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It all began for us during Alteryx For Good Week 2017; Alteryx User Groups and AFG staff had let our Dallas User Group leadership team know about the upcoming volunteer opportunity. They mentioned a few non-profit organizations that either already had one free Alteryx For Good desktop Designer license, or were interested in obtaining a license. One of the non-profits stood out: The Commit! Partnership, who had a license, but would like to have assistance in really utilizing it to its potential.
The Commit! Partnership was noticeable because as soon as we viewed their website, enormous amounts of data leapt from the pages. They were aggregating data from various sources, performing analytics, and distributing the output to a multitude of recipients – all of it pertaining to children’s education and readiness to enter college. Commit’s motto is “from cradle to career”, and it couldn’t be more relevant; they work diligently to ensure Dallas/Fort Worth area students receive an excellent and equitable education, improving areas such as grade school readiness, literacy, college completion, and educator effectiveness. All of these in turn allow students to excel in college and their careers.
Inspired by this, I also realized that Commit is improving our communities, our cities and our world. They are helping educators and school districts provide a better education for kids; giving children the opportunities to learn, grow and develop skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Literacy and knowledge can open pathways to a better life – enabling these students to then become members of their communities and cities and open pathways for many others.
At the previous Dallas Alteryx User Group meeting in early 2017, I had announced Alteryx For Good Week, and we immediately had 12 volunteers sign up for the team; what an awesome response! I then reached out to Marie Appel, Manager of Strategy and Analytics at Commit, and let her know about Alteryx For Good week. She was excited about the prospect of having volunteers skilled in Alteryx to come and assist her with utilizing the software, which she had begun to use, but hadn’t had time to explore. I figured we had plenty of Alteryx experience through our many volunteers, so why not give back with our time and expertise, and provide a “consulting” type of solution for free?
In talking with Marie, we found that some of their biggest challenges were lack of access to data. They were storing, preparing and analyzing their data in Excel, often with numerous spreadsheet tabs, and laborious V-lookups and embedded formulae. To update these Excel files, staff were downloading data from websites, then cutting and pasting the data into spreadsheets, taking hours and hours of time. There were datasets available from the Texas Education Agency (TEA), with millions of records providing a wealth of insight into student performance, but inaccessible by Commit since they couldn’t load them into Excel, exceeding the row capacity. Commit could only provide statistics and data to their recipients, based on the datasets they could access.
For AFG Week 2017, I decided we were going to jump in with both feet, and meet with Marie three times that week via onsite visits. Marie and I scheduled the meetings for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for about one to three hours each. In the first morning, we transferred one of their Excel processes (that normally took them hours of preparation) into an Alteryx workflow that ran in minutes! Marie was ecstatic, and so were our volunteers; imagine how much more we could do for them! The excitement grew, and we continued by meeting that week with additional Commit departments: Pre-K Readiness, Elementary, etc.
Discussions began around the Experian Demographic Data and Spatial Analytics, and ideas abounded of how these features could benefit Commit, which would then benefit hundreds of thousands of children in the area.
Throughout the week, our volunteers met onsite and did an outstanding job collaborating to create workflows that gave Commit access to their existing Excel files, and providing data prep and blending in Alteryx. This removed the need for V-lookups and compound formulae; in Alteryx, they found a transparent view into their data, with the ability to see fields and cell contents using Browse Anywhere, along with previews and profiles of their data, long before producing output. They could transpose and crosstab data, apply a formula, and make changes throughout the data stream, knowing their original input dataset was secure and not overwritten. They loved finally having access to large datasets through workflows that processed in minutes using virtual memory. Now that Commit didn’t have to spend hours prepping, cutting and pasting data, they could focus on the real analytics they had been wanting to dive into!
During AFG Week, the volunteers and I agreed that we would continue to support Commit through Q2 (June) 2017. There were so many opportunities for us to build workflows and provide solutions, and one week wasn’t enough to do all that we could for this outstanding organization. Knowing that we had more time to create Alteryx results for them, I started to think about how to make this even easier for the volunteers.
