Dash: Dynamic Dashboard Creation

The human brain really isn’t very good at processing masses of abstract data…well, I know mine isn’t, anyway. Brains can usually cope with a few things at one time (“must reply to that email once I get back from picking up the milk”), but when faced with a torrent of information, such as the web bombards us with, most brains start to struggle.

It is for this very reason that virtual dashboards have gained popularity. Developers recognize that even the most basic of web-apps, like a blog, can churn out a mass of data, which can only be seen with clarity if it is delivered in a human-friendly, visual format. Yet the idea of a personal dashboard, possibly the most useful matrix of this kind imaginable, still hasn’t really taken off, despite the traction that services such as iGoogle, My Yahoo and Netvibes gained in their early days.

Perhaps the smartphone has shoved the dashboard into outdatedness and redundancy. Or perhaps the desktop dashboard format just needs some reinvigoration. If the latter scenario is the more accurate, then Dash wants to be that reinvigoration. It is pretty, well connected and dynamic — but is it good enough to be your new homepage?

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Dashing

Unlike those previous generation services mentioned in the introduction, Dash seems to put an emphasis on simplicity and flexibility, rather than outright functionality (certainly at this early stage of its development).

As a new user, you can create multiple dashboards (although you’ll need to upgrade to Pro, at $9.99 per month or $99 per year, to get unlimited dashboards) and each one of these is a flexibly sized canvas for holding widgets. The widgets themselves can be dragged around, rotated and resized at will, and most have a number of variables that can be modified to suit your needs.

The design of Dash and its constituent elements is unflashy, but pleasant enough

The design of Dash is unflashy, but reasonably pleasing on the eye.

The look of Dash is also unpretentious. Pale blue is the predominant colour, and the design of the site, including dashboards and widgets, is clean and inoffensive.

Content

The thing about a personal dashboard, though, is that it really needs to be catch-all. Unfortunately, Dash isn’t that yet, although I would suspect that the platform’s youth, once again, is the principal cause — after all, Dash is less than a month old. But a promising start has been made.

Basics

For starters, the really basic basics are all in place.

Text widgets have rather more practical use than the shape and image widgets.

Text widgets have rather more practical uses than do the shape and image widgets.

A text widget is available for leaving yourself a note, and there is a pleasantly designed clock which offers the time in 12- or 24-hour formats. Images and shapes can be included in your dashboard too, although the practical uses for these are not greatly apparent to me — maybe the digital equivalent of a picture on your desk?

Real-World Utilities

There are, however, some truly worthwhile utilities provided.

The weather widget contains a five-day forecast for your location, and there are five different preset news widgets, each with a different source, which retrieve the latest headlines. If that doesn’t keep you updated enough, you can set up your own RSS feed widgets as well. Whichever of the two feed-based widgets you employ, you’ll be provided with a nicely presented, scrollable list of stories.

News, weather and Instagram are all covered nicely.

News, weather and Instagram are all covered nicely.

At present, there’s a relative dearth of social options in Dash, which is somewhat disappointing, given that a service like Dash could almost be entirely based around the likes of Twitter and Facebook (see TweetDeck). Thankfully, you can at least keep track of your latest postings on Instagram, as well as the uploads of other users and the folks you follow. Again, the presentation is unflashy, but the sideways scrolling gives a nice view of the photos.

The other kind of real-world data that you can keep track of — namely, your weight, via a Withings scale — is an unusual choice, and a slightly nerdy one at that, given that it requires a Wi-Fi-attached smartscale. To give credit where it’s due, though, it does do the job of tracking your bulking up/slimming down.

Virtual Data

Webmasters will be happy with the pretty Google and Chartbeat analytics graphs, which can provide stats on visitor numbers and referrals, whilst the Pingdom widget allows site check-ups to be performed swiftly. Coders are catered for too, thanks to GitHub integration.

Multiple website monitoring options are available thanks to Google Analytics, Chartbeat and Pingdom integrations.

Multiple website monitoring options are available thanks to Google Analytics, Chartbeat and Pingdom integrations.

Custom charts and tables are the final two types of widget, both of which may be created with JSON data (allowing for dynamic graphs) or a spreadsheet. This only works by pasting in the file’s direct URL, and Dash can be a bit picky with formatting. Thankfully, once the graphs are working, they do a perfectly good job of serving up the data, with a design made for clarity.

Sharing

Traditionally, we think of dashboards as being very personal, but with Dash, you can actually make your collections of widgets public.

Dashboards can be shared selectively, or publicly via Dash's Explore section.

Dashboards can be shared selectively, or publicly via Dash’s Explore section.

I must admit that the current selection of widgets restricts the appeal of public availability (the weight graph in particular!), but with future development and added data sources, I can see themed dashboards being great for sharing real-time information.

Conclusion

I think it would be fair to say that Dash is a work in progress. That may read like a diss, but it is actually just a statement of fact; this is a product at the beginning of its development. The total widget toolbox has areas of real strength, but it is also patchy – the lack of Twitter or Facebook integration is a problem, as is the absence of a calendar widget.

Yet there is real promise here. The design is very much web 2.0, the widgets that are already in place are pretty much bug-free, and the Explore section, home to all the publicly shared dashboards, illustrates a number of cool deployments of Dash that early adopters have dreamed up.

Is it too early to name Dash as the rebirth of the one-page web? Definitely. But I am going to define Dash as a cool, emerging platform that is rapidly finding its feet.


Summary

Flexible, well-designed dashboard creation. Needs to keep adding data sources to become useful for the mainstream.

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