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Building a responsive campus community with data and AI


Faster reporting increases decision-making agility

flinders university hh header image color
INDUSTRY: Education
SOLUTION: Student 360,student performance,university operations
CLOUD: Azure

"Databricks enabled us to increase capacity, reduce costs and build a trusted data foundation that provides our teams with the confidence they need to make informed decisions for the betterment of our students and faculty.”

— Luke Havelberg, Interim CIO, Flinders University

Education is the cornerstone to the social mobility of an economy. Central to their mission of changing lives and changing the world, Flinders University understood the importance of deriving meaningful insights from data that would allow them to understand student health, advise on curriculum changes and improve the overall student experience. However, the large volumes of siloed data across individual departments hindered university management’s ability to do so in near real-time. With the Databricks Data Intelligence Platform, Flinders University is maximizing the power of data to gain actionable insights into their student population, respond to trends and transform the way they make decisions.

Disorganized data that no one could trust

With a student population of over 25,000, Flinders University was dealing with large amounts of student, financial, research and education data with no centralized and intuitive way for management to derive clear and ongoing meaningful insights from it.

Gaining access to information was a slow and tedious process — usually taking up to a week — due to their legacy on-premises infrastructure. All requests for data were sent to the analytics team and there was often uncertainty around the reliability and completeness of the resulting data, affecting their trust in the statistics required to power informed decision-making.

“People weren’t sure how to look for information, what was available, or if the sources of information could be trusted. Often, they weren’t sure if what they were looking at was what they needed, as the way it was presented was not always clear and intuitive,” recalls Luke Havelberg, the Interim CIO of Flinders University.

Within the data team, processes were inconsistent, and the analytics systems were not set up in a flexible, modern way to perform to their full potential. Overall, their data team needed a better way to gain a holistic view into their student population and perform analytics to drive strategic planning.

Democratized data for near real-time analysis

By taking advantage of Microsoft Azure and the Databricks Data Intelligence Platform, Flinders is now able to easily ingest large volumes of student data to churn out near real-time analysis and a clear view of how the important elements are tracking.

Leveraging Delta Lake as the foundation of their lakehouse architecture, the team developed the Flinders Intelligence Portal (FLIP), a centralized self-service portal boasting a sleek, intuitive user interface that enables access to federated data for all forms of analytics. Staff members from colleges across the university now have direct, instant access to a daily, accurate view of the student-centric information they require and near real-time insights that they can tap on at any time.

Recognized by the vice chancellor as one of the university’s internal highlights for 2020, the centralized data platform allows key department heads to ascertain business-critical insights that continually improve their operational focus and allows them to gauge their students’ well-being and performance standing. As an example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the analytics team was able to provide daily automated updates on student enrollment to demonstrate that the university was tracking well, reassuring stakeholders who were concerned about the impact of the pandemic on student enrollment numbers. Flinders’ Manager of Analytics Architecture, Mick Wood, also noticed a change within the data analytics team, with the new environment giving them a motivation boost and sense of empowerment.

“This has been a massive leap in technology for the university. The Databricks platform alongside Power BI and Azure Data Factory make an incredibly powerful combination,” said Mick. “The work that Databricks [and Microsoft] did to integrate the various aspects so tightly into the stack was a cornerstone of the project’s success.”

Uplifting of data science capabilities to transform higher ed

University management is now able to gain a clear, consistent view of student enrollment with daily reports that used to take up to a week to generate. This has enabled them to actively manage students locally and internationally, especially with travel restrictions in place during the pandemic, and map through funding cluster groups, which determines government funding.

“Our main aim was to uplift the level of professionalism around how we manage the data lifecycle, and Databricks enabled us to achieve that. There’s now a level of confidence in the accuracy of the data that was not there before.”

The Databricks platform along with MLflow also make it easy to build, train, manage and deploy machine learning and deep learning models at scale, enabling the analytics team at Flinders to run predictive models and streamline automation and model delivery around student behaviors, student success and financial modeling.

By providing Flinders with a solution that turns their data into meaningful insights, Databricks has helped the university reduce technology costs and report significant increases in capacity, scale, performance and capability. University management is now able to make enhanced data-informed decisions that help deepen the understanding of the student population, support the improvement of student success and continue to propel the university toward their strategic goals and aspirations.