Business Intelligence

Dashboards Deliver Data Visually at ASU

You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger advocate of dashboards in higher education than Arizona State University's John Rome. Dashboards--succinct graphical summaries of information that are commonly used in business to present data to executives and managers--are now cropping up in universities. Well at the forefront is the work being done at ASU under Rome, who is associate vice president, University Technology Office.

ASU is a large and rapidly growing university, with 65,000-plus students, The university is using software called CenterView, from Corda Technologies, to build the dashboards. Data comes from its Oracle data warehouse, as well as some current operational data outside the data warehouse.

With some 600 dashboard uses recorded a day--by everyone from administrative assistants to business operations managers to associate deans and provosts--the dashboards have clearly proved popular in the three years since Rome introduced the concept. Nearly all the ASU dashboards so far are designed for staff and faculty, although Rome said he envisions a day when students might use dashboards as well to check available classes or financial status. As part of the effort to make BI--and access to BI through dashboards--an everyday experience for users, dashboard access begins at the primary portal that faculty and staff use daily.

The concept's popularity is also evidenced by the healthy list of new dashboard requests awaiting his staff. As Rome said he tells the students who work for the technology office, "We have full employment for a long time [building] dashboards."

Ease of Use and Depth of Information
The dashboard initiative has been helped along by the fact that tech-savvy ASU already has a solid central repository for data, an Oracle enterprise data warehouse that it has been building since the mid-'90s, along with an ad hoc reporting tool, originally Brio, then Hyperion, and now part of Oracle. But that tool isn't designed for the everyday user, Rome said he realized over time.

The dashboards, by contrast, "are a great tool to visually represent data and deliver information" to virtually anyone. For more customized work, the university continues to offer access to the Oracle Hyperion BI tools.

He said he sees dashboards as just another tool in the university's business intelligent (BI) arsenal--a tool that can bring BI to casual users, allowing them intuitive and easy access to detailed data. Dashboards typically present a fairly high-level summary of a specific category of data, then allow the user to click on various areas to drill down into details. "You shouldn't have to be a rocket scientist to use BI," Rome said.

Ease of use is the byword for good dashboards, Rome emphasized. Although some of ASU's dashboards have links to video and instructions on how to use them, if a dashboard requires much training at all, "we've missed the mark" in terms of design, he said.

Besides the visual displays, the dashboards often provide a link back to the operational data they are drawing from--the system of record--such as the ERP system. Dashboard users can not only view data, but can click on a chart to go to the actual system of origin, and--with appropriate access--make changes there. That makes the dashboards not just a way to simplify the display of data, but an overall user interface to all other systems.

Dashboard Development
Incorporating student employees into dashboard building is a key to the program. Students--mostly computer science majors, but also from areas as diverse as design and business--work on dashboard projects in a popular and creative area known as The Cave, formerly a kitchen but now filled with a big flat-screen monitor, whiteboards, beanbag chairs, and lots of students churning out dashboards. Experience in the cave has led to solid job opportunities for the students who work there, Rome said.

Rome's staff also includes a usability expert whose focus is ensuring that university Web pages, including dashboards, are as friendly and well designed as possible.

Dashboards and Meta-Dashboards
ASU currently has some 30 dashboards across 25 subject areas, drawing on thousands of key data items. The popularity of various dashboards is cyclical, Rome said, but currently, a dashboard that summarizes CRM help desk support ranks high in use, as does a high-level financial report dashboard, along with dashboards summarizing HR reports and one on research grants and awards.

An enrollment management dashboard allows the user to drill down on courses and information on prospective students, then, with the right permission, to link to the Oracle PeopleSoft program to update student data. Another dashboard offers a visual monitor of class enrollment, so that when a class reaches a certain size, a red dot indicates that the class is near capacity. A quick visual scan can indicate the red dots that suggest where to consider adding supplementary classes.

Using dashboards to monitor dashboards, Rome even has a sort of "meta-dashboard" that tracks who top users are and how heavily they are accessing certain dashboards.

Rome is a fan of showing any dashboard user the SQL code behind it, what he calls "making the secret sauce public." When someone questions the numbers on a dashboard, showing the underlying code helps him and his staff figure out if indeed there is a problem--and also helps users understand just where the data is coming from.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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