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Austin Fire Department Extracts Value from Data

Breaking through the data bottleneck is boosting the agency's performance in multiple ways.

by / January 30, 2014

Before implementing a business intelligence solution for data management, the Austin, Texas, Fire Department said it “put data in with a bulldozer and pulled it out with tweezers.”

“Any data solution we did have involved individuals collecting, massaging and formatting data sets that often created more questions and problems than they answered,” said the department’s IT manager, Elizabeth Gray. “We were dealing with multiple and incomplete, inconsistent versions of the truth. We had a huge bottleneck: several technical IT people delivering one-off reports that usually turned out to be too little information, too late.”

Enter QlikView, a business intelligence platform that helps organizations get more from their data. Built on an analytics engine that integrates data with the front-end environment, users can search and navigate data in any direction while jumping between levels of aggregation.

Mike Saliter, global director of industry market development at QlikTech, the company behind QlikView, said data from different kinds of sources can be loaded and managed within the platform. Customers can deploy QlikView as a stand-alone desktop client or a server-based solution, accessible via Web browser or mobile device.

Gray told Government Technology that in rolling out the fire department's first few applications — human resources, payroll and benefits, and 911 calls — users were asked how much time they used to spend searching for the same data, and making it usable. “We discovered that these four apps alone freed up 4,893 hours per year of no-value data compilation, with the associated payroll cost of $215,000. This was like getting 2.35 full-time employees for free,” she said.

Today, the Austin Fire Department has 11 lines of business with more than 50 interactive applications that focus on operational performance data, budget and finance, office operations and firefighter support divisions. To get to this point, the department had to undergo a significant data discovery process.

“If you’ve never had meaningful access to your data,” Gray said, “how are you supposed to know what you want?”

The biggest challenge for the fire department was adopting a new approach to analytics. 

“They had to define requirements, agreeing on what should be included in the analysis,” said Saliter. “A key lesson learned was training users on what they were seeing so they could properly interpret the data and make informed decisions.”

Being able to make effective use of its data using tools like a box chart visualization on firefighter performance, has helped the department achieve faster firefighter turnout time. Additionally, since using the data dashboard, the number of open National Fire Incident Reports has been reduced by 600 reports -- a 90 percent decrease in six months. Regionally and nationally, policymakers utilize these reports to inform funding and regulatory decisions.

Other benefits include a higher continuing education completion rate, improved firefighter overtime analysis, clarity regarding compensation for responses that take place outside of the department’s jurisdiction and more timely responses to citizen requests. 

This year, the Austin Fire Department enters its seventh year utilizing QlickTech business intelligence. Gray’s recommendation to other businesses and government agencies contemplating a similar move: “Just do it.”

“You do not have to wait until your requirements are perfect,” she said. “When we first started, we wasted a bunch of time on requirements’ definition, attempting to whiteboard what sorts of charts and graphs we wanted. Once we saw them in QlikView, there were other, much better solutions. Now we just figure out a broad brush for a basic script, and throw a bunch of tables and selectors up on the screen. That starts a productive conversation on what the business user wants.”


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Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.

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