UW News

June 22, 2006

Report recommends new office, new administrator to manage information

News and Information

A task force appointed by Provost Phyllis Wise has completed an interim report that calls for articulating a vision for the future of the University’s information systems, and thinking about how future hardware and software development would fit into that vision.

The Future of Information Systems Task Force Interim Report made several recommendations, including creating a new unit called the Office of Information Management, funding for the Data Warehouse project and support for classroom improvements and learning technology.

The Office of Information Management would be headed by a chief information officer who would provide senior level leadership and coordination of key information systems and project planning. He or she would also would be charged with developing and managing a long-term information technology plan — with requisite funding — that would address critical needs before the situation became a full-blown crisis. And the office would coordinate consistent definitions of key data terms, so that any analysis across units would use comparable definitions of key terms.

“We should be able to compare ‘apples with apples’ across the University,” says Jeanne Marie Isola, director of the Strategic Initiatives Office and task force co-chair. “That requires common definitions of the terms that we use when we aggregate information.”

The task force, composed of senior administrators and faculty, gathered information through surveys, panel discussions and interviews. Working groups examined the current system, anticipated needs, institutional goals and priorities and best practices.

Individual units that need funding for computing projects currently must compete amongst themselves for central funding, with proposals ranked by the Information Technology Advisory Committee. However, the committee evaluates competing proposals without an overall vision of where the Universitys expect to be in 5 to 10 years or how the proposals might fit together to get us to that vision. Those units that are able to develop computing projects with their own resources may not be subject to any outside review or integration of their efforts.

“This report is not intended as a criticism of the many talented and dedicated individuals who currently work on information systems,” says Mike Eisenberg, dean emeritus, professor in the Information School and task force chair. “People are doing exactly what they’ve been asked to do, usually with very fine results. But 10 or 15 years ago the institution made a decision not to assign overall strategic planning for information systems to any one office. That decision no longer serves us well.”

Recognizing that the variety of information systems at the UW is vast, the task force focused its efforts. The report does not include an analysis of the information systems that serve either the business side or the data side of research; it also does not explore the situation in UW Medicine. Both those areas deserve their own analysis, the report suggests.

The task force found that many things are currently handled well. The computing infrastructure is robust, reliable and secure. The UW is a leader nationally in providing wireless capabilities across our campuses. The administrative transaction system — the ability to handle such tasks as financial aid, student registration and class assignments — appears very capable of dealing with a large volume of information.

But there are major barriers in getting this information beyond the central administration. “We heard a great sense of frustration in many schools and colleges about getting access to student information,” says Eric Godfrey, acting vice president for student affairs and task force co-chair. “We have a system that works from a central administration business perspective, but schools and colleges cannot get access to aggregate information about students that allows them to make informed decisions. In some cases where information is available, the schools and colleges feel it is either unreliable or presented in a form that is unusable. This is a serious problem when colleges are making strategic decisions about such issues as student recruitment. They need precise, timely information that they can use.”

The task force found that some systems only appear to work well and are actually kept alive through what the group termed “daily heroics” by individuals who work hard to prevent antiquated and flawed systems from falling apart.

“In the course of our investigation, we found that many functions still rely on ‘legacy’ hardware and software, some of which is no longer supported by the companies that created them,” Eisenberg says. “We need to develop a plan that predicts how long such systems are likely to be viable and how we can transition out of them.”

The task force was concerned that there is no line item budget for classroom technology, which has relied historically on special appropriations by the provost. The report calls for regular appropriations of about $4 million each biennium.

The task force found that the Data Warehouse project that is currently underway, as a cooperative effort of the executive vice president and Computing & Communications, should receive increased attention and support. “We believe this is a key solution to some of our pressing needs,” Eisenberg says, “because it will drive information to schools and colleges. It is end-user focused and should produce some tangible payoffs.” The Data Warehouse project will create a series of databases, designed for broad University access, in key areas such as human resources, payroll, finance and academic affairs.

One of the chief information officer’s tasks would be to determine which among the University’s many systems is in need of the most urgent attention. Eisenberg ticked off a list of possible candidates: “We don’t have a real budgeting system. Our human resources information is far from a management system. If we begin to change and combine some of our financial systems to provide better analytical tools across units and across campuses, this might provide savings that could be applied to the project.”

The task force examined three approaches to system-wide solutions. These include Enterprise Resource Planning, which involves implementing one large software solution purchased from a private vendor; software written and developed solely by the UW; or “open source” software developed by a consortium, probably of similar public research universities. While the task force did not endorse a particular approach, the report notes that an open source approach might well be the most cost effective. “This approach can help mitigate risks by sharing the development work with other institutions,” says Isola. “The examples of this approach that were cited in the task force’s investigation were very interesting.”

A dramatic change in the UW’s approach to information systems might seem to require a culture change, but Godfrey pointed out that a new approach to technology would simply catch up to a culture change that already is under way in research, teaching and learning. There appears to be broad consensus that the University wants to encourage more interdisciplinary work by faculty and also the ability to offer courses across boundaries and in various locations — within the state, across the country and internationally. However, the administrative systems don’t make that kind of work easy. “Our information systems need to catch up with the way we do our work,” Godfrey says.

The report does not cite a cost estimate for systems improvements, but points out that the scope of work and time allowed will influence cost. Eisenberg says it is safe to say that, over a number of years, the changes will cost tens of millions of dollars.

The task force is soliciting feedback over the next few months and expects to issue its final report Oct. 1. “We hope this will become the basis of a UW strategy for achieving a vision of information technology systems that will better support the institution’s goals,” Eisenberg says.

The report is available at: http://depts.washington.edu/isfuture/report.shtml.