The George Washington University Data-Driven Decision Support Project
by Peter Barton, Manager, Data Administration, The George Washington University
Like most higher education institutions, The George Washington University (GW) is facing a new set of challenges that are more complex than ever. Overcoming fierce competition for the best students, meeting diverse student needs, finding adequate funds to meet constantly shifting demands, and increased accountability from internal and external constituents are affecting all aspects of the GW's business processes from recruitment to financial management. The complexity of these challenges requires continuous improvement of operational strategies based on accurate and timely decisions.
In order to create a high-caliber decision support environment, GW is turning to data warehousing technology to deliver key performance metrics to end users on-demand and at their desktops.
GW faced several challenges in the process:
GW's solution for meeting these challenges is to create an enterprise data warehouse over time and in an incremental manner. The first phase of our solution, called the Student Data Mart (SDM), was rolled out to the user community in July 2001. The SDM uses data warehousing technology to:
The objective was to provide clean and integrated data that can be accessed by business users in a business context, requiring no knowledge of databases, programming languages, or other technical know-how. An added objective was to create an enterprise-wide solution in increments and spread the investment over time, while relieving the pressure on the systems staff and providing end users direct access to the key performance metrics.
The GW SDM user community expanded significantly after rollout. Users have consistently provided positive feedback and accolades on the success and robustness of the application.
The Executive Director of Administrative Applications sponsored the project. Users from Institutional Research, Registrar's Office, Graduate Admissions, and individual colleges contributed significantly to the success of the project. The SDM vision-to-rollout duration was 18 months.
The Data Warehouse Initiative Mission Statement is ...
Create an environment that:
The SDM contains ten years of recruitment, admissions, enrollment, registration, and GPA information for all students, all campuses, and all programs. It supports a wide-range of academic metrics, including per-campus and unduplicated enrollment counts, admissions selectivity, course enrollment data, student achievement and program growth. These metrics are directly related to academic goals of departments and of the university as a whole. The summary data can be "sliced and diced" across a variety of dimensions such as campus, college, level, degree, major, demographics, inquiry source, academic standing, student type, course/section, schedule type, and registration status among others. The SDM includes several multidimensional views for trend analysis of historical data.
Also, the SDM includes comprehensive "metadata"--information about the data contents--including business definitions of data elements and, for more technical audiences, "what's this element" mappings of SDM contents to their source elements in the GW transactional application.Secure Single Point of Entry
Users access features of the Student Data Mart (SDM) through Cognos' Upfront web portal product (see Fig. 1). This entry point provides links to standard reports that can be executed on current data, multidimensional views of summarized data, and end-user help such as frequently asked questions, quick reference guides, training material, what's-this-field crosswalks, and other useful links. Access to subject areas, views, reports, and individual data elements is controlled by a business-policy-driven security matrix, which authorizes access to data based on assigned user classes and authorizations that permit access through the firewall.
Fig. 1. SDM Web Portal
SDM Multidimensional Views
The following six views are currently implemented: 1.Graduate Inquiries; 2. Graduate Applications; 3. Headcount by Campus; 4. Unduplicated Headcounts; 5. Course Registrations; 6. Undergraduate Applications. Figure 2 shows a multidimensional view from the data warehouse.
Fig. 2. Headcounts by College, Campus, and Term Screen Shot
Reports and views are accessed by users through Web-based, zero-footprint business intelligence products from Cognos Corporation. This paradigm centralizes information dissemination to a server-based architecture. The need for software installation on individual desktops across the university campus is limited to a small set of "power" users who need to create specialized reports for other users. This approach affords GW a cost-effective way of rolling out the SDM user interface to a growing user community.
