SA Ambulance Service improves response times with Tableau


SA Ambulance Service - Mercedes-Benz Sprinter (14260842401)
By TuRbO_J from Adelaide, Australia (SA Ambulance Service - Mercedes-Benz Sprinter) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The SA Ambulance Service is responsible for managing ambulance call-out and response for South Australia. Covering 100,000 square kilometers and servicing 1.7 million Australians, the ambulance service collects large amounts GPS and operational data. When combined with external data sources like weather forecast, this data provides valuable insights.

Since introducing Tableau Desktop over four years ago, the business hasn’t looked back. Today, the Operational Intelligence team shares data with management over Tableau Server. Management regularly uses Tableau workbooks to identify bottlenecks, making adjustments to daily operations in times of high demand. And with refreshes in Tableau Server, they always have access to current data. With area managers spread across the state, they can now easily access workbooks through Tableau Mobile—bringing data to the field.

Now that staff can track process improvements, the team is motivated to do more with data. In the future, SA Ambulance plans to incorporate geospatial ambulance data to improve workforce efficiency.


Identifying bottlenecks

The SA Ambulance Service is part of SA Health, reporting to the Minister for Health. The service is responsible for all ambulance call-outs across the state of South Australia. On average, the service handles up to 400,000 dispatches a year from emergency helicopter call-outs to non-urgent routine hospital pick-ups.

Every ambulance journey generates location data. The Ambulance Service’s Operational Intelligence team analyzes this data to track state-wide ambulance efficiency.

To improve ambulance response times, the team scrutinizes up to a terabyte of incident response-related data at a time. Ali Mohtasham, Principal Analyst, explains, “The data we are analyzing is based on specific key performance indicators (KPIs) and our job is to identify bottlenecks, opportunities, and areas that require immediate attention.”

We wanted to look at different aspects of the operation and fine tune them based on the demand.

KPIs include ambulance response times for emergency, non-emergency, and urgent categories. Understanding ambulance workload ensures that vehicles are available in times of high demand. Ali said, “We wanted to look at different aspects of the operation and fine tune them based on the demand.”

Four specialists on Operational Intelligence team advise management on every aspect of the operational activity. Some ad-hoc requests from stakeholders took 30 minutes, while projects like ambulance service analysis could take up to six months. Ali recalled, “Previously to answer these requests, we had to write specific queries and export them to Excel which was an extremely detailed and time-consuming process. My team was limited to how many requests they could respond to.”

Managers wanted to see and interact with the data at their regular meetings to look at past trends and plan for the future. To meet the company’s needs, the team needed a solution that allowed them to deep dive into the data in real time.

The team’s previous analytics software was designed to produce statistical process control charts. These charts provided limited information, were restricted in their functionality, and could be difficult to understand and interpret. This made it difficult for the management team to share information with ambulance stations.

Ali explains, “The data wasn’t easily accessible to everyone. We had to export the charts and send them through email.” When management had further questions, they had to wait for a response in their inbox. The whole process could take weeks.

Spanning a large geographical area, stakeholders wanted data in an easy-to-understand format, that didn’t require coding or hours of explanation.

One of the busiest times of the year for us is the flu season. By looking over the data from the past five or six years, we have been able to pinpoint when the demand will spike, enabling us to put extra staff on duty and increase our fleet of ambulances. Tableau is helping us save lives in South Australia.

Putting data in executives’ hands

The company completed a business case requiring the team to address the merits of up to four software solutions. When trialing Tableau, managers were impressed. Soon after, the company decided to purchase Tableau Desktop. Ali said, “We put the shortlist into a business matrix which looks at a bunch of different areas from ease of use, to cost of ownership, to the risk to the organization. Tableau came out with the highest ranking in every aspect.”

The SA Ambulance Service started off with Tableau Desktop in 2012 and executives across the business quickly realized the power that Tableau could bring to data-driven decision making. Ali commented, “Our executive team saw the results of Tableau immediately and they started to request the team work on different tasks.”

With this buy-in, the Operational Intelligence team purchased Tableau Server for the management group, allowing them to easily access and refresh Tableau dashboards. Today, 40 people access Tableau Server on a regular basis, and there are over 1,000 workbooks on the production server. Day to day, the Operational Intelligence team creates hundreds of dashboards to monitor the operational performance of the business.

After a short training session, the management team could explore the data in Tableau. To ramp up management and employees, the Operational Intelligence team regularly hosts data workshops.

We can have up to 1000 workbooks on the Server at any one time. Being able to bookmark the data sets that are only useful to each manager saves time and allows them to focus on the insights that matter.

Introducing a data-first culture

Using Tableau has made data much more visible across the organization. Ali comments, “There is no reason not to be aware of what’s happening in each region, sub-region or management group. Tableau allows us to explore where the bottlenecks are. When the data is in front of you, accountability is increased, which gives managers a platform to explain why performance has changed, whether it be in a positive or negative way.”

Ali has seen a shift in the way the organization makes decisions. “Data doesn’t always have the answers but it starts the conversation to discuss what can be done or identify whether there’s anything that needs to be done. Now, people are making decisions based on the data.”

For example, the management team may choose an ambulance station to test a new process, such as a change to the meal schedule for ambulance crews. Once the trial is complete, the Operational Intelligence team reviews the data and shares insights with the management team. Then they decide whether to implement the change across the state.

Now that the team can bring all of their data into one place, they can respond to ad-hoc requests faster than ever. The Operational Intelligence team pulls data from Microsoft SQL Server and Excel files into Tableau. Ali explains, “Since we started using Tableau, we can respond to three times more ad hoc requests in the same period of time it took us using our old systems.”

With Tableau, the team easily brings this data together to discover patterns and correlations that benefit the organization. For example, these correlations can forecast demand, ensuring the SA Ambulance Service is always prepared.

“One of the busiest times of the year for us is the flu season,” says Ali. “By looking over the data from the past five or six years, we have been able to pinpoint when the demand will spike, enabling us to put extra staff on duty and increase our fleet of ambulances. Tableau is helping us save lives in South Australia.”

Since we started using Tableau, we can respond to three times more ad hoc requests in the same period of time it took us using our old systems.

Now managers can access data through Tableau Server. They “favorite” visualizations for fast access, allowing them to keep track of the data they care about. And permissions allow managers to download workbooks and dig into the data themselves.

Ali explains, “We can have up to 1,000 workbooks on the server at any one time. Being able to bookmark the data sets that are only useful to each manager saves time and allows them to focus on the insights that matter.”

Managers also frequently reference visualizations in their weekly, monthly, and quarterly forecasting meetings. With the SA Ambulance Service reporting to the Minister of Health, Tableau provides the perfect format to showcase their KPIs. Ali explains, “The team downloads a dashboard from the server and sends it to the Department of Health through email.”

“By sharing this data we are able to start a discussion on these points. Often there are questions during these discussions and now we can immediately drill through to the spot rather than having to go back and forth like we did with our previous model. We are seeing solutions come about much quicker as a result.”

With ambulance managers scattered across the state, it’s important for them to be able to access data on the go. Most stations use Tableau Mobile on iPads or access Tableau Server on laptops. “A picture is worth a thousand words. The managers use Tableau Mobile to share the insights we’ve discovered at executive team meetings. It allows them to compare the performance of all the ambulance crews.”

Ali and his team are looking forward to see how they can use Tableau in more areas to help improve processes. “Over the coming year we will be adding other data sources such as ambulance geo-data with the aim of minimizing driving time and improving service. We see Tableau 10 playing a big part in that. We are excited, as always, to explore the next version.”

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