Data visualization: lassoing insights from Texas-size data

If it’s true that everything is bigger in Texas, imagine what “big data” means in the Lone Star State.

Stephanie A. Bond Huie knows all about that. As Vice Chancellor, ad interim, for the University of Texas System’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, Huie leads a team of researchers and policy analysts that makes sense of all the data from the system’s nine academic and six health institutions.

The UT System is one of the nation’s largest systems of public higher education. To corral data as big as Texas into insightful decision support, one of the tools the UT System uses is data visualization.

“Data is the foundation for wise decisions,” Huie says. “But it’s not always obvious what questions you should be asking. That’s especially true given the volumes of data that a central administrative office like the UT System collects and manages.”

Answers to unasked questions
Huie's team is building a productivity dashboard, a Web-based business intelligence system that provides analytics for policy decisions across the UT System. The dashboard gives useful information to the user community and extends data exploration to the public, the Texas legislature, and the media.

“Through data exploration, the user has an opportunity to make - and evaluate - policy decisions based on information that can reveal multiple perspectives and connections,” Huie says. “It uncovers the answers to questions that we didn’t always know we should be asking.

“By looking at a well-designed chart or graph, you get an immediate feel for what is going on – something you don’t always get with a table of numbers.”

Broad-ranging constituencies
The UT System’s vast network of information consumers spans a wide range of skills and functions. “One of the appeals of SAS® Visual Analytics is that it presents information in ways that are easy to understand for nonspecialists who want to be hands-on,” Huie says. “They appreciate the ability to look at data from different perspectives, explore questions and identify connections that were not immediately apparent.

“SAS Visual Analytics guides people through the processes, it offers slick presentation, and you can get all of this functionality on the iPad® – making information much more portable for people working out in the field.”

Instant insights, clearer view
Currently around 30 key users have the iPad as their device of choice, but Huie’s team believes this number will continue to increase.

“From an information consumer’s perspective, SAS Visual Analytics on the iPad delivers insights very quickly, even when you are out in the field,” according to Paula Bales, Communications Coordinator for the UT System’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. “You can get a pie chart, for example, and decide it is not quite what you were looking for – but then with a few clicks you can change several relationships and get a clearer picture.

“It’s not just that SAS Visual Analytics speeds the process of getting information – it speeds the process of thinking, because nonspecialists can go in and run their own analytics, doing things in an instant that would take days with traditional programming and report generation.”

“With a couple of follow-up questions you could focus even more strategically on what’s most relevant,” Bales says.

“That’s important because you can have too much information,” she continues. “Whereas the productivity dashboard is an access portal to UT System’s entire data warehouse, SAS Visual Analytics allows you to create focused reports on critical issues – it’s like telling a story about the data.”

Open to the public
Information is fully accessible to the public.

“Anyone can access the productivity dashboard and our visual analytics reports,” Huie says. “Our chancellor is committed to transparency, and in particular demonstrating to the public that we are pursuing the goals set out in the Framework for Advancing Excellence.”

Open access also supports accurate and up-to-date reporting in the media. Reporters covering higher education can look up the facts for themselves.

As an institutional research office, the UT System is the guardian of much information that will be of great practical benefit to a broad community of users.

“With the productivity dashboard, we had already brought our data out of static tables in PDFs and into a dynamic business intelligence system, but with SAS Visual Analytics we can do much more,” Bales says. “We want to make the information more accessible, for example, by developing research papers that give context to the data and making the information more meaningful to external users.”

tags: analytics, big data, data visualization, high-performance analytics, SAS Visual Analytics

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