4 tips for making your data usable

Expert details how to make the most of data visualization to help all departments gain the deeper insights they need and transform learning.

K-12 and higher education institutions around the country have invested in data visualization software with the promise of better information and insights. Unfortunately, there can be lots of pitfalls along the way. Often, stakeholders can’t get what they need quickly and easily – and can’t actually gain the deeper insights they need – so they can’t use big data to drive decisions that transform programs, curriculums and student outcomes.

Here are four areas K-12 and higher education institutions should focus on to realize the most value from data visualization technologies:

1. Provide Training and Self-Help Materials

Many education professionals are not savvy about data or analytics. They need help learning how to understand data and interpret analytical reports correctly before they can make informed decisions. Institutions must offer appropriate user training and self-help resources, which can take many forms, such as video tutorials. Some institutions use a train-the-trainer approach, identifying key stakeholders whom they can educate and turn into effective, confident data consumers. Others provide hands-on user workshops in computer labs. Many utilize training provided by software vendors.

Regardless of the type of training used, complement it with additional self-help materials, such as user manuals and data dictionaries that define value hierarchies, data elements and more. These materials can be offered in hard copy or through context-sensitive online documentation.

2. Develop In-House Expertise

This is somewhat an extension of the first training tip, but this is what will sustain the data visualization effort for years to come. While a vendor is happy to help with consulting and technical support issues, it’s much more efficient to have someone on staff with deep understanding of the system.

Institutions should consider developing in-house expertise through two channels. Take advantage of the consulting offered by the software vendor during the development phase. That expert, on-site assistance can foster the knowledge needed to sustain the project moving forward. Supplement that with online courses, training classes, software manuals and programming guides.

Universities and colleges typically have an office of institutional research that executes and manages all data management, reporting and analytics activities. But this isn’t always the case for K-12 districts. Yet it is vital for school districts to have at least one person who is dedicated to becoming an expert in data visualization software, developing and executing strategy, creating reports, educating people, answering user questions and more.

(Next page: Data visualization tips 3-4)

3. Ease-of-Use is Key

Data visualization tools close the gap between stored data and the people who need it to make fast, data-informed decisions. They address the complexities of working with massive data sets – and make it easy to move from data to instant insight.

But they need to intuitive. For all the training you may provide, nothing helps a reporting project get off the ground better than simple ease-of-use.  Ideally, Visualization tools eliminate the need for the back-and-forth conversation between users and IT (which often leads to misunderstandings and costly overhead) and wasted hours waiting for each iteration of analysis and reporting.

People need to be able to efficiently explore a problem’s relevant data and go through iterations quickly and easily.  Being able to efficiently slice and dice data, look at more options, uncover hidden opportunities, perform ad hoc visual data discovery, and identify key relationships supports faster, more data-informed decisions.

4. Collect User Feedback Continuously and Act on It

Immediately after the launch of a dashboard, institutions should start gathering feedback from users about how they are using the system and ways to improve it. Is it delivering what people want? How could reports and interfaces be improved, and what’s not useful at all?

User feedback can be collected through many channels. For instance, some institutions organize regular sessions with all types of stakeholders, where they record all the comments and suggestions, prioritize recommendations and implement them where possible. It’s also beneficial to meet with stakeholders regularly to discuss data and reports in detail. For example, a university may find that its reports are too high-level; users need to be able to drill down into detail, such as profiles for individual students. It is helpful to create a template of reports so users can see what they are getting before reports are finalized, and offer proactive feedback. Also, many organizations track report usage. This lets them quickly determine the key users and the top reports accessed in the dashboard. All of these mechanisms capture valuable feedback and enable action, which creates happy users.

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