The Grill: Emmile Brack helps deliver analytics to educators

A large analytics project offers insight into students' academic progress.

Emmile Brack leads the IT department at Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that manages 34 public charter schools throughout California. The system serves 12,000 mostly low-income students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and its goal is to get all graduating seniors accepted into four-year colleges. Brack is Aspire's vice president of technology. She says her department's task is to make sure Aspire's 1,500 employees and its students have the technology needed to transform the students' educational experiences. Brack says one way her team is meeting this goal is by deploying analytics tools. Here she talks about the lessons she has learned from that project.

What did your organization want to achieve with the analytics deployment? The main reason for wanting to deploy analytics software was to save time for our teachers, principals and other teammates. We did a needs assessment and gathered that quite a bit of time was being spent by teammates crunching numbers or gathering data to see how students were performing. That was extremely time-consuming and did not leave a lot of time to gather insights from that data analysis or to develop a plan of action to fix the issues.

Did the deployment achieve your goals? We've accomplished a lot with Tableau [analytics software], but there are areas where we want to use Tableau more in order to achieve that big goal around saving teammates time. We've rolled out reports and dashboards that have greatly improved efficiency around analysis and allowed our teachers and principals to spend more time on the insight and planning pieces. But there's still room and work for us to do around achieving that big goal.

What has been the biggest benefit with this analytics deployment? The ability to display and show longitude data on a specific student or on a specific school's performance. We take what we call the CSTs -- the standardized tests that all students have to take -- and we've been able to use Tableau to visualize trends and the performance of individual students and teachers, and schools as a whole and as an organization year over year. It's improving the ability for our teachers and principals to be more effective in their work. We could have done it without Tableau, but for a teacher or principal to do that, it would have been an enormous task.

What is the end result of this insight? That a piece of data doesn't provide answers, but it prompts a teacher to ask: Why?

What did you have to do to prepare technically for this deployment? We built out a data warehouse that served as a central repository for all of our organizational data, student achievement data, financial data, survey data. We built that infrastructure and we wanted to ensure that many, if not all, of our core operational systems were integrated. Unlike corporations that have the option of [using multiple] ERP systems, education technology doesn't have that type of system, so not all things are integrated like in an ERP. In education technology, there are software and tools that do one specific thing, so you have to piece your systems together and work to integrate them. The integration of our operational systems and the building out of our data warehouse happened over two years, and we continue to build it out and integrate systems as we add them.

What was the biggest mistake you made with this project? When we implemented the data warehouse and Tableau, the large appetite for data analysis increased even more. It seemed like the appetite was insatiable. And we were A1/4ber-responsive. So there were hundreds of reports built out, but there's not a lot of structure around how they're organized. Simple things like [how to] make sure they're named correctly, what are the right folders they should be in, security issues around who should have access to what -- that knowledge management we didn't necessarily think about ahead of time. It's sort of biting us now in that there are literally hundreds of reports out there, and we're trying to figure out which ones are most useful and which ones we can archive or delete.

You have a background in the financial and operations side of the house. What was the biggest benefit of having experience in those areas as you switched to leading IT? It helps me understand that IT should be grounded in a particular process and should support that process and not hinder it. As technology people, a lot of my team is really excited about new technology, but if it's not grounded in work that needs to get done, it doesn't really matter.

What was the biggest liability of that background? Because I'm not a highly technical person, there was a learning curve [in, for example, understanding things] as simple as our network infrastructure. I had a little bit of a blind spot to very foundational technology that's necessary to support things like the data warehouse and analytics. So that learning curve has been a little bit steep for me. But I ask good questions, and I'm getting up to speed.

What would you do again when taking on a new role? [Recognizing that] it's all about the team. All the successes we experience will be as a team. Knowing who I have on the team, knowing their perspectives, their work, what makes them excited about coming to work, I'd do that again. It helps build trust and gives insight into what our issues are.

Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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