Data visualisation: How the National Energy Board succeeded to make its data more accessible

January 16, 2019

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The Data Visualization Primer, put together by the National Energy Board (NEB) in collaboration with Dr. Doris Kosminsky and the Open Data Team at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, is a way for us to share what we have learned in building data visualization projects. From the get-go, our Data Visualization Initiative (DVI) was not an end to itself. This initiative was designed as a pathway for the NEB to become a data-driven organization. Our DVI objectives were to:

  • frame our public engagement
  • increase confidence
  • advance operational efficiency

Like everyone in government and the private sector, the NEB wants to put the data we collect and the information we produce to the best use. The challenge is that more data does not mean more clarity. On the contrary, the daily bombardment of information can leave people overwhelmed, confused, and frankly, turned off. So we set out to use pilots and proof of concepts to help us test new ideas, learn and effect change within the organization.

That was the spirit of our 2016 award-winning pilot Exploring Canada’s Energy Future and the two other visualizations that followed: Pipeline Incidents and Canada’s Energy Imports and Exports.

This is a screenshot of the National Energy Board’s pipeline incident, energy futures and imports and exports data visualizations tools.

The team counted on the Interactions Lab at the University of Calgary, a computer coding start-up, and a data innovation specialist to help us develop the internal skill sets we needed in these areas.

As our DVI unfolded, we anticipated spectacular data visualizations as deliverables, but we also discovered some unexpected side benefits:

  • data discovery leads to clean and structured data by default
  • subject matter experts change their perspective when they collaborate with designers, coders, data scientists and communicators in a creative process
  • people that work with a dataset day in and day out have new insights when they see these datasets differently, such as in a data viz

Best of all was that these side benefits turned out to be the most valuable learnings. The NEB is now moving to treat data as an asset; DVI has opened the doors for future mandates and created a new data and information management business unit, which I lead, that ties management, analysis and public release of data and information together. This is the best possible outcome.

We have now turned our attention from small projects to transforming data into a sustainable model; in other words, how do we bridge the transition from individual projects to a fully data-driven organization across all our activities?

This is a line chart showing the gap in bridging the transition from individual projects to a fully data-driven organization across all our activities.

While I am not 100% sure how to fill this gap, I do know that the activities we endeavoured to achieve with the individual data visualization projects (such as relying on the tremendous expertise from University of Calgary or one-off data extracts) need to be adjusted for growth in demand and complexity. How do we take this step? I think:

  1. we need dedicated staff with expertise in data science and visual and user-centred design
  2. we need to focus on real problems that are relevant to our organization’s mandate
  3. we need to increase data literacy across our organization, reduce the administrative burden to access data, and reduce irritants for our team by equipping them with the latest tools so that they can move from data entry or waiting for the data to the real job of data analysis
  4. lastly, we need to experiment, which means trying, testing, failing, and then learning and trying again

There is more to come from the team of experts brought together to complement our own data expertise. Plus, we’ve opened both the source code and the data of any interactive visualization we’ve created in support of the Government of Canada’s transparency efforts.

It is a journey, and we look forward to transforming other data structures to help make NEB data more accessible to Canadians.

What do you think? Do you have a story to share? Let us know.


Ryan Hum

Ryan Hum

Ryan Hum is the Vice President of Data and Information Management at the National Energy Board. Ryan’s previous post was with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, where he was Director of Service Insights and Experimentation, responsible for designing and implementing service improvements for people seeking refuge, immigrating and becoming citizens of Canada. Ryan has had a long and distinguished career in public service at Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Natural Resources Canada, where he was Acting Director of Sustainable Mining Policy, Intergovernmental Affairs and Environmental Assessments. He was also a founding member of the Government of Canada’s Central Innovation Hub (housed at the Privy Council Office), where he served as Chief Designer and Data Scientist, leading the design insights and data analytics practice to improve policy, program and service delivery.

Ryan has a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from Queen’s University, a Master’s of Engineering Design from McMaster University, and is working toward a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University and has previously taught design, public policy and engineering at Carleton University and the University of Toronto.

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