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Study: Data Silos Hinder University Improvements

Researchers at UCLA and MIT Press suggest that universities could improve operational efficiency and advance fields of study by updating their policies around sharing institutional and research data.

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Today’s increasingly digitized universities have more than enough data to manage, ranging from administrative institutional data on faculty and students to research data, and everything in between. While the volume of data isn’t a problem, universities have trouble managing and sharing it effectively for daily operations and advancing research across fields, according to a recent study from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and MIT Press.

According to co-author Christine Borgman, a research professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, universities by and large have struggled to take full advantage of the mountains of administrative and research-related data that's out there. She said in a news release last month that the study was based on several interviews with administrators, university librarians and other personnel responsible for university data governance and management in recent years, adding that many of them still seem to lack the coordination and expertise to make the most of their data.

The study noted that one of the biggest barriers in higher ed data management is decentralization, which has the disadvantage of keeping data sets siloed off from each other, constraining data sharing. It added that data sharing is often impeded by disparate data governance practices across internal departments and institutions.

“A real commercial market has emerged over the last 20 years in systems that will manage the learning management systems for teaching classrooms, registrar systems, library systems, university portfolios for faculty and so on. Those are out there, and universities are tending to buy many of these commercial solutions. The difficulty is that they’re often buying them as silos that don’t interoperate with each other,” Borgman told Government Technology. “The universities often end up buying back their own data from these companies.”

Borgman said much of her career has focused on how researchers across disciplines are able to use and share data, while her colleague and co-author Amy Brand, director and publisher at MIT Press, has spent much of her time following how universities have approached internal administrative data. Drawing off Brand’s experience as a former assistant provost at Harvard University and her own academic experience, Borgman said the issues presented by siloing data are often apparent on the ground level, despite little research on the topic before their study.

“We found that, in our own experience, universities are not doing a very good job of capturing their own data — all the data being produced from personnel systems, learning management systems, the things you need to report externally to governments, accreditation materials, and managing the grant processes for funding agencies,” she said. “They seem to be locked up in silos, and we started looking into that. … Nobody has really done a study on what universities were actually doing on the ground.”

Brand said her personal experience in higher ed administration, which included working on data interoperability for systems that manage a wide range of faculty information sources, left her “struck by the organizational barriers” to streamlining data management and sharing practices.

“Today, as I continue to work on information standards in the publishing domain, I see even more clearly how universities are missing tremendous opportunities to leverage their own data for decision-making, collaboration and greater autonomy from commercial platforms,” she said.

The study suggests some solutions to help streamline data sharing and management across academia, such as investments in network infrastructure to improve access and make data interoperable, as well as professional development for all personnel involved in higher ed data management. It also stressed the need for updated policies around data and more cooperation between faculty and others in charge of data sets.

According to the study, most respondents agreed on the need for more integrated data across departments, and university leaders believe having data on faculty research, funding, policy trends and student information at their disposals could be valuable in decision-making processes.

“Our study sought to identify sources of these tensions along with innovative solutions adopted or under development within the academy,” Brand noted in a public statement. “We unexpectedly found a pervasive void of infrastructure thinking and a relatively limited set of data-informed planning successes.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.