SDM data are stored in dimensional models to support high-volume, high-performance queries in an Oracle 8i relational database. Informatica Corporation's PowerMart 5.1 product suite is used to extract, transform, and load data from the source application to the warehouse. Business intelligence components are developed in Cognos Corporation's version 6 Web-based product suite (Upfront, Impromptu Web Reports, PowerPlay). The SDM is hosted on a distributed architecture using a multi-processor Sun E5500 server with Solaris operating system and two Windows NT servers.
The Student Data Mart offers several benefits:
The project team has secured more than $2 million in funding over the last 3 years. Future plans include a five-year budget projection and the rollout of additional data marts and a significant expansion of the user base. The project team consists of 1 full-time project manager and 5 project team members.
The GW SDM project is a model for other higher education institutions on three fronts: project management, project approach, and technical capital.Project Management
Best practices related to project management, lessons learned, and critical success factors from our solution would be of value to other institutions embarking on similar projects since most higher education institutions probably face shortage of sponsorship, funds, and resources for data warehouse projects as faced by our project team.
While the need for a long-term data warehousing effort was acknowledged in concept by GW executive management and the Board of Trustees, the project managers recognized that it is often difficult to achieve immediate widespread support for such efforts, since the perceived business value is difficult to predict and quantify. The strategy set to ensure support for the project was to secure grassroots sponsorship from a core group of management and professional level users who could directly benefit from easier access to summary-level information. This core group also provided business information requirements and tested the application. Then, while development proceeded, the project managers conducted frequent demonstrations to successively higher executive levels.Project Approach
Our approach for the first phase was driven by the belief that addressing academic metrics would provide the exposure and sponsorship needed for sustaining the project. This approach has been one of the critical success factors for the project and is relevant to other higher education institutions as well.
Our focus on academic metrics and our holistic approach of addressing the major milestones in a student's lifecycle at the university makes our solution unique. SDM metrics are of immediate interest to administrators and faculty alike since they directly impact GW's ability to cope with a variety of emerging challenges and are based on GW's core student data --recruitment, admissions, enrollment, and registration. Planned SDM enhancements include metrics for graduation data. Future projects include the creation of accounts receivable, human resources, and financial data marts.Technical Capital
SDM data models along with best practices for architecture, database design, extract-transform-load (ETL) process design, validation, security, training, and change management constitute a significant body of technical capital for higher education data warehouse practitioners.
The project team utilized several industry-standard technologies. Incremental development was based on dimensional data models specifically created for SCT's Higher Education Solution, Banner. Dimensional data models are widely accepted in the industry as the de facto standard. GW's data models are at a high level of abstraction and designed to naturally support high-volume queries in an efficient manner. The project team also determined early on in the project that a scalable architecture was critical for future expansion of the SDM.
The team conducted a thorough analysis of tools and technologies and selected a suite of hardware and software components from market leaders with a proven track record.
... It would be an understatement to say that the Cognos cubes were extremely useful. …I would like to express my appreciation, as well as those of my colleagues who are SDM users, for the professionalism and adherence to the principles of TQM by the staff of Data Administration.” - Norayr Katcheressian, Associate Dean, Columbian School
“ From my point of view, the Data Mart has been a labor-saver!…I hope this project continues to receive the support that it deserves.” - Clint Williams, Assistant Director, Graduate Student Enrollment Management
“…this is exactly what we had been promised would come with Banner (originally!), and I doubt that anyone realistically thought that it would ever arrive. It certainly seems that we were wrong!” - Dr. Phillip Wirtz, Professor
Questions for Analysis and Discussion
About the Author
Peter Barton is Manager, Data Administration, The George Washington University. Contact Peter at 202.994.3413 or email@example.com.
In accordance with GW’s security and privacy policies, the SDM is located behind the University firewall. For more information check http://www.gwu.edu/~aapp/sdm/.
Please cite as:
Barton, P., "The George Washington University Data-Driven Decision Support Project", 2003, at URL DSSResources.COM.
Peter Barton provided permission to use this case study on May 15, 2003. Barton's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. This case study was posted at DSSResources.COM on August 15, 2003.
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