Best of BI: Minnesota Department of Education creates user-friendly dashboards

Data-rich, fast-access BI dashboards replaced overly complex reports that had little value.

The Minnesota Department of Education, like a lot of state education departments, is tasked with collecting, evaluating and making available volumes of data on every aspect of its 2,000 schools and 350 school districts. It tracks school attendance scores, dropout rates, performance by grade level, test results, achievement differences between student subgroups, student population growth trends, expenses and much more.

While the department maintains a central repository for much of its data, some data has inevitably wound up in individual silos, such as on school servers and employee desktops. Getting to that data -- and standardizing it -- was a major challenge.

Another problem, as Cathy Wagner, the department's business analytics and data manager, explains, was the complicated presentation of data in the Excel reports that employees used to generate when they worked with the data.

"We had data that was mechanical-looking, and people complained they couldn't do anything with it," she says.

At the same time, administrators wanted to combine data from the various school districts in order to better see trends over weeks, months or years.

So earlier this year, the IT department began consolidating data -- mostly in mainframe flat files or in Microsoft SQL Server systems -- into reports in an Oracle Universal content management repository, which will be located at a state data center. Developers used WebFocus Developer Studio and Flex Enable to develop multiple dashboards that end users -- administrators, teachers and parents -- can easily access to find the data they need. The dashboards also let users drill down into specific data types to get more information. Adobe Flex graphics help make the data more interactive.

The system, which was paid for with grant money, is still under development. The main task now is the migration of data, but many administrators are already using the system.

Meg Litts, whose title is data coach, says she likes the graphical charts, which display data vividly, and the easier-to-use dashboards. "It used to be painfully slow," says Litts. "Now the speed is dynamic, and there are graphical charts, not just tabular data."

The system will initially be used in an initiative aimed at lowering dropout rates. Employees will try to pinpoint which types of students aren't making it and identify the risk factors they have in common -- such as homelessness or poor English language skills. "Schools will get the dropout data and patterns for their students this fall and can then do intervention programs to reduce dropout rates," says Wagner. "They can target programs more effectively, based on current information."

Next: Parallon Business consolidates its BI streams

Hildreth is a veteran IT writer based in Waltham, Mass. She covers enterprise technologies, from BI and CRM to social media and IT management.

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