Travel metrics that matter – an illustrated tour of the Port of Seattle’s Tableau dashboards

One of my better interviews of the season was a dashboarding and travel metrics session with Michael Drollinger, Director, Business Intelligence at Port of Seattle. After Tableau Conference 2017, Drollinger sent me sample dashboards the Port of Seattle relies on to share with diginomica readers.

With 45.7 million passengers coming through the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2016, The Port of Seattle can’t afford take a casual approach to data (see their 2016 public stats dashboard on Tableau’s public dashboards site).

The Port of Seattle is the government agency that runs Seattle’s seaport and airport. The Port has its own police department, fire department, and industrial and commercial real estate. A self-described “aviation fanatic,” Drollinger told me that directing BI at the Port of Seattle is something of a dream job, given his dual loves of aviation and analytics.

Data dilemmas – “We couldn’t get answers out there fast enough”

Data has always been a preoccupation at the Port of Seattle, but Drollinger was around when there were no dashboards or visual displays:

Ten years ago, we were starting out with a more traditional analytical team, using mostly Excel and such to provide some solutions for different departments. One thing I came to realize, particularly after I had some vacancies in my group, was “Wait a second, we need to retool on a couple of levels.”

That meant upgrading both technology and human skills:

We couldn’t get answers out there fast enough at the speed that our organization needed it at.

So Drollinger recruited a tech-savvy BI team:

I retooled the team with more business intelligence functions, bringing in people with skill sets that typical BI Analysts have. [We brought in] SQL experience, and experience with different BI tools.

In 2010, Drollinger gave this new BI team a new mission: make the organizational case for BI beyond spreadsheets:

We wanted to demonstrate that there is a different way to come at data that provides deeper insights than an Excel spreadsheet that’s distributed as an email attachment can provide.

From Tableau experiments to enterprise scale

There was one more missing piece: Tableau. Drollinger had been pursuing Tableau on his own since 2008/2009:

I started using Tableau personally and said, “Well, wait a second, this is something different than what was out on the market at the time, and it might fit us really well.” We were looking for a way to be able to drill deeper into the data, and connect to more types of data than we were able to with the tools that we had – and then make it really visual.

Even in the early days of the BI revamp, Drollinger knew the visual aspect was key:

People engage with visuals. Even for our own BI team, in our exploratory analysis, visuals speed up that process. We were already having trouble keeping up with the speed of business. At the time, I discovered Tableau, and we went with it. It really helped to power us through, and change the focus of the team.

These types of changes tend to encounter user resistance. But that hasn’t been the case at the Port of Seattle:

Over the years, I’ve had very little resistance. “Relief” is probably a word I would use to describe the situation more often than not. The people see, “Oh wow, there is a solution. We know the data is there; we have a hunch what the answers are, but we don’t have the tools or capabilities to get at it, can you help us get at it?”

Customer service metrics – a dashboarding use case

So what kinds of data questions did users want better answers to? Drollinger brought up a vital issue: measuring customer service levels, and benchmarking “Sea-Tac” against other airports.

One of the most impactful stories we have is around customer service at the airport. The Sea-Tac airport has long had a strategic goal of being one of the top customer service airports in North America, more specifically, to be in the top five. But you need data to measure that. There was a desire internally to say, “How are we going to measure this? How can we benchmark where we are, and then measure how we’re progressing?”

To get a handle on their rankings, Port of Seattle used an airport service quality survey. They interviews passengers right before take off; the survey covers about twenty-eight different areas. Passengers rate their experience in each. The top data gathering priority? Quality control:

We hired staff to go out and do the interviews in a statistically valid way to make sure we had good data, because without that you have nothing. Then the vendor compiled the results and sent them back to us.

But once you get the results, you need to act on them. The format was a problem:

When we first got those results about six years ago, we looked at the vendor-supplied results and we said, “Wow.” The way they were displaying the data was through PowerPoint slides and some visualizations that were really hard to read trends from. Right away, I got feedback saying, “We need something else. We’re supposed to take action. We see that actually our scores are kind of average in many areas, but we can’t solve everything at once.”

