A critical pillar in the way that Flinders University is managing the Coronavirus situation derives from its data-rich information platforms that allow it to closely monitor the impact of its decisions on students, and share that information with key executives who can use the insights to plan for the future and optimise decision making. Critically, the information can also be delivered to university personnel who are working remotely in order to limit the health risk of the coronavirus.
To preserve the wellbeing of staff and students, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Flinders University announced in mid-March that lectures would no longer take place on campus – but be delivered online.
It’s one of a series of steps that the university – like many of its peers here and around the world – is taking in response to the current crisis.
Established in South Australia in 1966, Flinders University has forged a strong reputation and has a student cohort of around 25,000 students – over 5,000 of whom are international students. The University wants to proactively manage students who are yet to enrol from the previous year, or are new to Flinders.
That is important always, but particularly during such a unique period when; “If you have too much of a vacuum around information, people tend to fill it themselves. If we take a week or a week and a half – people start to fill that. But now we know what the data shows. We are not running on rumour or unsupported observations – we have got to make sure information is quick, timely and confident,” says Flinders’ Associate Director, Planning and Analytical Services, Luke Havelberg.
Over the last year and a half, under the leadership of Havelberg, Flinders University has deployed a Microsoft Azure based platform that provides immediate access to critical information when and where it is needed.
Using Azure Data Factory, Databricks and Power BI the university is able to track key data which can then be used to model revenues and plan for the future. Through the university wide deployment of Office 365 that data can then be shared to key personnel using SharePoint, Livetiles and Teams. According to Havelberg the integration across the Microsoft ecosystem is particularly important to ensure insights can be made available when and where they are needed, in a way that is familiar to users.
Flinders is leveraging more than 20 services across the Microsoft stack to ingest, enrich, transform data and to model, visualise and publish insights.
Developed originally to support a more responsive and agile way of working across the university, the platform has proved an important ally during the COVID-19 pandemic as Flinders acts to protect students and staff and respond to Government requirements regarding public gatherings.
“We have been able to respond to information requests around students – international numbers as well as the impact of the move to online lectures and inform the scenarios planning for the university. We can turn that around much faster than before, often in hours. We would have been scrambling to do it on the old platform and would not have as much confidence in the results either,” says Havelberg.
Using the technology Flinders has been able to get information to the right people at the right time – sometimes everyone in a group of them sometimes a subset as Teams and Power BI allows it to filter data to the groups as required.
This promotes collaboration among the right people at the right time, and supports teams as they work remotely.
Havelberg says that the system was developed by; “Thinking about what the uni needed from us and working backwards from there. We think about the different customer personas that we have for our services ensuring we are developing and building deliverables in partnership with our customers through an agile way of working.”
The team is progressively building out self-service capability through the Flinders intelligence portal (Flip). Says Havelberg; “Over time that will be the one-stop-shop for anything intelligence related at Flinders. It will swallow up other information from different areas and be mobile friendly. It will be a game changer moving forward.”
Rory Quinn, Account Executive, Microsoft says that already Flinders had succeeded in building a platform that delivered speed to insight for senior leadership and an ability to respond to questions which were arising hourly with timely accurate data – “So that they can continue to be agile and nimble and operate on the fly with accurate data.”
The analytics platform was delivered with support from Microsoft partners Empired to build the Azure Databrick facility, and Expose Data on the design of the analytics, while Microsoft FastTrack worked with Flinders to ensure a speedy deployment and rapid time to value.