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Texas Parks and Wildlife Department converts to a culture of analytics

“First, find key employees who will learn to work with data and then empower them to teach their colleagues,” advises the department.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is committed to understanding the needs of Texas residents for the 100 state parks, 51 wildlife management areas and eight fish hatcheries under its jurisdiction. Since the department derives a large chunk of its revenue from sources such as hunting, fishing and boating licenses, it needed a better understanding of who uses its facilities now and who might use them in the future. By using business intelligence analytics, a much larger percentage of its staff can explore data to better understand how to market to customers, align budgets and make the most of resources. Getting to that point, though, wasn’t easy. I spoke with Data Analyst John Taylor and Financial Analyst Alejandro Farias about how a very traditional branch of state government bought into analytics.

What was the vision you had for analytical change?

John Taylor, Data Analyst, TPWD

Taylor: Before identifying a true vision, we had to appreciate the data-rich environment at TPWD. Because it serves Texas in so many ways, the department collects and maintains data for activities such as hunting, fishing, boating, wildlife permitting, law enforcement and state park visitation. In addition, we collect financial data and various types of social media information.

With an understanding of the scope of data, we decided that we’d like to use it to our advantage. For example, we sought to analyze customer data to determine or anticipate customer purchase patterns. We planned to use customer geographical patterns, revenue trends and enforcement violations to predict behavior as well.

Farias: We realized right away that the end users play a significant role during this exploratory phase of data profiling, insofar as how reports are designed, what content to include, etc. And through continual collaboration with the end users, we were able to identify a list of very specific reporting requirements, enabling us to be much more refined in identifying reporting needs – and more strategic about our analytic reporting overall.

Alejandro Farias, Financial Analyst, TPWD

What challenges did you have to overcome to achieve the new vision?

Taylor: We, of course, had to find a way to pay for it. Initially, we went to all the program directors in our division and said, “We can afford it if each office pitches in, literally, like, $150.” As we showed people the potential, it was easier to get buy-in when we moved to an agencywide enterprise BI system. Still, with other IT priorities previously established, we had to get creative. We ended up finding federal grant money that funded the majority of the project.

 

Farias: On the buy-in note, reaching the necessary level of support from management required earning their trust. We had to strategically navigate around a fear of doing something outside of everyone’s comfort zone to avoid potential roadblocks to our progress. We realized the need for hands-on end user support to demonstrate small successes along the way, while working on the larger goals of the projects. These smaller successes eased the minds of our managers and earned us a great deal of trust in what we were trying to accomplish.

How did you roll out analytics?

Taylor:  We used a disciple method where we found people who could spread the message within their own work group.

For instance, with budget matters, I asked one of our administrators for a recommendation. That’s how I found Alejandro. I walked up to his cubicle and said, “I’m about to change your life.” Once someone was trained, we gave them six months to work with business intelligence reports and then asked them to identify people they could train. We actually grew from no users to more than 200 fairly quickly. We show them one tool at a time; we try to be very strategic in not getting ahead of ourselves.

We also provide ongoing training in the field on report design, data profiling and financial analysis. We have open labs at TPWD headquarters where end users can participate and even try new business intelligence tools.

Farias: John actually did change my life. Understanding what analytics could offer our agency became a night-and-day passion for me to learn. How could I use business intelligence to help my organization? I started by teaching myself each business intelligence tool and formulated a training method for end users to become what we coined “SAS ninjas,” stressing the need to think strategically about their analytic tactics.

Performance analysis is part of my background. So, saving time is and will always be one of my primary objectives. As an employee of a state agency, anything I could do to help it become more efficient would maximize productivity and build morale. Each training session began with the statement, “I’m here to save you 30 minutes of time a week.” Then, I would proceed to teach the concept of how they could automate processes that were currently manual and were very time-consuming.

One specific example is a manual process that one department does to recategorize operating budget dollars. This process sometimes gets done multiple times a week. Once we automated the categorization process, the department ended up saving about three hours a week per person. That’s significant.

Trust plays a big part. Being responsible to your end users for constant support and training allows them to venture out and try new methods and develop their own methods. Building trust in their analytical creativity gets them out of their comfort zone. I always tell end users that I’m available night and day. I’ve given my office and cell phone numbers and told them to call me anytime they run into a problem.

Learn more about how Texas Parks and Wildlife Department uses analytics by reading this story.

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