Definition

dashboard

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Dashboard development and data visualization tools for effective BI
Contributor(s): Matt Sorenson

1) In information technology, a dashboard is a user interface that, somewhat resembling an automobile's dashboard, organizes and presents information in a way that is easy to read. However, a computer dashboard is more likely to be interactive than an automobile dashboard (unless it is also computer-based). To some extent, most graphical user interfaces (GUIs) resemble a dashboard. However, some product developers consciously employ this metaphor (and sometimes the term) so that the user instantly recognizes the similarity.

2) Some products that aim to integrate information from multiple components into a unified display refer to themselves as dashboards. For example, a product might obtain information from the local operating system in a computer, from one or more applications that may be running, and from one or more remote sites on the Web and present it as though it all came from the same source. Hewlett Packard developed the first such product, which began as a tool for customizing Windows desktops. Called Dashboard, the HP product was subsequently acquired by Borland and then a company called Starfish. Microsoft's Digital Dashboard tool incorporates Web-based elements (such as news, stock quotes, and so on) and corporate elements (such as e-mail, applications, and so on) into Outlook. Dashboards may be customized in a multitude of ways and named accordingly, generally, for example as a general corporate or enterprise dashboard, or more specifically, as a CIO or CEO dashboard.

This was last updated in September 2005

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I would actually recommend looking at Dashboard Insight's articles on what is a dashboard. Resembling an automobile dashboard is actually misleading. 1) Gauges are not considered to be in line with dashboard design best practices. 2) In fact about the only thing they have in common is that they both display the key performance indicators that are vital for the user.
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I think it's important to note that a "Dashboard" usually refers to a collection of graphical elements, and is not necessarily related to mashing up different data sources, as may be implied by clause 2 of this definition.

Many IT vendors. specifically in the field of data analytics, tour their software as containing "centralized dashboard reporting". However, just because you are showing multiple graphs doesn't mean you're also merging information from multiple sources. If you're only processing pre-built Excels or csv files, and your dashboard is nothing more than graphs displaying this data, you haven't done much.

For a dashboard to be truly meaningful and insightful, it should at the very least be 'attached' to a back-end with data preparation capabilities, i.e. capable of joining diverse sources. A good example of such software can be found at http://www.sisense.com/ , but there are many providers that merely mimic similar graphical data visualization capabilities that exist in Excel or cloud services such as Google (albeit their graphs and charts might be a bit flashier).
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In my experience "dashboard" is used as a catch-all term to refer to any collection of data visualizations OR a control panel from which to accomplish multiple actions. 
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Dashboard means so many different things, it helps to split out exactly what is being displayed an what it represents. Also, Dashboards can be as low-tech or high-end slick as you might want to make them. a three sheet workbook in Excel or another spreadsheet program can be made quite handily into a dashboard with a data sheet, an analysis sheet and a presentation sheet. The main point is that the presentation layer displays data in a way that the reader can quickly get insights or develop questions. How it's done is entirely secondary.
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It display a set of key performance indicators displayed in real time data visualization tools like charts gauges a quantitative analysis create visual insight
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