One thing I noticed during AFG week was that only six of the 12 volunteers who had originally signed up could attend the onsite meetings. Understandably, many of the volunteers had difficulty obtaining time away from work, especially for an extended set of meetings. Since I was doing a lot of my pro bono work after hours as well (including nights and weekends), an idea formed: How about we make it easy for volunteers to work on Alteryx workflows for Commit at any time? We could somehow distribute data to the volunteers, then they could package the Alteryx workflows and send them to all the volunteers for collaboration and review! I talked with Marie, and she suggested using Dropbox to store the data and Alteryx workflows; this worked well since the data were public data, and didn’t contain proprietary information. Marie organized the data into folders within Dropbox, and I sent a detailed email to the volunteers, letting them know the new process. Now we could collaborate both in person during meetings at Commit, as well as online with data and workflows!
We continued to meet with Commit onsite about every other week through Q2; creating workflows, connecting to datasets, and even hosting a training session to explore demographic data and spatial analytics. This sparked even more conversations and projects, and we decided to continue our volunteer support through 2017!
As 2018 began, I was brainstorming on ways to make the volunteering process even more simple and accessible. Volunteers are one of the main keys to making the program successful, and although we had created the Dropbox solution, often our volunteers were working alone and then submitting their results. This worked great for small projects, but for larger projects that required collaboration, we needed a way to unite everyone for conversations and ideas.
By this time, I had been consulting for a few years, and hosting quite a few meetings via WebEx where I would build Alteryx workflows on the fly during presentations to clients. It dawned on me, “Why not host WebEx meetings for the volunteers, and we can all build the workflows together?” I posted the new idea on our user group page in the Alteryx Community, and planned the first introductory WebEx meeting for our volunteers and Commit. The results were amazing; 6 more volunteers signed up, increasing our team to 18.
The new WebEx meetings are enabling our volunteers to join on a call with Commit staff and other volunteers, straight from their desks, without having to leave their offices! It is changing the way we work as a team, empowering our volunteers to share ideas, methods, best practices and solutions in Alteryx, in an efficient way that is saving them time (no commute or having to ask off from work). It is also allowing us to host educational sessions; I recently hosted a WebEx for our volunteers on the Experian demographic data and how it can be used with non-profit organizations. Many more team members were able to join this session by WebEx than would have been possible in person.
Now, with Alteryx For Good Week 2018, we are combining techniques: Commit and I have scheduled three onsite meetings, lasting about three hours each. During these meetings, I will also set up a WebEx connection, so that volunteers who aren’t available to join the meetings onsite can join us “virtually”. The meetings are come and go; team members can stop in during any meeting (in person or dial in) any time, and don’t have to stay for the entire meeting. I am hopeful this makes it easier for volunteers to donate their expertise, when it is convenient for them!
Throughout this AFG week, we are focusing on 7 different Commit projects, some large and some small. These include building Analytic Apps that will not only make life easier for the Commit staff, but also may be shared with others for quick reports. Two more volunteers have joined, making our team 20; some of the volunteers are new to Alteryx, and we welcome them – they can learn as we go, and provide insight to us from their various backgrounds.
Even an hour of volunteering your knowledge of Alteryx can make a huge difference; one hour of collaboration and sharing your insight with others could possibly lead them to new techniques they weren’t aware of. In addition, you don’t have to have a team of volunteers, you only need just one person. One volunteer sitting with one staff member at a non-profit, and walking them through the basics of Alteryx can change the way they do work from that point forward. Remember the first time you learned Alteryx and how it changed everything for the better? 😊
Alteryx is a game changer for The Commit! Partnership; they are working more efficiently, processing at blazing fast speeds, automating with Apps (and Macros in the future), preparing for Predictive Analytics, and gaining remarkable insight. All of this is allowing children to reach their potential and become a more educated community. With an excellent education, opportunities abound, and you can go further than you ever thought possible!
Thank you to Marie Appel (@Commit) and The Commit! Partnership, the Alteryx For Good staff and the Alteryx User Group staff, and to all of our talented Dallas Alteryx User Group Volunteers for their ongoing dedication and support of this wonderful cause. It is a privilege to serve on this team with each of you!
If you know of a non-profit that could benefit from an Alteryx For Good license, and you want to volunteer for them, please have them apply at alteryxforgood.com
Deanna Sanchez is a Senior Consultant at Teknion Data Solutions, and specializes in Spatial and Demographic Analytics in Alteryx, along with Analytic Apps. Deanna has been on the leadership team of the Dallas Alteryx User Group for 4 years, with over 200 members, and leads the Alteryx For Good volunteer team in Dallas. She feels greatly honored to have received the Alteryx For Good Champion Award in 2017, and believes that any amount of volunteering, large and small, creates expanding ripples of good throughout your community.