Campus & community, Campus news

Need answers about Berkeley? New data tool has lots of them

By Carol Ness

“I’m very excited about this,” says Christopher Hunn, computer science adviser in the College of Letters and Science. “It’s like magic.”

What inspires Hunn’s enthusiasm is maybe not what you’d expect. He’s talking about Cal Answers, UC Berkeley’s online data cruncher that lets anyone on campus — staff, faculty, students — plunge into the sea of numbers generated by everyday operations and make use of them, quickly.

“One question, one answer” is its mantra. For Berkeley, Cal Answers is a critical cog in the machinery involved in orienting the campus toward its modern realities — changes in funding and the need for greater efficiency, responsiveness and transparency.

How many people work at Berkeley? There used to be multiple answers to questions like that, depending on who was included in the count (unpaid employees? affiliates?) and how up-to-date numbers were in far-flung corners of campus, says Pamela Brown, executive director of the Office of Planning and Analysis.

Now, there’s just one answer. (For the record: As of April 30, 2013, UC Berkeley’s official workforce headcount was 30,056, according to Cal Answers.)

That number is among the “fast facts” in the human resources data — found in the “HR Census” dashboard — in Cal Answers, which collates data on employees that users can slice and dice as needed. Want to know how many faculty are on the roster? Emeriti? Student employees? It’s all there — viewable as a snapshot of the moment, or measured over time, sortable by multiple categories, and easy to turn into colorful bar and pie charts or line graphs.

Detailed information about course enrollments, student demographics, majors, grades, financial aid, applicants, time to graduation and campus spending is all there, too. And more data will be added, including figures on alumni and how space is used.

“For our purposes on campus — for trying to understand the student body, trying to understand growth and need and planning for the future — it’s got all the information,” says Brown.

The gathering of campuswide data has been part of a major initiative launched by the administration in 2008. A task force formed by Provost George Breslauer and then-Vice Chancellor Nathan Brostrom surveyed people all over campus and heard many complaints about the shortfalls of a system where each department had to maintain its own data. Staff time was wasted, and numbers weren’t being kept current. Efforts have been underway since then to build a single campus repository for the vast streams of data that UC Berkeley generates, and Cal Answers is one result.

Like a restaurant that’s not quite prepared for prime time, Cal Answers made a soft launch over the last year, adding chunks of data as it was made ready. During the summer, the vast body of student curriculum information came online, and now Cal Answers is ready for the spotlight.

Cal Answers: How to

Getting started in Cal Answers is as easy as going to the website and watching the seven-minute intro video.


When: Friday-Wednesday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Thursdays, 8 a.m. to midnight

Browsers, etc.: Safari, Explorer and Firefox are compatible (Explorer 9 and 10 must be in compatibility mode; Firefox needs a one-time special configuration). The current version of Chrome is not compatible. The charts require a relatively up-to-date version of Flash. Full info on compatibility is here .

Getting started: Go to Before signing in, take a look at the pie chart of what data is included and what’s coming next. Click on the “learn more about getting started” link at the upper left for basic info on how things work. Sign in using your CalNet ID.

Then what? The opening page is fairly minimalist, but will build links to “favorites” and “recent” as you browse data. At the beginning, go to the tabs at the top right. Click “Dashboards” to see a list of everything available, and go from there.

Training: The Office of Planning and Analysis is holding office hours for users. Find out more and schedule a visit here.

Help desk: Email or call (510) 664-9000.

Videos: Multiple videos detailing Cal Answers’ capabilities are posted on UStream .

“You can see the majors of the students in your classes, as well as a profile of what courses they’re taking. We also have grade-distribution information. Soon you’ll be able to see information about instructors and where and when a course is being taught,” Brown said as she introduced the curriculum data to members of the Cal Assessment Network over the summer. The curriculum data is what got Hunn going, and he was part of the presentation.

As Letters and Science computer science adviser, he plays a big role in planning courses to meet majors’ needs — and demand has soared.

Cal Answers let him quickly figure out that most of the rising demand for computer science courses was coming not from College of Engineering students, but from L&S students. And enrollments in lower division courses were rising even faster than upper division, indicating that interest was exploding among non-majors.

The numbers helped Hunn and his fellow managers make the case that the department needed to expand its course offerings and required greater resources. The data also prompted the department to set a new major requirement, a 3.0 grade-point average.

Before Cal Answers, Hunn said, getting such detailed and useful information was difficult — when it was even possible.

“It took us days of labor with multiple staff members to get out a lot of the data,” he says. With Cal Answers, “we could do it in an hour.”

Cal Answers made planning the number of sections, assigning the right rooms and deploying GSIs vastly easier — which matters when enrollment in a course can differ by 500 students from semester to semester.

Reduced student stress was another benefit. Cal Answers let Hunn show that certain courses dependably attracted high numbers of students — so more sections could be opened from the beginning of the enrollment period, and students spent less time on waitlists.

The data also let Hunn put to rest anecdotally based concerns that L&S CS students couldn’t get into the courses they needed to graduate on time. The data informed a student survey that revealed that majors were happy, and had no trouble getting into courses. This also made clear to Hunn that the department should expand to make space for non-majors.

Hunn is not alone in his enthusiasm. Over at Summer Sessions, Dean Richard Russo says Cal Answers helps his curriculum planners pinpoint both students’ interests and bottlenecks during the regular academic year. “We can tell where there are long waiting lists and high demand,” says Russo. “We’ve been reaching out to those departments and saying, ‘Hey, these are great candidates for summer courses.’ “

And at the Fall Program for Freshmen, for students who are admitted for the spring semester, assistant director Noam Manor says Cal Answers lets the program see that their students’ graduation rates are higher than for students who start in the fall.

“It helps us highlight the value of the program,” Manor says. “And it’s the official data — so I am confident that the results I’m getting reflect the actual situation, and the people I share them with trust that they are valid.”

“Procure-to-pay” is another category of data available in Cal Answers. In this data, departments can see a graphical summary of how they are performing on key procurement initiatives, like buying on contract and through catalogs, along with receiving payment discounts. A department can see how it compares to the campus as a whole and relative to campus goals and then go into more detailed data where there are exceptions, says Karen Kato, Information Services & Technology’s director of enterprise data, who has been instrumental in getting Cal Answers up and running and bringing the campus on board.

This has been a major initiative of Operational Excellence, the campuswide effort to make operations more efficient and identify places where money or time can be saved.

Being able to track data on purchasing methods can be useful to departments to see the benefits of exerting large-group purchasing power, according to Kato. That’s “going to save the university money, and that money can go to teaching and research and students,” she says.

Want to know how many students get financial aid? The “Student Financials” dashboard shows the numbers — 65 percent of undergraduates in 2011-12. How many students took out loans that year? 32 percent. And those are just the “fast facts;” the financial aid numbers can be crunched by major, by source of the money, and many other factors.

More data is being added steadily to Cal Answers. Who applies to Berkeley? Applicant data is being expanded now, and the pie chart on the Cal Answers home page shows what’s being added in the future.

“We wanted to be able to make management decisions that were not anecdotally driven,” said Cathy Koshland, vice provost for teaching, learning, academic planning and facilities during the summer presentation to CAN. “An anecdote may start the conversation, but we really want to use data to drive solutions.”