University of Western Sydney generates market insights with Tableau

Tableau is hands-down unbeatable. I gave Tableau Desktop to our analysts and they just couldn’t believe how easy it was to do things. Joining columns in data sets that have a long list of data points in each column would have previously taken a week to put together. Now we can do this in 20 seconds flat.

Operating in a highly competitive market, the University of Western Sydney (UWS) wanted to streamline its processes for collecting and analysing student feedback, as well as identify areas for opportunity.

Working with Big Data
Made up of nine schools spread across six campuses in the Greater Western Sydney region, the University’s geography plays an important role in its marketing strategy. UWS wanted a tool that could help break down the market in order to identify opportunities around specific course offerings.

The University also collects useful information on the quality of the student experience through student surveys conducted each semester. Additionally, to help plan for future courses, each school is responsible for producing reports on course performance.

Due to an explosion in data and the limitations of static reporting, Neil Durrant, Director of Performance and Quality at the University of Western Sydney, decided to seek an alternative and user-friendly way of presenting reports and survey results back to the schools.

“Some of the data we’ve being working with recently would be millions of rows. We would just email PDFs around from our data warehouse but as the data warehouse developed and we had a bigger data set to play with, the limitations became obvious,” says Durrant.

Sizing up the Options
Durrant started seriously looking into different Business Intelligence (BI) tools after attending a training session by data visualisation guru Stephen Few in Sydney.

“Stephen spoke about best practices for presenting data in a way that’s easily accessible to people and one of the pieces of software that he demonstrated was Tableau.”

The UWS BI team further researched Tableau and alternative data visualisation solutions. “There’s a group in America called the BI Scorecard who have a process that you go through for evaluating business intelligence tools. I used their spreadsheet and Tableau came up number one,” says Durrant.

Durrant said the team also looked into other software programs but were swayed by Tableau’s easy-to-use design.

“We were looking for a user-friendly tool to supplement our existing technology stack for static and more regular reporting,” says Durrant. “We also looked at QlikView but it just seemed clunkier and more expensive.”

UWS decided to implement Tableau Desktop for authoring data visualisations and Tableau Server to easily and securely share the interactive visualisations.

Without any formal Tableau training Durrant was able to quickly pick-up the program through trial and error. “I just started playing around with Tableau using Excel based information and found it was very easy to use. Things that would have taken our team of analysts three or four weeks to develop, I was able to do in a matter of days.”

Moving towards a more interactive online experience
From a development point of view Durrant says, “Tableau is hands down unbeatable. I gave Tableau Desktop to our analysts and they just couldn’t believe how easy it was to do things. Joining columns in data sets that have a long list of data points in each column would have previously taken a week to put together. Now we can do this in 20 seconds flat.”

Since rolling out Tableau to an initial 100 individual users, the feedback and results have been overwhelmingly positive at UWS. “We share the links to the dashboards we’ve developed on Tableau Server and all the users have to do is click on them and away they go!” says Durrant. “People have enjoyed the experience.”

UWS is taking advantage of the mobile features available in Tableau 8. “Many of our academic staff and students have iPads so we design everything in Tableau to fit on a tablet.”

UWS uses Tableau in combination with IBM’s Text Analytics, to provide an integrated reporting platform for its student surveys. This allows each head of school to view both the quantitative and qualitative results alongside each other.

“The process for reviewing course performance has moved from a static annually produced spreadsheet to an interactive and continuous experience with Tableau; so that’s been very successful,” says Durrant.

Mapping the Market
In addition, Durrant says Tableau is fundamental to a new tool that is being used by UWS to analyse student demand for different course offerings.

“We have six campuses spread across one area of Sydney, so we’ve developed an analytical tool which allows people to gather evidence in terms of potential growth for their courses on particular campuses, as well as evidence for developing a new course and for moving an existing course onto a new campus.”

The analytical tool features six Tableau dashboards, three of which integrate UWS’s in-house GIS mapping system with Tableau’s map feature.

UWS is currently rolling out the tool to the executive management of each school for course planning. “It’s been really successful so far. It’s a level of information that the University has never had access to previously,” says Durrant. “It’s taken about 12 months to build the database that underlies it and it is made up of millions of rows of numbers but with Tableau we’ve managed to present it in a way that’s immediately accessible.”

Four Weeks of Work Only One Click Away
As well as gaining informative market insights, UWS is able to save valuable administration time and people costs by using Tableau.

“Using the annual course reports as an example, it would have taken the schools three or four weeks to have the data available to write the annual course report,” says Durrant. “Now it takes them a click—one second! An analyst spends four weeks putting it all together but a month of one person’s time is a lot better than a month of 18 people’s time.”

The team at UWS has seen other improvements in survey analysis that they attribute to insights gained using Tableau.

“Previously the Chair of our Student Experience and Engagement Committee would have spent three or four days wading through the printout of all the students’ comments before analysing the key features and themes on their own,” says Durrant. “Whereas now Text Analytics does all the analytical work and Tableau presents it in a way that’s easy to access in a half hour.”

Improving Access to Information
Tableau has enabled access to student feedback that previously was only accessible to a few people in the university, due to the size of the data.

“We now send a dashboard to the whole committee and they are able to use it to come up with their own analysis,” says Durrant. “Previously this information, once collected, would just gather dust in the data warehouse. Now it’s become an integral part of closing the loop with our students.”

Prior to working with Tableau, Durrant says initial course planning was done in the dark. “Now with Tableau we’re actually able to make the evidence available to key decision makers,” he says. “We’re starting from a more informed place which means you save a lot of time and it promotes creativity because people can see things that they wouldn’t have been able to see before. Before Tableau, we would have been reliant on one analyst in the whole university whereas now we can get a whole bunch of people around a table, look at the evidence and come up with ideas together.”

Where to Next?
Durrant says that UWS is already planning a number of projects that will see upwards of a thousand users accessing Tableau. “The big goal for the coming year is to have a portal solution where we can provide school management with one set of data that combines human resource and course performance data,” he says. “All the visualisations and reporting dashboards will be done using Tableau.”

“The big advantage of Tableau is being able to interact with your data, being able to see it in a way that is easy to interpret,” says Durrant. “That, to me, is the best asset that Tableau brings.”