By Dr. Ramiro Zuniga
There are many public school technology directors across the country that openly wish for a data warehouse thinking it to be the ultimate data management solution. In theory, a data warehouse does sound very appealing. So what is a data warehouse?
Basically, a data warehouse is a large database that brings together data from unrelated sources, making that data easily accessible and allowing for easy report generation. Case in point, school districts typically use one software program for their business office, one software program for their student data, and a variety of software programs to manage their curriculum. These systems, and the data, work independently of each other. Creating a report that requires information from each of these systems can present a dilemma. Typically, data analysts or computer programmers are brought in to create such reports. Unfortunately, a lot of school districts don’t have data analysts or computer programmers on staff.
Here’s where a data warehouse comes in. Data from unrelated systems is imported into the data warehouse in a highly useable manner. Data is automatically linked within the warehouse so that even non-technical users can create such reports through a user friendly querying utility tied to the data warehouse. There is no longer a need to consult with a data analyst or computer programmer.
Again, in theory, a data warehouse seems an easy enough solution.
In reality however, data warehouses do require a lot of work and effort from the moment of inception to maintaining after implementation. Data warehouses can easily fail for several reasons.
One reason that data warehouses can fail is that data being imported is not done so with enough frequency. After all, how good is a report when the information on the report is outdated? It is also critical that the data being brought into the data warehouse is good data. As we all have heard, “Garbage in, garbage out.”
A second reason for failure is that data is not properly linked in a fashion that makes sense and is usable. As an example, you would never be able to determine if monies were being spent effectively if you can’t tie financial data to the teacher and student data that these monies support.
A third reason that data warehouses fail is not allocating enough time to support the data warehouse. Every step of a data warehouse implementation requires a great deal of time if it is to be done correctly. Defining and designing the data warehouse is a major task that requires a significant amount of time. If data is missing, or if it is not linked correctly, the data warehouse will be deemed useless.
Beyond that, maintaining a data warehouse can be a full time job. Somebody has to make sure that data is being updated frequently enough. Somebody has to ensure that the data within the data warehouse is even relevant. And of course, someone has to make sure that the data is actually accessible.
So are data warehouses a viable solution for school districts? Yes, but as I often say, be sure to research potential solutions and potential pitfalls.
I offer the following recommendations for those that wish to implement a data warehouse:
- Seek professional help – creating and maintaining a data warehouse is a monumental task and out of the reach of most public school IT departments
- Define the pieces of data that are to be maintained within the data warehouse
- Define times at which the contents of the warehouse will be reviewed. This should occur on an annual basis, minimally.
- Identify the individuals that are responsible for implementing any changes to the structure of the data warehouse
- Define the intervals in which the data warehouse data will be refreshed
- Be leery of any vendor that oversimplifies the process of implementation,
- Define a plan and timeline for implementation. Be sure that all key players understand that implementation will take time. Most of the key players will have no clue as to what is involved in creating and maintaining a data warehouse.
- Check references prior to purchasing a vendor solution