Prioritizing visual data is crucial:

You can’t just go out and say,”Fix everything.” There’s limited resources and people to do it.

Drollinger’s team had a new task: make that service data actionable.

So, my team went back and we did just that… In 2013, the Port purchased a Tableau server. Suddenly, we had a place to make data available to the organization, so it was fortuitous timing. Then we did some back-end work on analytical methods.

But the biggest change was the visuals:

We basically took over the analysis and display of the data because what the survey vendor had provided wasn’t resonating. The area where we made the biggest changes was on the visualization side.

So Drollinger’s team created Tableau dashboards that helped managers and staff focus on what to spend their resources on:

Of the twenty-eight items, it turns out that about eight or so of those were really important to the customers, but we as an airport were way behind in the scores relative to our peers. But by being able to use Tableau and create those visual displays, we used what’s called a quadrant analysis. It’s a pretty typical way of displaying the data. We were able to get it into Tableau and display it so that it was really easy, when you put the data out there, to be able to tell a story of the key things to focus on.

The data fueled the mission:

What’s great about it is that as a result, there was actually a lot of momentum internally that occurred around these survey scores, where before, few knew about them and few knew what to do with them. Suddenly, everybody was engaging and saying, “Wow, now we have a benchmark. Now we know what to focus on.”

I took a wild guess: airport wifi quality is a top issue. Yes, for customers, but the Sea-Tac airport has typically scored well on that one. Other top service issues include: wait time at security, wait time at check in, and comfort at the gate area. Bathroom cleanliness also rates high.

Those dashboards launched in the 2014 timeframe. Since around 2015, performance targets were established – some of the key metrics are tracked on a weekly basis:

Since all our analytics are on our Tableau server, we’re also able to leverage a functionality called subscriptions to send out each week, a summary of what is the performance relative to target, and which direction is it trending.

But performance targets bring curveballs. For Sea-Tac, the challenge is to improve service levels while managing passenger growth:

In the last 4-5 years, the airport has grown in passengers by nearly a third, which is almost unheard of for a large airport.

That type of growth is a major service challenge. But Drollinger is pleased with the progress made:

We were large to begin with. And as a result, the kind of strain that puts on a facility from a customer service standpoint is big. We would have expected a decline in our scores and instead, we’ve held steady and actually improved in some key areas in our scores in the past few years. Focusing on the right things has really helped us get there.

Drollinger shared a few more dashboards for readers. This dashboard on passport control wait times ties into the customer service initiatives. There are benchmarks against other gateway airports:

Used with express permission of the Port of Seattle. You can also view their public dashboards on Tableau’s public dashboards site.

This visual shows the growth in the Port of Seattle’s international traffic:

Used with express permission of the Port of Seattle.

Finally, this dashboard hones in on another airport traffic issue: driving congestion.

Used with express permission of the Port of Seattle.

The wrap – dashboarding success is about people, not technology

In 2016, Drollinger’s BI group was formalized into a department that serves the entire organization, not just the airport. He attributes that to the ground-up momentum of the dashboards:

Word got out that “Hey, there’s some great stuff happening.” To paraphrase, “We want to see that leveraged across the organization.” So, I was thrilled.

As we wrapped our talk, Drollinger emphasized you don’t just toss up dashboards and see change happen:

It’s one thing to put a dashboard out there… the technology lets you track who’s looking at it, and how often they are. And if you see those numbers going down, you wonder: “Are people really engaged – is this something that can be sustained?”

There’s a big piece of follow-through. It comes down to continually serving the business. You succeed one team at a time:

Having something be sustained takes, first and foremost, listening to the business questions, what the customers needs, and designing really specifically around that. Then you stay there with them as a resource too… If that sounds like a lot of work, well, it’s because it is. There’s no magic bullet here.

Image credit – Images provided by Port of Seattle with express permission to use in diginomica. Feature image is an excerpt from one of these images, full image in article. Disclosure – Tableau paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Tableau Conference 2017.


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