Friday, November 2, 2012

EmpowerU and Texas A&M University System Analytics: One (but Only One) Step in the Righ Direction

The Texas Tribune reports that the Texas A&M University System is set to officially launch a new public accountability website on Monday called EmpowerU. The heart of the website is another website reporting "Analytics" for each system campus. The analytics website reports a variety of aggregate data on enrollment, student degree progress, completion rates, and finances for the various Texas A&M System institutions.

Having a centralized web portal for these data is a great improvement. While data on the system's workload and performance have been nominally public for some time, they have been hard to find online and available only from disparate entities within the system or from the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board. Putting the information in one spot is a huge boost for transparency and accountability, and the system should be commended.

Having said all of that, the analytics website looks and acts incredibly clunky. It doesn't so much report data as offer some pre-packed statistics reported in poorly formatted charts and clunky graphics. Here's an example. The following is a screen clipping from the reported generated for requesting data on the "Most Recent Fall" from the "Enrollment" tab.

The data breakouts are arbitrary (Why is ethnicity reported in a bar chart in the top left corner using one color scheme while gender is reported in a pie chart in the bottom right corner with another? Why does the ethnicity bar chart need a color scheme at all?). The space is poorly formatted (You must scroll down in the "Ethnicity" box to see internalization student enrollment, for example.) and much of it is wasted (e.g. the huge white spaces around the Texas map and space used by the redundant Texas A&M System logo in the top left corner of the data field). The bar charts in the lower half of the screen showing enrollment by campus puts enrollment on the main campus at College Station with enrollment at other system campuses on different scales. The campus labels are unhelpful (nine begin with the acronym "TAMU." They could simple be labeled "College Station, Prairie View, Health Science Center, International, Commerce, etc.) There is a lot of useless chart junk, like the boxes around the various figures. Options for manipulating the graphs are confusing. The whole thing is confusing, difficult to use, and, frankly, ugly.

These are more than just aesthetic objections. The presentation of the data make them hard to understand and contextualize. An citizen, parent, or legislator who wanted to compare the size and diversity of the various system campuses might easily be misled or distracted by this display of information.

Additionally, the underlying data themselves are not available to be downloaded. This makes it difficult for others' to independently assess the system's performance, which is the reason for making the data public in the first place. In this respect, the analytics website compares unfavorably with other government websites used to disseminate public information.

For example, the federal Office of Management and Budget's website includes a wealth of reports and analysis along with an array of historical data available to be downloaded as MS Excel spreadsheets, which can be read by a variety of free and open source software packages in addition to many commercial programs. Those interested in the federal budget need not take the OMB's word about anything. The raw data used in their reports are available for anyone else to analyze on their own. The TAMU System's analytics data are free and online, but the data themselves should be available in a convenient, widely used electronic format, also.

EmpowerU is a step in the right direction, but a serious effort to promote transparency and accountability should make a more significant effort to present data in useful and understandable ways and also make the relevant data easily available without the filter of the system's "analytics."

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