, more efficient operations. On the other, some data can be unreliable — and even overwhelming. But when the right data is collected and used in the right ways, it can be powerful.
For instance, data is making a big difference at the City of Richmond in British Columbia, Canada. “I can’t imagine running the fleet without data,” said Suzanne Bycraft, manager of fleet & environmental programs for the city. Having access to good data has allowed the fleet to better plan its replacement regimen, track costs, and identify cost-saving opportunities. It has opened up larger opportunities, too. “By using the data, we have been able to apply for and receive recognition as a platinum-rated fleet under [Canada’s] E3 Fleet program, contribute toward reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions for the city, measure the benefit of greener technologies, and more,” Bycraft said.
Data is working for the City of Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, as well. In 2011, the city introduced a new information management system that enhances its performance measurement capabilities. “Our use of data benefits our fleet as it allows us to provide factual information and consistency (due to automation) and is updated more frequently to better support leadership and decision-making,” said Colleen Kroening, supervisor, fleet and facility services analytics. “This allows our branch and our customers to make decisions supported by data rather than having to rely on instinct and ‘gut feelings.’”
In addition to making informed decisions, Steve Rapanos, manager of the City of Edmonton fleet and facility services, said data helps the fleet be proactive rather than reactive. “Accurate, timely, and meaningful reporting allows us to identify issues early and take corrective action,” he said. “The earlier issues are dealt with, [the more it] reduces their cost and impact.”
At Miami-Dade County, Fla., the Fleet Management Division is working to automate data analytics, make data more accessible at all levels of the organization, and ultimately streamline processes as a result. To do so, the county recently adopted Microsoft Power Business Intelligence (BI) to display large amounts of data graphically and produce interactive reports, Azure DevOps for a more visual project management platform, and Microsoft Teams to make it easy to share.
“We’re trying to look for different ways to not only present data, but also to have more transparency about what we do,” said Alex Alfonso, fleet management division director. “We have to be able to collect and do our cost recovery for the services that we render. We operate just like private industry. Are we here for a profit? No. And at the end of the day, we want to break even.”
While all these fleets are benefiting from their concerted data management efforts, it took a lot of work and consideration to get there. Here are their recommendations for how to collect reliable data and how to make proper use of it once you do.
How To Identify and Collect Clean Data
1. Start at the End
Bycraft said before you begin collecting any data, outline what you want to get from it. “Start at the end,” she recommended. “What you would like to report on and why? Who is your audience? What is the purpose of collecting the data and how will it be used? What are your objectives?”
Rapanos said a key part of this process is considering your audience. “The primary purpose of reporting is to turn data into useful information,” he said. “What information do management and employees need to know to make useful decisions? Make sure that a person or a group will be responsible for using the report and will know what action to take based on the information it provides. If no one uses it, the report is of no value.”
Even though you may identify some big goals, both fleets recommend taking baby steps. “While starting with the end in mind, start small and approach it like you would eat an elephant…a little bit at a time,” Bycraft said.
The City of Edmonton started with a report that allows users to see what the fleet count is both currently and historically. “Start with the basics,” Kroening said. “Doing the foundational reporting such as fleet count, usage, fuel, and billing reports will typically fill a lot of users’ basic requirements.”
2. Take Time to Build the Foundation — And Involve the Right People
Once you’ve set goals, taking a thoughtful approach to outline how data will be collected, used, and reported on will help ensure you’re working with reliable numbers.
“I think the first challenge is knowing where to get your data from and getting access to it. You want to be able to make sure that what you’re getting is organized right for the platform,” Alfonso said. “You have to work hand-in-hand with your IT people so that they clearly understand what you need, and also be able to articulate where you’re trying to go — because sometimes they’re not in your business.”
The City of Richmond faced its own challenges collecting clean fueling data. “Due to a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the software application, we did not set up or administer all aspects of the system properly to collect good data. This resulted in poor data that was not useful,” Bycraft said. “It took finding an individual with a keen attention to detail and an understanding of vehicles/mechanics to solve the problem.”
Now, the city continually reviews reports with an eye for accuracy. Bycraft’s advice for getting it right: “You must back-test the data,” she said. “Don’t expect to get it perfect from the get-go, and make continual improvements.”
At Edmonton, building the foundation is an iterative process, as it helps work out the kinks, build a better product, and gain buy-in from stakeholders. “Prototyping is essential. People struggle when faced with a blank page; it is easier for them to critique something existing than to create it from scratch,” Kroening said. “During the initial meetings, your analytics team should find out what is most important to the stakeholder and ensure that those items are incorporated into the first prototype. Meet with your stakeholders regularly to get their feedback, and be prepared for lots of changes to your prototypes. This will keep them engaged, which is important; you want them to be your allies and champions.”
