Oxford University uses data visualization to gain enterprise view

Data analytics pros at Oxford have turned to data visualization from Tableau for an enterprise view of student administration, finance and procurement. The tool has also played into communications.

Oxford University is using data visualization software to gain a better view of its student administration, finance and procurement information. It has also discovered benefits in being able to react rapidly when the university is in the media spotlight and in communicating with potential and current students.

Andy Cotgreave, senior data analyst in the university’s student administration team, chose Tableau four years ago and set up the first UK user group.

He said the university has “mapped the trend in BI [business intelligence] as analysts often describe it. We started with a small business-led acquisition of a tool just to get a job done quickly, and we are looking to move enterprisewide.”

Reporting on students has become an increasing burden for the 140 university departments and 38 colleges. “Bigger demand, insufficient tools,” he said.

Four years ago, he installed Tableau and “in an afternoon, I could see that it would give the repeatable analysis required.” The annual programme statistics now take a day to produce; previously, they had taken weeks. This frees his team up to do more analysis, respond to ad hoc requests and sit down with divisions applying for funding to work contemporaneously.

“We’ve gone out to the colleges and departments and have got a well-engaged community of 700 consumers and 20 publishers of data,” Cotgreave said.

Over time, hidden patterns have emerged. Applying the data visualization software to annual programme statistics pulled from the Oracle system, “has enabled us to see things where previously we would have relied on intuition. So, now we know that XYZ department has a problem with its D.Phil. thesis submission rates.”

The International Student Barometer, in which Oxford, like many UK universities, participates, is throwing up data that can be visualized to affect policy. One quirky example, generated last year in “half an hour,” Cotgreave said, is around sports facilities provision.

The software has enabled those in charge of the university’s central sports department to see that non-EU overseas students are more dissatisfied than any other group: 153 were very dissatisfied with college sports; 92 with university sports, according to a 2010 report. Previously, the authorities had a hunch that the colleges’ traditional focus on classic British sports, like rowing, rugby and hockey, was to the detriment others, which would appeal, especially, to overseas students.

And since overseas students make up an increasing part of the Oxford student body, that could be unfortunate in a global education market, where Oxford is competing with peers like Harvard, Yale and Stanford. “Forty years ago, when we set up university sports, we had many fewer overseas students,” Cotgreave said.

Domestically, too, the market for undergraduate and graduate students is becoming more competitive. Higher education data around student satisfaction has gained a new importance with the government’s December 2010 decision to raise student fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year. Oxford and Cambridge were the first to declare for the maximum, with most other institutions following.

In that context, Cotgreave said, “students will want to know more about courses, contact hours, teaching resources. With the barometer we are satisfying that in ways couldn’t do in the past.” Moreover, he said, the “media likes to target Oxbridge.”

In April of this year, Prime Minister David Cameron, himself an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford, in the 1980s, criticised his old university for only having one black student in its 2009 intake. But Oxford’s public affairs unit proved this to be wrong, thanks in part to the Tableau data visualization software: 22% of the 2009 undergraduate cohort came from ethnic minority backgrounds, and there were 27 black students in that year.

The university’s careers service has used the Tableau Public product to communicate with potential students in publishing its Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) survey, which details occupation by type and salaries – including by gender – six months after graduation.

On the finance side of the university’s reporting, Sheree Chalmers, finance reporting solutions manager, said that “while the finance reporting is quite simple, the university has a complex structure. We have developed a financial reporting strategy but yet to develop a university-wide strategy. The challenge is to get a university picture. Once we have done that, we can really get benefits from what data you can aggregate and from a lower total cost of ownership. We are now on the borderline of rolling Tableau out to departments. We also want to close down the proliferation of spreadsheets.”

In her view, “Tableau is an analysis tool, not just a reporting tool. The beauty of it is that is highly scalable. You can just use it on your desktop, or it could be sitting on top of a data warehouse.” The Oxford data warehouse is divided into data marts for student systems, purchasing and finance, she said.

Chalmers’ first view of Tableau was at the first user group meeting in 2007, organized at a time when one of the supplier’s co-founders, Pat Hanrahan, was in Oxford for a conference. At the time she had been looking into BusinessObjects, Cognos and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition. Cotgreave confirmed that they had also looked at Tibco Spotfire and QlikView for data visualization.

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