The Democratization of Data at DePaul University

For us, one of the biggest benefits of Tableau is the ability to democratize data— to put it out on the web for anybody to look at in any way that they deem appropriate.

Founded in 1898, DePaul University is the largest Catholic university in the nation and the largest private institution in Chicago, serving over 25,000 students with more than 275 undergraduate and graduate programs of study. At the 2011 U.S. Tableau Customer Conference, Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment and planning, shared with us how Tableau is helping the university advance the “democratization of data.”

Tableau: Tell us how you’ve used Tableau to conquer enrollment reporting at DePaul.
Jon: It used to be that on our website you would go in and see seven or eight or 10 reports that were simply tables of data over time. In fact, we couldn't even put all the data into one visualization or one spreadsheet, because it would completely go off the screen. So, I went into our Microsoft analysis cubes, ponied them up, loaded them into Tableau, and did a very, very quick visualization that took me no more than 15 minutes to go from Microsoft analysis cubes to the Worldwide Web.
Tableau: And how did that help the university?
Jon: The beauty is not just that we have enrollment reporting on the web and beautiful bar charts, but that we now can answer almost any enrollment question over the past 17 years with a few clicks of a mouse. And what we've found is that this not only sort of generates a lot of interest within the university and causes people to ask interesting questions, but it really allows our staff to save time by sending people to the web to do their own self-service.
Tableau: Have you found self-service access to enrollment data online valuable?
Jon: Interestingly enough, in a university where every piece of information is political, putting this out for everyone to see and for everyone to be able to drill down and get their own answers to data is extraordinarily valuable. In fact, if I had to say one thing about Tableau software, I would say making information and data democratic is probably the greatest value.
Tableau: How does Tableau help you make information and data democratic?
Jon: We get thousands of hits every month from outside the university. A lot of people come in and love to filter and click and re-sort and look at the data in the way that they want to see it, not the way we want to present it to them. I don't have to make the decision when I'm designing the data visualization about the best way to show it to everybody. I can present the data in a very generic way, and give the viewer the power to filter and select and sort and see what he or she is interested in.

And that's really the beautiful thing about it. I don't have to spend time and agonizing over how to get it just perfect, I can create a few controls and allow them to decide what's important to them. Because everybody who comes into our website has a different question, a different interest, and a different sort of approach to how our data is important to them. Tableau gives us the opportunity make it very democratic for anybody who can see it.

Tableau: How has your implementation grown since you discovered Tableau?
Jon: I started as a single user at the university with desktop, and what I found, especially in higher education, is you can't order people to do anything; you have to sort of get them intrigued and interested and focused in the right direction.

So, I would take these massive datasets and roll them into a Tableau visualization, and show them to people live in a conference. When they'd ask: What about the college of business? Or what about the college of communication or liberal arts and sciences or our part-time enrollment? I'd be able to show them that data with a click of a mouse. Everybody was pretty much astonished. And so everybody at the university, certainly in our area, became a big fan of Tableau very quickly.

We implemented on server about four or five years ago, and because of IT concerns and federal regulations with regard to student privacy, nobody wanted to open our server to outside guest accounts. So, now we're fully implemented on Tableau Digital. And so anything that we used to put on the web for public consumption is now on Tableau Digital. We have no issues with security. Anybody in the world can see it, and we can track and see how popular our data visualizations are.

Tableau: How has Tableau impacted your organization?
Jon: Everybody at the university who sees Tableau, and I mean everybody, says this is an amazing tool. And what they can't believe is that I can take 17 years of enrollment data, bring it into -- out of a cube and into Tableau, and publish it on the web in under a half hour.
Tableau: How has Tableau impacted you personally?
Jon: For me the biggest impact is the opportunity to be more aesthetically attuned to the way a visualization looks, and most importantly to allow me or any user to make in an instant a visual impact that people say, oh my gosh, now I see what you're talking about.
Tableau: How big is the data you’re using? And why does “visualization” help?
Jon: Sometimes we're using 11 million or 12 million rows of data. Much of the information that we work with is way too big to put into a spreadsheet or a table or even a series of charts. And so when we look at records and data, we're really looking at millions and millions and millions of transactions.

We could throw that into Excel or a PowerPivot or a table, but at the end what you really see is a big table of information. And when you're looking at a table, 24,000 looks almost the same as 54,000. When you're looking at a data visualization of that data, you get to see the parameters, the proportions, the difference, the nuances, the texture of the information that you can't see when you're just looking at raw numbers. So, visualizing the data using color, shapes, positions on X and Y axes, bar charts, pie charts, whatever you use, it makes it instantly visible and instantly significant to the people who are looking at it.

Tableau: Does Tableau help users discover “aha” moments in all that data?
Jon: What I love now is to be able to throw one chart up on the screen and have people say, “Aha! That's it, I see exactly what you're going for.” By use of color or shapes or any of the things that you can use in Tableau, the BIG IDEA can come into focus in the blink of an eye—and that's the thing that makes it so astonishingly good and so profoundly important for our purposes and our uses.
Tableau: Any other thoughts on visualizing data with Tableau you’d like to share?
Jon: Well, what it does is it encourages and inspires curiosity in people. As we work with people, especially entry level people, curiosity and a sort of intellectual inquisitiveness are the hardest things to engender in people, but in some sense they're the most important. If we can give them a tool that allows them to play on their own time or even on the university's time to try to understand what's going on in the information that they have available to them, everybody is better for it.