Australian Catholic University tops the class in cloud data and analytics


From the first moment that a would-be student approaches a university, applying for a place the following year, they start to create a data trail. Once they are enrolled their data trails extend and do so throughout their university years and after, when they become alumni.

The insights that lie within the data are invaluable – they can identify issues of supply and demand to a university, forecast future revenue flows, and can also be mined to support individual students to ensure that they thrive during their uni years and get the most from their degree.

It’s unlikely that many of the 34,000 students attending the Australian Catholic University give much thought to its data collection. That’s all right, because Omer Yezdani does.

Omer is Director of the Office of Planning and Strategic Management at the ACU and has been leading a major business intelligence transformation, making ACU’s data accessible, available, and accelerating data-driven decision making across the university.

Over the least two years, he has overseen the establishment of a cloud-based enterprise data warehouse and the deployment of business analytics that allow users anytime anywhere access to data and business intelligence tools to support their day to day decision making.

ACU has seven campuses and multiple disparate source systems, each of which had their own data collections and reporting. This initiative brings them together to provide a single source of truth for the university and complete data transparency.

Omer Yezdani
Omer Yezdani, Director of the Office of Planning and Strategic Management

Omer explains that; “Before the start of this program there was really no enterprise level integration, data warehousing or serious business intelligence capability. It hampered the capability of data-driven decision-making, because people were only able to use the information that was at hand.”

With a clear mandate from the university to provide access to data from anywhere at anytime on any device, a cloud-based solution was an obvious choice. Selecting Microsoft Azure as the cloud foundation with Power BI as the analytics engine has, according to Omer, turned ACU from being a BI latecomer into a market leader.

“It’s been a very clever choice for us, a powerful product, and has really helped us transform our data into a valuable intelligence asset.”

Smarter decisions

Besides the student information collection, ACU has significant enterprise data to manage. It employs 3,000 staff, has an offshore operation, and is a top 100 Australian business.

“As a reputable university, a large organisation and particularly in the current climate of uncertainty in higher education policy, we need to be a lot more precise about our decision-making, our plans and our forecasts,” says Omer.

ACU’s Chief Operating Officer Dr Stephen Weller is a champion of the program – and a power user of business analytics. “It’s been essential to have a champion who gets up in the morning and one of the first things they do is look at Power BI to see how our enrolments or applications are going. Ready access enables greater precision and more informed decision making to support our university’s operations.”

Omer adds that mobile access to Power BI and the data collection has been a real game changer, providing data literally at people’s fingertips to help them make an informed decision on the spot.

“We’re quite distributed as a business across Australia and also offshore. The seven campuses go across five States. Our people are mobile, and now their data’s mobile with them.”

Underpinning the solution is Microsoft Azure and SQL 2016. Power BI overlays on top of that for analytics and reporting, but there is also the opportunity for staff to take a deep dive into data as required, confident that it is complete and current. This is done within a robust data governance environment, made simple with Microsoft’s access and management controls.

“Ultimately, Power BI is a source of competitive advantage. And, that makes it a major intelligence asset for the university,” says Omer.

A believer in the mantra that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it, he has implemented business intelligence maturity assessments which will over time track the value and performance that the university derives.

But it is having impact already, establishing important data feedback loops that inform intelligent decision making, For example being able to track student offers and acceptances in fine detail ensures that the university isn’t under or over resourced. For example it needs to know exactly how many health students are coming through at any time to ensure there are clinical placements available.

“The real-time data that we’ve got through Power BI will help us manage all on and off campus requirements that are a part of each students experience at ACU” says Omer.

“It’ll help us plan infrastructure. With seven campuses, that’s a massive amount of infrastructure and amenities. Our footprint across those campuses involves management of a portfolio in excess of a billion dollars. We need to ensure our physical and virtual presence is fit for purpose, of an outstanding aesthetic and equipped to support the future of learning and research. There might be the need for building new infrastructure to meet those demands. Even impacts on local road and transport, that may need us to negotiate with councils and governments and so on. So we’ll start knowing that information very early on through better access to data.”

Omer is also exploring how ACU might make use of Azure machine learning technologies in order to harness the potential of learning algorithms, enriched context around the data, and to augment human capability amd intuition.

He offers the example of safety and security. “Machine learning would apply a potential to identify anomalous behaviours. We can identify patterns quickly, in real-time,” he says adding that having intelligent algorithms able to self-correct and learn would augment ACU’s decision making capabilities.

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