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Democratising data – knowledge is power

18 Oct 2021 | Sebastian Bromelow Sebastian Bromelow, EDI Partner and Ed Uff, HR MI and Systems Partner at Kingston University share what the institution has done to make data more accessible for equality, diversity and inclusion.

Knowledge is power 

In the world of diversity and inclusion we spend a lot of time talking about power dynamics and systemic change. However, people can only change a system if they either; understand it, have power over and within it, or simply just completely overthrow it. Yet, EDI work has been relentlessly professionalised over the past decade, turning the naturally accessible into the artificially inaccessible through endless jargon creation, the gatekeeping of spaces and hiding of “sensitive” data.  

While access to student data by staff has tended to be seen as necessary, staff often know far less about themselves than they do their own students – this needs to change. How else can staff (and students) be empowered to transform the sector if key information is hoarded by those who already control, and benefit, from the very systems that need changing. Hoarding data creates a wild imbalance of knowledge between those “at the top” and “in the know” vs. everyone else. 

GDPR says no 

Keepers of data seem to have switched out the classic phrase “computer says no” with “GDPR says no”. It’s often used as a way to keep data need-to-know, however, there are ways in which data can be shared that are GDPR compliant. This is not about releasing sensitive data en-masse, GDPR was not only created to protect one’s data, but also give oneself ownership of that data. Often it feels like data owners remember the first, but not so much the second part of those aims. The general rule of thumb is that a singular person should not be identifiable from a data set, the easiest way to ensure that democratised data respects this, is to set up the suppression and rounding rules. All this means is that data that returns below a certain number either rounds up, or comes back as “0”, enabling data sets to be democratised while still retaining parameters to protect people’s identifiable data – this is particularly important in institutions with small teams or who are pushing for truly intersectional data analysis capabilities. 

What we’ve done at Kingston 

Kingston has invested time and money over the years creating more accessible ways to bring data out of the servers and into people’s hands through interactive dashboards of both staff and student data. These dashboards have been used for many years by staff for student data, but only during Covid did staff begin to see their own data readily available. Launched in February 2021, the staff dashboard shows demographic information filterable by protected characteristics (including intersectionality), organisational area (departments etc.), grade and contract type. Using Tableau, staff are able to view and interact with live data to better understand their area and how it compares to others/ the University as a whole in a way that is user-friendly and clear. 

With the success of the demographics’ dashboard, work is advancing quickly on new dashboards to empower our staff with information, such as:  

  • an interactive pay equalities dashboard (gender, ethnicity and disability)   

  • a Manager dashboard which will enable managers to track staff absence/sickness, performance etc. overlayed with additional information to facilitate more active management. 

We’re also exploring ways to bring a recruitment dashboard to life, which would show success rates at various parts of the process, alongside dashboard templates to support Charter submissions such as the Race Equality Charter (REC) and Athena Swan. 

Ed’s Quick Start Guide 

Q: What tools/platforms are there? 

A: The best platforms are data visualisation software like Tableau and PowerBI. These platforms are specifically designed to allow you to crunch large quantities of data and display it easily, while having security laced through them so you have a great deal of flexibility about how you share data. 

Q: But what does it cost? 

A: The cost of licenses for PowerBI and Tableau will vary depending on the size of your organisation and the number of users, but there are offers for education providers and PowerBI does give you a free trial to “try before you buy”.  

A cheaper, and less high-tech solution is to use PowerQuery / Power Pivot in Excel. These tools come free and allow you to create data models within Excel workbooks from multiple data sources without having to buy licenses and are still shareable and interactive for users. 

Q: Do I need to be a data expert to set these up? 

A: The level of expertise you require will vary principally on where you plan to source your data, and the scale of your ambition once you have your data loaded. However, it is possible to create useful dashboards relatively easily. It is not essential to learn tricky code to get started and LinkedInLearning contains some strong foundational courses for Tableau, PowerBI and PowerQuery / PowerPivot which will get most new users up and running quickly 

Q: Are they user-friendly? 

A: Each system is pretty intuitive and straightforward to use, but it’s important to think about guides or even short workshops to explain how to make the most of them. There’s no point building something to give people information if they don’t know how to use it! 

Transparency builds trust 

Ultimately, finding ways to put data into the hands of staff and students is about building trust. Much of this information reflects the true state of the institution, for better or worse, and being open to the praise and challenge builds trust in the “centre” and helps flatten power and knowledge structures. It also fosters a dialogue based on equality, with staff being able to come forward armed with the data to engage in robust challenge and solution-finding and not beholden on an institution reporting on “just the good bits”. It’s time to shift the pace of change from incremental to exponential in HE, and democratising data is a vital step in giving power to the people. 

As Kingston continues to explore opening up data to our staff, reflect on your own current data landscape and who has access to what. Please do reach out and share your success and challenges in this area and the impact that’s being felt, as it’s an area we’re all working on in some way or another. 

 

Sebastian Bromelow is EDI Partner at Kingston University. He has been working within education for the past 10yrs across Widening Participation/Outreach, Schools and FE, Students’ Unions and University EDI and has been recognised multiple times for his contributions to diversity and inclusion work. #EDIeveryday 

Ed Uff is the HR MI and Systems Partner at Kingston University. He has worked in HR Systems, Reporting and Operations roles for 10 years in the banking, charity and higher education sectors. 

The EDI Advice Service is an Advance HE member benefit for staff working within Advance HE member institutions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within their remit, and those with leadership responsibility for EDI who require advice. Find out more about the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Advice Service and how to submit a question.

 

The transformed UK Athena Swan Charter is here. Find the answers to some frequently asked questions about the transformed UK charter. 

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