With the PC explosion in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the California Department of Education encountered a problem faced by many companies and organizations: Although PCs empowered end users, the spread of information resources to the desktop hindered the department from getting an enterprisewide view of its data.
As a result, state legislators had trouble finding the financial, demographic and performance data about students that is necessary for making informed policy decisions. That situation didn’t change until the department adopted an Internet/intranet solution to easily access this complex mass of information.
“Certainly, companies want to set a single standard [for handling data], and intranets are a practical method,” said Matt Nerney, an analyst at Aberdeen Group, a consultancy in Boston. “It’s not as difficult to get people to move in that direction, because they see the benefits of an intranet.”
As you might expect for such a sprawling state, the California Department of Education oversees a vast amount of information. The department disperses more than $20 billion a year in funding. The state’s complex educational system comprises some 1,000 school districts, each legally autonomous with its own governing board. The situation is further complicated by numerous JPAs (Joint Powers Agreements), in which districts band together for specific programs and special education projects.
“We’re not like the Florida school system, which is very hierarchical,” said Brian Uslan, manager of client system services for the department’s information systems and services.
Although department funds were always allocated properly, Uslan admitted that “basic types of questions couldn’t be answered.” The department knew how much state money was going into individual programs, but the lack of a consolidated data source prevented it from determining total state funding to individual school districts. Indeed, in 1994, during one of the emotionally charged discussions of education that are common in the Golden State, an editorial in The Los Angeles Times griped that “expenditure data is not readily available” on educational spending.
The department made its first stab at climbing out of the data quagmire in the early 1990s when it adopted a product called Metaphor from Metaphor Computer Systems. Metaphor combined a GUI with relational database technology, allowing nontechnical users to access multiple databases and construct their own applications. At a time when 16-bit operating systems were commonplace, Metaphor operated with its own 32-bit system.
“Initially, Metaphor was a wonderful product for modeling data, providing quick interpretations, and it was very user-friendly,” Uslan said.
Metaphor was purchased by IBM, which moved the product over to its own 32-bit operating system, OS/2. The machines were powerful, Uslan said, providing integrated spreadsheets, word processing and back-end connections to databases. But there was a problem: OS/2 was difficult to integrate into a network environment–especially on the desktop, where people were using Windows 3.1 at the time, Uslan noted. As a departmentwide platform, it just didn’t work in the new PC-focused world.
“The PC has added a tremendous amount of power and autonomy, but the downside is understanding information resources from an enterprisewide mind set,” Uslan said. “We didn’t transition in a coordinated manner from the mainframe, and it’s taking a lot of work to bring the department back into a cohesive environment.”
The problems continued for a couple of years until IBM developed a Web kit for Metaphor, which had evolved into a product called IDS, or the Intelligent Data Server. Standardizing the power of the Internet made an obvious solution for getting a handle on the department’s data. Because the department is a government organization, most of the information must be made available to the public.
The decision was made to go with a dual Internet/intranet approach. “As we moved ahead with our internal project, another nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called EdSource was looking for ways to bring extensive data to the public in a context that had meaning,” Uslan explained. The department’s database, along with the Internet technology, provided a user-friendly interface to accomplish that.
Many of the local school districts around the state now access information through the resulting public Web site, at 188.8.131.52/available.html. The site is integrated into a broader site that provides background and context to this educational data. The Ed-Data Partnership–a consortium of school districts, county offices, EdSource and the department–developed this site at www.ed-data.k12.ca.us//that provides the point of entry to the IDS site.
The department’s Web site is designed to allow users to make standardized queries about expenditures per pupil, enrollment information and student demographics. A popular feature permits users to compare similar school districts based on specific criteria. “Before this, a district supervisor could often only find out some of this stuff if [he or she] happened to run into a supervisor of another district at a conference,” Uslan said.
The standardized queries represent more than 80 percent of the general funding questions the department of education receives from the field. “The system develops queries on the fly, so we don’t have to maintain huge files,” Uslan said. “We’re very excited and want to do this further by having more modeling flexibility within the environment.”
State laws detail strict guidelines about what information can be revealed–for example, a 200-student school district with a couple of Hispanic students could not break out information by ethnicity. No confidential data is on the data server. By having both an Internet and intranet, outside people are prohibited from accessing data that hasn’t been audited or from seeing private data about individual students.
If someone wants additional information not covered by the standardized queries, a request can be made for the department to run the query through the intranet. Currently, those queries are run by two employees; soon that searching ability will be expanded to all desktops within the department.
On initial proposals, the IDS system is used without the Web server. This allows access to the same data sources but provides the confidentiality needed to evaluate potentially sensitive proposals–such as weighing the benefits of adding a cost of living allowance as opposed to putting more funds into a specific program. “These are proposals where there are winners and losers,” Uslan said.
Those kinds of issues are touchy and the intranet prevents the preliminary discussion from turning into a public firestorm. “That’s like having a emergency relief plan in place for a natural disaster,” Uslan said. “You don’t actually think a disaster is going to happen, but they need to have the plan in place. In education, there are a lot of groups with variety of interests–such as home owners, teachers and students–and we need the freedom to evaluate proposals without that information coming into public view immediately.”