Hard Copy is History: Web-Based Reports Save Paper, Time, and Money

Every year, government agencies produce reports that inform government policies and where tax dollars flow.

Expensive to produce and print, these paper-based reports are often hundreds of pages long, take thousands of hours to create, and are out of date by the time they are published.

Until now…

Washington’s Salmon Recovery Team Thinks Forward

“We have a statute that requires us to produce a report every two years about the state of salmon recovery in Washington, as well as watershed health and funding,” says Jennifer Johnson, Recovery Implementation Coordinator for the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office (GSRO) in Washington State.

Johnson says the report is typically 150 pages long and costs the GSRO up to $50,000 to produce, not including staff time.

“I wanted to move to something less expensive, more frequently updated, and more accessible to the public,” says Kaleen Cottingham, Director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, which manages the GSRO.

Cottingham and Johnson knew what they wanted to achieve but had no model to follow. They hired cloud-based solutions provider Paladin Data Systems, SBGH-Partners, and Mt. Olympia Design Studio to build a web site for the salmon recovery report and to post images of spreadsheet data, charts, and graphics. Their initial plan was to publish a similar, static report with a bit more detailed information and a lot less paper.

Socrata’s Platform Enters the Scene

The team began to gather data from the departments and regional biologists that contribute to the report. When they reached out to the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) they were told to go to Washington State’s open data site hosted by Socrata, data.wa.gov, to get the latest information.

“We saw the Socrata tool and thought, ‘This is cool. Maybe we could do twice as much in half the time with real, live data and cover more populations of salmon,’” says Paladin and SBGH-Partner’s Scott Boettcher.

They had kicked off their project in April 2012, with a deadline to produce the report by December 2012. They began loading data onto the Socrata platform starting in July 2012.

“I did a lot of reworking of data so we could get it into cleaned-up tables that we could easily upload. Data would come to us in landscape, portrait, Word docs, spreadsheets, phone calls, and more,” says Boettcher.

Determined to finish on time, the team forged forward.

A More Accurate Report

As part of producing a digital report, Johnson wanted to publish more granular data in addition to summarized information. The paper report published previously had offered “roll-ups” of information, rather than raw, source data.

“The report would be more accurate at a finer scale so we decided to show all of the fish populations. About 150 are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and then we chose to include some non-listed populations, as well. We ended up with a pretty heavy load of data,” says Johnson.

Improving the report required extra work with regional fish biologists and other agencies to ensure accurate reporting and getting the data loaded onto the platform on time.

Cottingham supported Johnson’s wish to offer greater detail, “There is a paradigm shift. People used to have power because they controlled the data. Now we’re shifting to an expectation publically that we earn respect by being transparent and sharing our data.”

A Do-It-Yourself Approach

In the end, the group pulled together and published on time with about 250 web pages, 350 charts and graphics, and many improved data steward and data management relationships. “It was a change project and change projects always have turbulence. If you look at our timeline and what we achieved, it’s remarkable we pulled it off,” says Boettcher.

Cottingham’s vision was now a reality. Her team had pioneered a paper-free report with visualizations, plus now the data could be fed through the state’s open data portal to update those visualizations automatically.

And, this framework will serve them well for years to come.

“We have a system that Jennifer can manage entirely on her own. That was a piece that was very important to Kaleen, that GSRO would be left with a tool it could manage and manipulate on its own,” says Boettcher.

The GSRO team looks forward to adding even more detail to the report in the future and encouraging data sources to submit data in easy-to-load formats. They’re optimistic.

“There isn’t really any single data steward out there and that poses challenges but there is a new awareness that, through a collaborative approach, you’re getting better information in the end,” says Cottingham.