UW Information Technology

Seeing is Believing

New tools, better access bring striking visual insights for decision makers

Ben Robinson

Ben Robinson, School of Public Health CFO, uses Tableau to create a clear picture of his School.

There’s a graph that Chief Financial Officer Ben Robinson loves. The single image tells the story of UW’s School of Public Health. It shows a seven-year trajectory for each of the seven Public Health programs, with the number of students enrolled and the amount of research awards generated by each. Robinson created it with Tableau data visualization software, using data from the Enterprise Data Warehouse (EDW).

“This was the first clear picture of who we are and what we do—and here it is on one slide,” Robinson said. “Before this, we never had a single cohesive understanding of the School. There were simply so many moving parts that a spreadsheet could never capture our story so simply and clearly.”

Now, generating insights like this—definitive, useful, easy to understand and based on nearly real-time data—is simple, efficient, and even fun, Robinson said, thanks to Tableau, EDW, and interactive reports and data sets developed by UW-IT.

“Tableau is the first thing I turn on every morning and the last thing I turn off every night,” Robinson said. “I use it in every aspect of what I do, from budgeting and forecasting to immediately answering questions in meetings with real-time data.”

“Our big goal for this year was making the EDW data more accessible,” said Anja Canfield-Budde, UW-IT’s Director for Enterprise Data & Analytics. “We want every decision maker to have access to reliable, comprehensive, central data, and useful ways to work with it.”

To make EDW data easy to access and use, UW-IT also hosts more than 200 custom, fully interactive reports loaded with previously unavailable aggregate data from human resources, payroll, admissions, research administration, finance and more. It also created one research and three financial “cubes” packed with biennium data that can be “sliced and diced” and used to create visual representations that highlight historical trends.

“There are so many ‘aha’ moments that happen when people start using the drag-and-drop functionality of these tools through the new Business Intelligence portal,” said Ann Wunderlin, Education and Communication Manager for UW-IT’s Enterprise Data & Analytics. As one user told her, “Manipulating data used to be like pushing a shopping cart, but now it’s like driving a Ferrari.”

To increase transparency and confidence in the data, UW-IT has been careful to design all its new tools to be easy to “look under the hood” to confirm the underlying raw data is complete and correct, Canfield-Budde explained.

“The tool is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “The bulk of the effort is incurred in gathering, integrating, organizing, modeling and defining the data.” Providing access to valid, defined data from the EDW lowers the barrier to effective decision-making, she said. This is an important step toward uniform, agreed-upon institutional data and analytics at the UW, based on a single source of central administrative data.

Because the data in the EDW is definitive, one of the most powerful impacts of these tools has been their ability to “myth bust,” Robinson said. “With Activity Based Budgeting, it’s very important that decisions are made with facts. In the past, we often had to deal with assumptions that could be difficult to check. Now it’s simple.”

There are other, less expected benefits as well. “With each interaction, each visualization, you learn new things, and frequently fork off in new directions that deepen your understanding,” Robinson said. “It’s a whole new way of working with data.”

Originally published in the UW Information Technology 2013 Annual Report. View our Annual Reports archive.