Managing mountains: data warehousing at work

As government organizations continue to look for better ways to streamline business processes, contain costs and improve service, they will increasingly look to data warehousing to make even more strategic use of the mountains of data they generate in the course of their daily activities.

A recent Deloitte Research survey, At the Dawn of e-Government: The Citizen as Customer, indicates that the need to improve customer service is one of the biggest drivers behind the adoption of data warehouse technologies by government agencies.

The survey, which covered 250 provincial and state government departments in five countries, including Canada, found that 75 per cent of those surveyed plan to increase – or significantly increase information technology spending in the next two years. Data warehousing, constituent self-service and (citizen) relationship management applications were seen as “technological priorities.”

Simply put, a data warehouse is an orderly and accessible repository of information that supports decision-making. Information from a data warehouse often helps lead to the formulation of strategies that drive growth, improve operational efficiencies, enhance profitability and increase employee satisfaction or a combination of these.

These are benefits to which scores of government departments, legal firms, academic institutions, health care providers, financial establishments and manufacturers can attest.

In the past, one of the biggest challenges to data warehousing was the inability of disparate computing systems to communicate with one another. Each of these usually had its own architecture and used independent hardware and software. Implementation and maintenance was complex and expensive. Many government organizations found it difficult – because of strapped budgets – to adapt these fragmented systems to new mandates, policies and processes.

Extracting and analyzing data from proprietary systems was also difficult and required the involvement of specialized IT professionals. The result was isolated silos of information, which could not be shared across the organization nor used for effective decision-making.

That situation is changing rapidly. As governments and public sector organizations adopt applications based on open standards and architectures, information flow is becoming easier. Institutional data, as well as the intellectual capital of all employees, can be leveraged beyond individual work groups, departments and offices.

In addition, organizations can now centralize commercial Internet-enabled applications based on open standards, so they can be accessed over the network by any computer running a Web browser. The data generated by one Inter-net-enabled application can be accessed and leveraged by another. For example, applications such as Human Resources and Procurement can be seamlessly linked; the moment an HR manager inputs new employee information, all the office equipment required by that employee is instantly registered in the purchasing system. Meanwhile, data generated by multiple applications flows into the data warehouse, where it is structured and analyzed.

It was this need for integrating data across the enterprise that led Montreal-based Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital to implement an Internet-enabled data warehouse system called a data mart. Over the past 66 years, the hospital had developed paper-based business processes to serve the needs, on an annual basis, of more than 20,000 hospitalized patients, 55,000 emergency patients, 320,000 external clinic patients and 3,800 staff. But its legacy clinical and administrative service delivery systems no longer sufficed. Access to up-to-date information and powerful and precise analytical tools became critical for the hospital to meet the needs of patients, taxpayers, employees and other stakeholders.

The hospital responded by using Oracle technology to create a central integrated repository for data and applications that matches existing work processes and business rules.

Departments can use the data mart to collect and analyze information from a variety of business processes and clinical procedures, which, in turn, enables them to develop a better understanding of the underlying reasons for particular results. Because the applications are very flexible, they can be built in stages, without maximizing or exceeding budget.

Amalgamating patient data into a data mart ensures that records are more manageable and secure. The database allows for strict protocols to limit access to confidential and sensitive information. Administrators can easily change a user’s authorization status without going to the user’s desktop. Once a change is made in the central database, it is automatically registered with the user the next time he or she logs on.

Government and public sector organizations can also use data warehouses to improve their service levels.

For example, the Jewish General Hospital’s data mart stores its major performance indicators. That in turn helps the hospital manage financial, human and material resources.

“A better understanding of administrative operations allows us to direct our human and material resources towards patient care more effectively,” says hospital director Henri Elbaz.

To meet the swiftly changing needs of government organizations, data warehouses must also facilitate full-featured on-line analytical processing (OLAP) of purchasing, accounting and client data.

For instance, its new Internet-enabled computing architecture has enabled the Jewish General Hospital to quickly develop OLAP tools that met the needs of all its varied work processes.

“These decision making tools, which can be accessed through an easy to use Web browser, are becoming essential for all our managers and health-care workers particularly those whose work spans multiple departments,” Elbaz says.

Tools that leverage common standards – such as Internet-enabled data warehouses – have the greatest value as they can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, regardless of the type of computer used. When it feels the time is right, Jewish General Hospital can extend the system to additional departments and open up certain information to other institutions, while linking to mobile health care providers through Web-enabled computing devices.

In addition to open standards, integration and interoperability, government bodies also need to pay attention to the issue of scalability. The average data warehouse doubles in size 18 months after it goes live to accommodate more business processes and registered users. The ability of a data warehouse to quickly and efficiently store, process, analyze, search and display gigabytes and terabytes of information is a measure of its efficiency. Internet-enabled data warehouses use multiple strategies to handle explosive data growth and new user demands.

Over the past few years, government agencies have experienced significant benefits from aggregating and disseminating quality information via the Internet. Data warehouses, which enable these organizations to access vital data and use it as a basis for strategic decision-making, are unquestionably the “must-have apps” of the new economy.

Graham Rose is the national solutions leader, business intelligence and data warehousing, Oracle Corporation Canada, Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.

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