Name: Neil Davidson
Title: Head of Statutory Student Reporting & Analytics
Company: University of Nottingham
Collaborators:James Storey, Jennie Holland
Overview of Use Case
The University of Nottingham is a public research university in the United Kingdom. Student number planning seems straightforward – it’s forecasting how many students will enroll, and therefore how much income a university can expect. While that may sound easy, there is a world of complexity that makes it extremely challenging. Learn how the University of Nottingham moved away from traditional financial planning tools and pioneered an innovative approach using Alteryx. This new process allows the University to be more transparent; keep all their data at its most granular level; and most importantly, with hundreds of millions of pounds at stake, ensure that the data is accurate.
Describe the business challenge or problem you needed to solve
The Strategy, Planning & Performance (SSP) department of the University of Nottingham provides data-driven insights across the institution. That includes projecting the number of incoming students, forecasting the university’s income, and analyzing trends, demand, surveys, etc.
The university was challenged to build a robust and efficient Student Number Planning (SNP) model to predict, in the next five years, how many of the current students would return, how many new students they would get, what the students would study, and how much to charge them.
Predicting how many students they would have in the following year is complex because there are many variables. For example, there are 30 types of students (full time, part time, overseas, etc.), 800 types of courses, and 200,000 modules. On top of that, many students change their majors, some of which require more years of study than others. The model’s output determines the budget for each of the university’s departments according to the number of students they will have. So, any mistake can have tremendous consequences. “If you build a model it needs to be sophisticated enough to deal with any other model that your competition will come up with,” Neil Davidson, Head of Statutory Student Reporting & Analytics at the University of Nottingham.
Describe your working solution
The SSP breaks the Student Number Planning model down into forecasted income, budget unit (e.g. school, department, and division), income stream, student type, course, and stage (length of courses). It ended up with 7,027,776,000 cells in the output.
When James Storey, Planning Officer at the University of Nottingham, started working there, the Student Number Planning model was being developed in Cogno EP. “We had a complicated model going into a complicated software, so the development was really slow. I spent all my time fighting the software instead of improving our model. That’s when Alteryx entered our lives!” James said.
They first started prepping all their data for Tableau in Alteryx. Then they built a dataset with 10 years of student data. After attending Alteryx Inspire, James decided to build their model (see below) in Alteryx Designer.
“When we went from the proof of concept to the actual model we didn’t have to start all over again. We could use the parts that were already working and bring them in to join other sections,” James said.
A few of things that they particularly liked about building this model in Alteryx Designer was that they were able to run multiple scenarios because the model runs fast. They could also append default values when they couldn’t find a value. Additionally, they could build some checks into the workflow which add flags onto the data so they could investigate later. They could feed the data straight into Tableau and update the reporting dashboards easily.
“The beauty of Alteryx is that you take simple tools to build a complex system and you can always drill back down to the simple tools to see exactly what is happening at every stage. If you have someone that knows Alteryx but doesn’t know your model, you can give the model to them, and they will know what is happening,” James said.
When Jennie Holland, Planning Officer – Student Analytics, came into the picture, she had been using Alteryx for 7 years, but she didn’t know the details of the workflows that were already in use and that James had built. “Our planning model has a lot of complexity, and I had the task of understanding the principles of the Student Number Planning process as well as getting to grips with how all of this worked in Alteryx – not an easy task!” she said.
Adding some general comments, highlighting sections of the workflow that perform a particular task, and noting anything important (e.g. data has fallen out of a join as expected), helps when you need to go back to a project you worked on previously or if you have to pass the process to a colleague. It certainly helps for the Student Planning Model, as this process will be run yearly.
“The great thing about Alteryx is that it’s a self-documenting tool. When I started on this project, I ran the workflows a few times to get my head around what was happening. The problem was that when I revisited the workflows, I had forgotten things, and it took a while for me to locate the section I needed to change. I therefore started using comment boxes in numerous colours to help section parts of the workflow. I started at the beginning and built up comments bit by bit, finishing up with a section at the top of the module which explained the overall aims of the planning model,” Jennie said.
Some other documentation tips that Jennie recommended:
- Each tool has an annotation button (label) incorporated into the configuration settings. This can be used for small amounts of annotations.
- Tool containers are really useful, as you can section parts of the workflow and have the ability to enable or disable these boxes if you don’t want that section of the workflow to run each time.
- I always like to order my Alteryx workflows so that I know which order I ran them in. This also works well for a project like this where we are running the modules over and over again. You might also want to link any output files to the module using the same numbering system. For example, here the output from module 1 is prefixed with a number 1.
Describe the benefits you have achieved
“Alteryx is fun and challenging, and it’s exciting building solutions, just don’t forget about documentation. It might not be the most exciting, but it’s the most important if you want to make your process repeatable and shareable.” (Jennie Holland, Planning Officer – Student Analytics)
“The Student Recruitment and Admissions Data Team use Alteryx on a daily basis. Alteryx saves the team a significant amount of time, allowing us to focus less on repetitive data tasks, and more on how we can add value to our services.” (Daniel Thompson, External Relations)
“Alteryx allows me do things in hours that would have taken days in Excel and SQL.” (Mike Leam, Libraries)
"Alteryx has allowed us to implement processes that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible and makes what’s already possible more efficient. Most importantly, it’s fun!" (Peter Iwanciw, Campaign and Alumnni Relations Office)
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