See our exclusive case study video below and check out CU Denver's TC17 session

The University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus is an urban college campus set in the heart of Denver, Colorado. With over 140 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs, CU Denver | AMC offers numerous educational opportunities to a student body of over 18,000 individuals. CU Denver | AMC also prides itself on the diversity of its student body, 42% of which are students of color. Finally, an integral aspect of CU Denver | AMC is its commitment to online education through CU Online. Offering over 450 courses, CU Online gives students the flexibility to learn on their own time without stepping foot on campus, if they so choose.

CU Online Takes Initiative

Generally speaking, things move slowly in higher education – at least when it comes to utilizing the latest IT and data innovations. CU Online, a small team within CU Denver | AMC’s larger IT department, understood this well. Specifically, they couldn’t find an easy way of acquiring descriptive information on their students. Forget advanced initiatives like predictive analytics or machine learning – they were having a tough time finding information about things like admissions and online enrollment.

The problem boiled down to the lack of a centralized and organized location to store and access data. Of course, these challenges weren’t going to keep CU Online from finding another way to manage and access the data they needed. In order to work around these obstacles, CU Online set up a SQL Server warehouse of their own – much like other groups on campus had been forced to do – so they would have a place to store, manage and access the data they needed to do their jobs.

With competing warehousing and reporting practices already existing within the University, CU Online’s SQL Server only added to the problem. Between CU Online and other groups on campus, several small-scale data warehouses existed, and reports were being produced in SSRS, SAS and Cognos. Many of these reports were static PDFs filled with dozens of text tables and distributed as email attachments. Progress was being made, but CU Online couldn’t help but think that there had to be a better way.

“We were dealing with data quality issues for quite some time. PDF may be a secure way to transmit data, but you can’t use it for analysis or visualization. On top of that, much of the data understanding was held in peoples' heads as opposed to a communal data dictionary.”

-Brenden Goetz, Data Manager, CU Denver | AMC

Tableau & InterWorks Make an Impression

As it turns out, CU Online wasn’t far from discovering the answer they sought to their data analysis woes. Without even purchasing Tableau, David Thomas, CU Denver | AMC’s Director of Academic Technology, decided to attend TC15 to see what all the buzz around Tableau was. On their list of sessions to sit in on was a customer session from Princeton University and their Tableau consulting/training partner InterWorks.

Key Events

  • David Thomas attends TC15
  • David reaches out to InterWorks post-conference
  • Construction of the Deans Dashboard in Tableau
  • Discovery of data governance challenges

Throughout the session, David was impressed with how Tableau changed the culture of analytics at Princeton. He was also impressed with the way InterWorks Principal Kate Treadwell presented alongside Princeton. She was speaking the same language as those in higher education and in no way sounded like the typical sales-focused consultant. He knew then and there that he wanted to work with both Tableau and InterWorks.

After reaching out to InterWorks sometime after TC15 to learn more about the potential of Tableau at CU Denver | AMC, David decided to bring in InterWorks for an exploratory project. This consisted of putting together a "Deans Dashboard" that showed enrollment info for the dozen-plus colleges on the CU Denver | AMC campus.

The first objective of this dashboard was to show data in as close to real time as possible versus the manual, weekly reporting happening on campus. They also wanted this data to be presented in a more digestible manner than the static, 40-page PDFs. InterWorks’ Kate Treadwell jumped right into building the dashboard with David and CU Denver | AMC Data Manager Brenden Goetz. The end goal? Show what’s possible in Tableau and generate the interest to do more.

As Kate and CU Online began piecing together the dashboard, they soon ran right into the aforementioned data governance challenges. In trying to amass this disparate data, they identified several areas of improvement in terms of data quality. Fortunately, Kate relayed these challenges back to the larger InterWorks team in search of the right solution. Before long, InterWorks Data Engineer Alex Suarez joined the endeavor and began helping CU Online with their data issues on the back end.

“We didn’t have anyone in-house who was super technical with Tableau or data quality issues, so the technical expertise from Kate and Alex was invaluable.”

-Brenden Goetz, Data Manager, CU Denver | AMC

Tableau Becomes Contagious

Working on two different fronts, CU Online was able to make some real progress. They knew exactly what needed to happen with their data to make it consumable in Tableau. Not only that, the Deans Dashboard shaped up to be an excellent representation of what Tableau could do at CU Denver | AMC. Hosted on a pilot Tableau Server, it demonstrated a better way to visualize their data and served as a dynamic solution to their data governance concerns.

Boosting Adoption

  • Introduction of a pilot Tableau Server
  • Deans Dashboard shared with high-level staff
  • Exploration of EXASOL

After a few weeks of fine-tuning, they were ready to present it at the Deans Meeting – a gathering of the university’s deans, other representatives and the university's chancellor. The initial reaction to the dashboard when presented was positive yet reserved. Still, a few people at the meeting were very excited and asked several questions, which was all CU Online needed to plant the seeds of interest needed to begin exploring a larger, Tableau-centric solution.

Though the dashboard didn’t (and feasibly couldn’t) blow everyone away from the get go, it absolutely achieved it’s intended purpose as word about the dashboard made it to the university CFO. The CFO immediately shared it throughout the budget and finance departments. Soon the buzz spread across campus, generating demand and ultimately the buy-in CU Online needed to establish Tableau in a greater capacity campus-wide.

As Tableau began turning heads, CU Online was simultaneously working on the next part of their master plan for data – setting up an enterprise data warehouse. After talking to InterWorks Principal Brian Bickell and Alex Suarez about data warehouses and potential databases, they brought Alex back in to help them form a proposal around EXASOL – a powerful database known for its lightning speed. After seeing firsthand how expertly EXASOL handled a sample data set and connected to Tableau, they knew it was a perfect fit. It didn’t take long for the university's CIO to approve the proposal.

A Bright Future

It’s clear that CU Denver | AMC made quite a bit of progress in a short amount of time. Interest in Tableau continues to spread at an increasing rate with more and more people picking up Tableau Desktop. They’ve even created an internal Tableau User Group with membership of 20 individuals and growing. This internal TUG is a great resource for Tableau users of all skill levels to learn new things and compare notes. The only challenge there lies in sharing dashboards, but the university just purchased a Tableau Server Core license that should allow everyone to share and govern them with ease.

What's Next?

  • Continue growing internal Tableau User Group
  • Fine-tune new Tableau Server environment
  • Focus on best practices and documentation

Speaking of governance, CU Denver | AMC staff members, especially CU Online, are particularly excited about implementing EXASOL. This new database will be the foundation of their data governance endeavors, addressing their current issues at their root. From there, they can begin to develop better standards and documentation to ensure clean data is available for analysis.

With the stars aligning at CU Denver | AMC, it’s clear to see that they’re on the horizon of becoming a truly data-driven university. Though InterWorks helped to guide them along the way, the real credit goes to CU Online. This small department took the initiative to find a better way and sparked a grassroots movement across campus.

CU Denver | AMC as a whole deserves recognition for listening to staff and challenging the culture of restriction found in many higher education institutions. Because of this cooperation and daring to do something more, they’re now tapping into the true potential of their data. At the end of the day, this will lead to better decisions for the university, its staff and its students.

“There’s a lot of trust there with the InterWorks team. They haven’t been pushing Tableau for the sake of Tableau. Instead, we feel like we’ve been heard and are getting the best solution for our situation.”

-Brenden Goetz, Data Manager, CU Denver | AMC