Dashboards and Data Viz | Higher Education

This past month I was fortunate enough to attend the Higher Education Data Warehousing Conference (HEDW) at the University of Arizona. In addition to gaining a new appreciation for one of our country’s many beautiful campuses, I was able to attend a few sessions between my sponsorship duties. It was at these sessions that I gleaned insight into some emerging trends that I wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to be privy to.

Though the conference largely consisted of BI and data warehousing professionals, there were a few sessions on subjective and theoretical issues that even I, as a non-technical guy, found fascinating. Which leads me to the point of this post…

My Top Takeaways from the HEDW ConferenceHigher Education Data Warehousing Conference

Before I delve into my takeaways, I wanted to make a quick side note: the title of each session that I will be writing about contains missed obvious movie references. To remedy that, I thought I would provide my preferred alternative titles in addition to their real ones. With that being said, here are the top takeaways from the three sessions that I attended:

Session 1:

Conference Title: “The Story’s the Thing (or Why & How to Tell Better Stories with Your Data)”

My Title: “The Story’s the Thing (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and to Love Telling a Story with Data)”

The University of Washington’s Robert McDade did an excellent job of presenting his thoughts (and of telling a story!). Among other key insights, one thing I found particularly interesting was the recent findings regarding how the brains of storytellers actually sync with those of their story listeners. Taking findings from a study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, McDade explained how, after conducting brain scans of a woman telling a story and then of 11 people listening to a recording of her, researchers Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson found that the same parts of the brains showed activation at the same time. Their conclusion: There is a deep connection between storyteller and listener.

However, when the same set of listeners heard a story in Russian (which they couldn’t understand), the coupling of the brain regions didn’t show up. From a data visualization standpoint, I came to a couple of conclusions myself:

  1. Speaking your listeners’ language is key to making the desired connection, which is important to keep in mind when reporting data.
  2. Simply gathering and presenting data in a pretty format may not cut it.

There needs to be more thought put into who your audience will be, what questions they will be asking, and how the way data is presented ultimately tells a story.

Before reporting #data, you need to ask yourself: what will my story be? Click To Tweet

Session 2:

Conference Title: “Beauty & Brains: Data Visualization Best Practices”

My Title: “Beauty & Beastly Data: Data Viz Best Practices”

Presented by Melissa Hartz from Drexel University, this session covered plenty of – you guessed it – best practices! In her discussion, she explained how the human mind has some common biases that can be taken advantage of to improve end user experience when building graph and charts. A cool example she shared was the Visualization of Napoleon’s March to and from Moscow in 1812. The takeaway: a chart, graph, or other visual medium doesn’t need much explanation to have an impact. The human mind can intuitively see what is being conveyed by comparing an image of a huge number of troops leaving France to an image of a very small number returning.

French Invasion of Russia Data Visualization

Dashboard builders need to be constantly thinking about how the end product will be consumed (and by whom) and take advantage of the dashboard tools to create as intuitive an experience as possible.

Session 3:

Conference Title: “Data Scientist Goes Rogue: No Predictions, No Statistics, Awesome Analytics”

My Title: “Chart Wars – Rogue One”

Presented by Craig Rudick from the University of Kentucky, the final session that I attended was another excellent presentation that offered outstanding insight. As a data scientist, Craig has access to and uses predictive analytics and other multivariate statistical methods, yet he himself has claimed that there is much to be gained from simply looking at the data that is being collected in intelligent and creative ways.

My takeaway here: many academic institutions may get excited about the latest and greatest tools available in the BI stack, but a good ole’ organized database and a strong visualization tool can be just as effective for measuring student success and what affects it. With your data warehouse and a visualization tool such as the ones that iDashboards offers, your team can put together some very impactful dashboards that can significantly alter the rate of student success. For instance, creative data visualization may help institutions predict student success based on a previous class selection. In other instances, it may help the institution to understand how student success is (or is not) impacted by certain variables (i.e.: where a student lives the first year of school may not be an accurate measurement; rather, a better measurement might be college readiness).

Read next: Three Ways to Present More Accurate Charts: Or, How to Avoid Leading People On

Final Takeaway

It was a great few days in Tucson, and I cannot wait to return to the HEDW conference in Oregon next year. And, of course, I plan on making the 2019 conference in my home state of Michigan. The way I see it, how data is collected and visualized is an ever-changing science, so you can never know too much.

New and emerging research of the human brain reveals that humans process images thousands of times faster than text and abstract data, and that charts, graphs, and other visuals allow us to digest large amounts of complex data far more quickly than if we were presented with spreadsheets or reports. This, in turn, allows us to grasp difficult concepts, identify new patterns, and make important decisions in a more timely manner. THIS is why data visualization is so important.

The HEDW gives you all the information you need about data visualization, including Information Security, Student Success, Data Informed Decision Making, Sustainable Funding, Data Management, and Data Governance (among many other things). That being said, you don’t want to miss it!

Higher Education Data Warehousing Conference Takeaways

The final takeaway: in many cases, data can get over complicated and bogged down pretty quickly. I am excited to represent iDashboards, as it is perhaps a simpler (yet powerful) tool in the arsenal that allows you to do something pretty basic and yet undeniably important…tell great stories with data.

Want more great insights and conference takeaways? Join us in Austin, TX at the iDashboards User Conference! Early bird registration is open now!

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Matt Brueck Account Manager @iDashboards

Matt Brueck is an Account Manager who works with existing and prospective customers in the higher education space. Matt enjoys working with educational institutions as he strives to be a lifelong learner - just without the tests.


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