UALR's Information Quality Program Solves Data Dilemmas

More data is available right this second than ever before in history. That will hold true tomorrow, next month, next year and so on. Determining how much of that information is useful, where to find it and how to organize it can prove vexing even for the largest organizations.

But decisions based on bad data can be very costly.

A relatively new degree course at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock aims to solve that problem. It is one of the only programs of its kind in the world, and some of its graduates have already used their know-how to save millions of dollars for their organizations.

(Click here to read about a company started through UALR's information quality business incubator.)

The information quality graduate program, part of the information science department, was started four years ago with the support of Acxiom Corp., Dean Mary Good of UALR's Donaghey College of Engineering & Information Technology and Richard Wang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Professor John Talburt is the coordinator of the UALR information quality program.

"We worked on the degree proposal in 2005, and then in 2006 we got full approval and launched the program with 24 students in the first cohort of the master's program," Talburt said.

Since then the program has been expanded to include a graduate certificate as well as an information quality track in the new integrated computing Ph.D. program, Talburt said. "We just graduated the first two Ph.D.s in information quality last May, and they are both working for the Arkansas Education Department," he said.

Since the program began, enrollment has grown quickly, with 82 who have either graduated or are currently enrolled, including students in other states and around the world who take classes online.

MIT has offered a professional certificate in information quality, and Wang provided some of the materials MIT had used in its information quality program, which the UALR staff used to create its curriculum.


Acxiom Involvement

Acxiom played a key role in the development of the information quality program at UALR. Talburt had worked for the company for 10 years before going to UALR, Good was a longtime member of the Acxiom board of directors, and the company offers scholarships for some of its employees to earn information quality degrees.

The company provided about $275,000 a year for the first three years of the program, including the year the curriculum was being developed, Talburt said.

Defining and measuring data quality is an enormous, complex proposition even for large companies, said Charles Morgan, former CEO of Acxiom.

"All these different people in these different industries were making decisions based on data in their databases, and if data was really bad, you could make some really bad decisions," Morgan said.

But for many years, there was not a formal discipline related to data quality. One of Talburt's last tasks at Acxiom before going to UALR was to put together data quality measurement standards, Morgan said.

For Acxiom, "it's a huge boon to have that in our backyard," said Lorel Wilhelm-Volpi, product marketing manager.

"If Little Rock is perceived as the mecca for information quality, it's very nice for us to be able to point to our involvement in the creation of the program and our ongoing relationship with UALR and being in the same geographic area," she said. "For us, it's a great source of recruitment for some very qualified employees."


IQ Principles

One of the principles of information quality is to consider information not as a byproduct of a company's business, but as a valuable asset, Talburt said.

Many people might think information quality primarily involves cleaning up incomplete or outdated entries in databases, he said.

While that is part of it, it also involves "understanding the impact of poor information on the organization, how to govern information across the enterprise, how to develop a culture of quality information," he said.

There are many ways that organizations fail to get the full value out of their data. Sometimes it's a loss scenario, Talburt said.

"A lot of companies that buy or rent data don't really understand the overlaps and the redundancies in the data or even the quality," he said. "By understanding their information quality on the input side, they can avoid buying a lot of redundant data, they can understand the quality, and they can start using service-level agreements for the providers and not accepting information that's subpar."

The information quality degree "is not an IT course," Morgan said. "It's a course about disciplines and strategies that can deal with a complex problem. It's not, 'Here's a software tool you learn how to use.' It's a very, very broad, complicated topic that has an awful lot of facets to it."


IQ Drives Savings

Tonmoy Dasgupta, a database administrator with the Arkansas Department of Information Systems, earned an information quality master's degree in 2008.

The discipline involves "a mixture of technical as well as soft skills," Dasgupta said. The degree is "about quality and quality means change. You look at your process and you want to make it better and that involves change."

Among many other responsibilities, Dasgupta's agency is in charge of handling the massive phone bill for state offices. One project he and other DIS staff undertook was to resolve billing discrepancies for all those offices.

It was a complicated task, one that took about a year to really get under way and that is ongoing. But it is saving the state about $2 million a year in phone charges, Dasgupta said.

The first two Ph.D. graduates from UALR's information quality program were Neal Gibson and Greg Holland, both of whom graduated in May. Gibson is director of the Arkansas Research Center and Holland is the director of research and development at ARC.

The ARC, located at the University of Central Arkansas, was started in 2009 with a grant from the National Center for Education Statistics to the Arkansas Department of Education. The two also have master's degrees in information quality.

"The first project I ever did when I started the program was to look at dual enrollment in the state. That is, kids that were being claimed by two or more schools at the same time," Gibson said. "So we initiated a process to take care of that, and that has led to significant savings for the Arkansas Department of Education."

The program, which eliminated the redundant records, translated to about $10 million in savings for the ADE, Gibson said. The ADE gives money to districts for each student enrolled. That money, no longer going to multiple districts for the same student, is placed back in the department's general fund, he said.