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American Railway Company  |  Redesigned Data Dashboard

The project

Visiting several railroad offices in the northern United States, my design research team and I interviewed railroad employees to better understand how they manage their railyards. We discovered they start every day looking at dense data spreadsheets in order to manually plan for the incoming and outgoing cars and manage the capacity of their railyards. These spreadsheets contain information about their railyard capacity, expected incoming and outgoing rail cars, whether those cars have been loaded with cargo yet, how long cars in the yard have been waiting there, and which cars are racking up demurrage fees. They use this data to make predictions, but it takes many years to learn the nuances of making accurate predictions and a lot of employees who haven’t been at the company many years struggle here. My team decided to take these dense spreadsheets and display them in a way that made sense to anyone who looked at them. We also knew we could employ algorithms to calculate predictions, saving them a lot of manual work and margin for error. In our interviews we uncovered what information was most important for them in managing their rail yards and what spreadsheet data they looked at to get that information. We took their raw information and designed a dashboard tool that took dense spreadsheet data and re-visualized in a simple and easy-to-read way. The dashboard can be customized by individuals to display the data most relevant to them, and with help from the data scientists on our team, we were able to integrate algorithms to display future predictions.

The outcome

As the only visual designer on the team, my role was to design the set of data visualizations for the dashboard that visually conveyed our complex data in a comprehendible and accurate way. I spent a lot of time sketching ideas with my team for how this might be possible. I tried to stick with typical graph and chart styles where I could, since pie charts, bar charts and line charts are a recognizable form of data representation that we all know how to read. I redesigned a way to see how many cars are coming in, from where, and whether they are empty or loaded. I designed a visualization to show how close to capacity the railyard is, that updates based on incoming and outgoing car predictions. I designed a map showing all cars that are bound for a railyard and included potential weather and maintenance hazards along the route that could potentially indicate a delay in the expected arrival time. I designed a new way for managers to divert incoming cars away from their yard if it’s already at capacity or expected to be. I designed a way to view historical transit times for specific groups of cars that included a prediction of what time they will arrive, and I designed a way to show how long cars have been sitting so workers can prioritize which need to be sent away first. Taking these dense spreadsheets and making them visual and readable is just one way we used design to make people’s jobs and lives easier and less tedious.

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