Data Warehouse Initiative: Moving from Data to Information

It seems that every organization today wants to both acquire more data and do more with it.

At the center of any discussion about “data-driven decision making” there is one significant hurdle:  taking large amounts of data, from disparate sources and in different formats, and transforming it into consistent, accurate and useful information.

Most large organizations today, including many universities, use a method called Data Warehousing to accomplish the “data to information” transformation.  Some 92% of SMU’s aspirational peer universities use data warehouses, as do 67% of cohort peers.  Of the 13 institutions in addition to SMU in the Colonial Group (a consortium of universities that conduct data exchanges and information sharing through their Institutional Research offices), 85% use a data warehouse.

In brief, a data warehouse is a relational database that is designed for query and analysis rather than for transaction processing. It pulls from systems across the university, simplifies, consolidates and transforms complex, unmatched data into usable, consistent data that can flow easily into analytics and visualization tools from which organizations can generate usable information. All parts of the organization then have the ability to draw from a rich, trusted information source.

“Basically, our student data, financial data, alumni data, donor data, etc., all live in different locations and formats, so it’s difficult to conduct good strategic research and planning,” said Dr. Patty Alvey, director of Assessment and Accreditation for SMU. “Currently there are few people on campus who can merge and manage our data sets. A data warehouse can put better information at the fingertips of managers across the university.

“For example, if we want to work to improve student retention rates, we might want to compare information about students and their Residential Commons,” said Alvey. “Currently, information about student success doesn’t exist in the same format and location as information about the Residential Commons. By way of a data warehouse, information from all parts of the institution can be used to discover many ways we can improve our students’ experience.”

A data warehouse usually contains historical data derived from transactions, but it can include and consolidate data from other sources.  In addition to a relational database, a data warehouse environment includes an extraction, transportation, transformation, and loading (ETL) solution, an online analytical processing (OLAP) engine, client analysis tools, and other applications that manage the process of gathering data and delivering it to business users.

The process of moving any organization from disparate collections of data to a position where many members of the organization can query data to make sound decisions requires careful planning and cooperation across the organization. Day-to-day operations (transactions) are not affected by either the implementation or use of a data warehouse. Data flows into the warehouse on regular schedules and remains constant thereafter.  Security and privacy for all the different functions of the organization are maintained while everyone has access to important and useful information.

A new Data Warehouse Initiative has now been established through the Office of Operational Excellence to develop this program at SMU.

The goals are:

  1. Inventory, define, prioritize, and aggregate data for end users and decision makers
  2. Research best practices and design a system for data governance
  3. Implement best practice workflow from data input to decision-making dashboards

To accomplish these tasks, the team will have to fully understand the variety of data that exists at SMU regarding data pools, ownership, purpose, security, input, storage and output systems. The Data Warehouse team had an initial meeting on June 23 and will quickly begin contacting employees in departments across campus to gather information on their data usage.

Data Warehouse Initiative Leadership and Membership

Executive Sponsors-Jim Quick and Joe Gargiulo

Patty Alvey-Project Manager

Cindy Boeke-CUL

Adam Cebulski-Student Affairs

Charles Headley-DEA

Curt Herridge-IT

Joe Papari-Registrar

Marc Peterson-Financial Aid

Darrel Pyle-Budgets and Finance

Michael Tumeo-Institutional Research

By Karen Drennan