Everyone\u2019s talking about big data \u2013 structured and unstructured information that can be pulled together and shared to help organisations gain better insights and make more informed business decisions.\nFrom sharing research and course information to analysing online habits of hundreds of thousands of students, Big data techniques have the potential to transform the way the education sector processes and analyses information from many sources.\nIT leaders \u2013 predominantly from the higher education and research sector \u2013 gathered in Sydney recently to discuss the challenges around making sense of large amounts of data across their organisations to improve insights and create better products and services. The event was sponsored by Amcom and EMC.\nAttendees were at various stages of big data projects and agreed that collecting quantities of structured and sometimes unstructured data onto a single platform in one location for analysis is a key challenge.\nThe University of Western Sydney\u2019s (UWS) director of IT services, Kerry Holling, says the university\u2019s research profile has improved significantly in recent years and big data, in terms of volume and unstructured information, is on his mind.\n\u201cWe are recording every lecture and making them available for students to replay in their own time,\u201d he says. \u201cThat\u2019s 100TB of data on an annual basis, which is a challenge for us in terms of managing the capacity.\u201d\nBut what\u2019s important is gaining insights from that data. UWS has a particular focus at the moment on using predictive analytics tools to help improve student retention across the university.\n\u201cWe have plenty of information about students who come in, where they come from, what sort of ATAR they have, the courses they do, the campus they are on and what might happen to them after a year or two should they not complete their degree at UWS,\u201d he says.\n\u201cBut what we are trying to do now is predict which students are at most risk of leaving university and putting in place some intervention strategies to retain those students and provide the support necessary to complete their degree.\u201d\nHolling says there are some potential privacy concerns, which the university is working through, but mostly students are happy to provide information to the university.\nStudy Group is in the midst of a student management system rollout across its colleges worldwide, says the organisation\u2019s Asia Pacific IT services director, Will Calvert.\n\u201cWe now need to harness the information generated by this system, and sources like salesforce.com and our other internal systems to do marketing and lead analysis for example,\u201d says Calvert.\n\u201cFor example, we may want to know that a student who landed on a specific web page or was part of a particular marketing program ended up being an excellent student,\u201d he says.\nMat Myers, IT director at the University of Sydney, says the university is half way through an initial three-year business intelligence program to aggregate data from multiple enterprise systems.\nThis is the first in a series of intended programs and this specific initiative will significantly improve access to information about the university\u2019s research, students, staff and overall performance.\n\u201cThe first year was about getting the technology platform in place and now we are looking at sourcing information from our legacy systems to do descriptive analysis of our research performance, student and staff diversity, financial health, student demand\u2026.those sort of things,\u201d he said.\nFuture phases of the program will see the university do more predictive analysis, asking more \u201cwhat if\u201d questions of its data around, for example, how specific actions would impact the number of students dropping out in the first year of study, Myers says.\nThe Australian Red Cross Society is currently undergoing a business transformation program with the first phase involving the deployment of a finance and retail system.\n\u201cAs part of this, we have created an information management strategy around structured and unstructured data, which includes looking at how we optimise our data migration and ensure data quality is maintained into the future,\u201d says the organisation\u2019s head of IT operations, Veronica Frost.\nWhen undertaking big data projects, organisations should take incremental steps from cleaning and storing data on one platform right through to completing meaningful predictive analysis, according to Michael Knee, chief operating officer at Amcom.\n\u201cThe incremental first step, particularly in the university environment, is getting all the data in one place; a platform that is accessible and enables you to take the next step.\nAmcom group executive, Richard Whiting, added that creating a systemised way of grooming and backing up data, should not be viewed as technology program but rather a change management program with buy-in from the necessary departments.\n\u201cThe challenge is how to get the change management to happen; taking around a lot of structured data from disparate locations and placing it on a single platform for high level analysis that benefits the organisation,\u201d he says.\nEnsuring data quality and accuracy is key\nAccess to quality data is important, says UWS\u2019 Holling. \u201cFor example, a really good predictor of our student retention risk is how many times students access our online student management system.\n\u201cSo if a student hasn\u2019t logged into an online course for six weeks then maybe a red flag should go up.\u201d\nHowever, there is a concern that UWS could be making incorrect assumption in respect to what the data is showing and wrongly embark on an intervention program that isn\u2019t required.\n\u201cA student may be one that turns up for every lecture so they don\u2019t need to log onto the learning management systems as often as others do who download course and lecture information online,\u201d he says.\nKeeping the data hoarders at bay\nThere\u2019s also a cultural challenge around getting a handle of \u201cdata hoarding\u201d, having users such as researchers and staff at universities, storing important data on USB devices and other external drives.\nResearchers in particular, want to hang onto their data and aren\u2019t prepared to put it onto another system, according to some attendees.\nOne attendee also highlighted a privacy aspect to centralising vast amounts of personal and in the case of educational institutions \u2013 research data.\n\u201cRunning globally, we\u2019ve had to comply with a whole bunch of national and state jurisdictions across different countries we operate, so sometimes we simply can\u2019t centralise research and personal student data, even if we wanted to,\u201d the attendee says.\n\u201cIt certainly is a commercial discussion; changing the culture and dealing with different privacy concerns can sometimes put the handbrake on plans to centralise vast amounts of information for analysis.\u201d\nThe University of New South Wales (UNSW) is currently working on providing a metadata layer that will enable easier searching for researchers and staff and increase data value and re-use.\nLuc Betbeder-Matibet, director, faculty IT services at UNSW, says the goal is to improve the university\u2019s research practice and output and provide researchers with long-term storage for their projects.\n\u201cIt is important that this metadata layer sits on top of a big, safe, reliable store that can be accessed from anywhere,\u201d he says. \u201cThe combination of providing a metadata tool to make the data 'smarter' and a location for storing it safely is what should encourage researchers to use a centralised store and reduce issues related to data hoarding.\u201d\nHe says basic project metadata is collected through a data plan when storage is requested.\n\u201cThis project-level metadata is associated with the research and provides a macro-level of metadata that we can use at the organisation level,\u201d he says. \u201cThis gives us some information on the number of projects, which research areas they cover, how much storage is being used etc.\n\u201cMore interesting, however, is that we also provide the researchers with a metadata tool for tagging up their own data at any point in the research cycle.\u201d\nUNSW is also creating a collection of metadata models which can be re-used within disciplines and across projects, says Betbeder-Matibet.\n\u201cThe goal is to mature this into a service capability where the metadata tools are embedded more deeply into the data management practice of our research projects,\u201d he says.