3. Find Creative Ways Around the Gaps
Collecting clean data can also mean collecting complete data. In the past, the City of Edmonton faced its own challenges with data integrity and lack of data altogether.
“Any manually entered data that a report will be using must be tested, as this is frequently the cause of data issues,” Kroening said. “The data entry process should be reviewed and enforced to ensure the data that will appear in the report will be useful; whenever possible, we try to automate our data collection.”
Fleets may also face challenges with missing data — when a field isn’t marked as mandatory and is often left blank, there may not be enough data to pull a useful report. Even so, Rapanos said there are ways around it.
“Sometimes this can be rectified by making it mandatory and doing a data load on the existing data or only starting the reporting from the time the field was mandatory,” he said. “Other times, it requires creative thinking. If you do not have the data requested, what is the person requesting the information trying to do? Is there some other way of getting them information that they can use? Blending data from different systems can fill in those gaps in the story.”
What to Do with the Data
1. Consolidate it
For most fleets, data comes from multiple sources, making it difficult to manage and combine in a way that yields value. Consolidating data sources and automating collection can make the data more powerful.
To do just that, the City of Edmonton’s Analytic and Reporting team mined and centralized data from the fleet management system, Fleet Focus, and fuel systems FuelMaster and FuelView. Using the Tableau platform, the team can offer interactive, visual analysis of complex data and difficult business questions. The team customized and designed the measures and developed digital dashboards to improve the collection, consistency, and usage of data for employees, partners, and external clients.
“Before the implementation of this new system, data collected was inconsistent, used minimally throughout the organization, and was not embraced by the organizational culture, which did not fully see the value of performance metrics management,” Rapanos said. “Now, custom dashboards provide a way of breaking down data to a granular level to display the information through a user-friendly, readable tool, allowing users to identify inefficiencies and improve operational performance.”
“Blending data that was previously segregated into different databases has created more meaningful and complete stories,” Kroening added.
The data collected and displayed through the custom dashboards now allows staff across 15 facilities, city departments, and external clients to view customer and shop key performance indicators, financial information, and a wide variety of reports.
2. Make Data User-Friendly
Even if you take all the right steps to collect reliable data, Rapanos said the way you choose to display it to your audience can be the ultimate test of whether it’s actually useful. “Choose your presentation method carefully — numbers don’t mean a lot to the average person,” he said. “Find a way to tell the story using experiential tools that will engage people. Your mission is to have them interested in what they see and able to get the information themselves.”
To do so, the City of Edmonton uses a dashboarding program to create interactive reports. These layouts allow users to quickly scan the information and understand key takeaways. They also allow users to filter the information to what matters most to them. “This allows people who are not data-savvy analysts to quickly and easily access data from anywhere they have an internet connection,” Kroening said. “Having the ability to drill down to find the root cause of an issue or to focus a further in-depth investigation saves a lot of time.”
Miami-Dade County is also working to make data more user-friendly using Microsoft Power BI. “It’s like Excel on steroids,” Alfonso said. “It allows you to display large amounts of data graphically, and the reports that it generates are actually interactive. So that way, the people who are your target audience can actually not only view the report, but they can interact and click on the different aspects of the attributes of the report and it will display different segments of data.”
The City of Richmond also uses Power BI to amalgamate data from multiple data sources to provide easily readable graphs and reports. This allows staff and management to make informed decisions based on the data available to improve operations and outcomes. “It’s one thing to have the data, but communicating it in meaningful ways is where the impacts start to happen,” Bycraft said.
3. Use Data to Show Your Value
Making data user-friendly can help individuals at all levels of the organization glean helpful insights. But perhaps the most important use of data — the thing that makes all of the careful planning and effort worth it — is leveraging it to show your organization’s value.
To help individuals throughout the organization see the value of data, Miami-Dade County uses Microsoft Teams to share Power BI dashboards.
“For lack of a better word, Teams is kind of like a social network board, but for business,” Alfonso said. “You can set up different talk groups and within these talk groups, you can share information and present information. So not only I can see it, but my support, my supervisors, my peers, and my boss can see it. The mayor could see if he really wanted to.” As “talk groups” discuss the information shared, Microsoft Teams also catalogues data so the back and forth details of discussions can be revisited.
Ultimately, Alfonso said sharing the data gathered helps make the important case for his team’s value. “When people complain about your rates, there’s always fear of privatization,” he said. “So in our perspective, we’re looking at laying out as many defenses as possible about why we’re useful.”