Gifu University seeks to "share and create knowledge" from a prefecture that is rich in nature and culture as a junction between eastern and western Japan. In an effort to improve its management, it introduced Microsoft Azure to help build a Strategic Integration Database for data collected in the university and aid institutional research (IR). The new system is a multi-model database based on schemaless databases that award high flexibility and allow data residing in different faculties and in various data formats to be collected and managed centrally. It also includes business intelligence (BI) tools that analyze data strategically to look for weaknesses and new strengths. The result is a system to help the University enhance its research capacity and deliver high quality education.
Building a Strategic Integration Database to enhance research capabilities
Gifu University was established in 1949, but its origins date back to its predecessor -Gifu Normal School -, indicating over 140 years of producing skilled professionals. Its third mid-term goals and plans for the six-year period (FY2016 to FY2021) are to become central to revitalization efforts in the Tokai district, and form a hub for education and research -both internationally and domestically- using its strong points and unique attributes.
"Using a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, formed strategically according to evidence from institutional research (IR), using on-campus data is key to achieving its goals and making evidence-based improvements to university management. Our Office of Institutional Research is working with the Information and Communications Headquarters to develop information infrastructure for IR" said Hideto Fukushi, Vice President and Executive Director for Academic Research & Information Affairs at Gifu University. "The new integrated database will be key information infrastructure."
Gifu University's faculties each have a unique, long history and its own system for storing on-campus data. Development of a strategic integration database was started in 2016 to collect and manage data scattered across faculties and enhance the University's research capacity. Apart from collecting academic papers, a key aim was to build a database that could use a variety of evaluation indices to analyze and present data visually. The system also needed the ability to process various types of data.
Finding a way to integrate different types of data and analyze them from various angles
The Strategic Integration Database was a system for collecting information about university activities as data that could be analyzed to understand, for example, research, education, contributions to society, and more. As explained by Yutaka Ohya, professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Associate Director General for the Organization for Research and Community Development, "the University has around 800 teaching staff. Having a variety of data on hand helps us evaluate performance from different standpoints, for example by looking at the number of academic papers published, the number of co-research projects being conducted, funds acquired for scientific research, and the lecture evaluations by students, which allows us to better identify our strong points and unique offerings. Having various standpoints also helps to motivate teaching staff. If we do decide to involve artificial intelligence (AI) in our operations further down the track, our on-campus data will already be under centralized management and readily accessible, which provides the essential basis for effective analysis."
The Strategic Integration Database has formed a partnership with Researchmap, a system that collects and provides information on research projects, research institutes, researchers and more, and combined that information with the University's on-campus data. The question was how to cope when the required performance evaluation indices changed over time or depending on the situation. "SQL offered inflexible control over column information and column sets, so if somebody wanted to view the data from a different angle that might require extra steps like adding attributes or extracting the data for analysis, costing more time and effort. Another issue was that data types differed in each faculty. We needed the Strategic Integration Database to offer high flexibility so data could be selected when needed and analyzed from various angles," explained Naoki Kato, professor in the Faculty of Education's Co-Creative Research and Development Center for Learning.
Aside from flexibility, the system needed to allow fast and low-cost incorporation of data. The University chose Fujitsu as its co-developer to develop the Strategic Integration Database as a key system for achieving the University's objectives.
Achieving high flexibility using a multi-database
The University chose Fujitsu because, as Kato explained, "we worked with Fujitsu on an on-campus system in the past and were very impressed by how Fujitsu worked with us and adopted our standpoint to problem solve. Fujitsu's education solution has been used to assist our operations for many years. Most crucially, Fujitsu was able to use a familiarity with our operations to demonstrate knowhow for aiding university IR. Fujitsu is our choice as co-developer for this system, and also a partner to help us reform Gifu University."
The University wanted the new system to use the PaaS cloud computing model. "Compared to on-premises options, a cloud-based environment enables rapid system development and smooth deployment without the need to procure hardware. It also assures a system capable of expanding as required," explained Kato.
To satisfy this request, Fujitsu suggested the use of Microsoft Azure. Fujitsu created a system characterized by a highly flexible multi-database. At its core is user-friendly schemaless document database Azure Document DB and Azure Data Lake Store, which captures data in their native formats and is unbound by size limitations. This enables the system to avoid data type limitations on values pertaining to one single column type. Fujitsu also included Microsoft SQL Server at the front-end to accommodate the University's desire to use Excel. Finally, it included PowerBI to enable interactive data visualization for the various types of data collected.
Prototype demonstration proves successful
A system prototype was readied in just three months after development started in December 2016, and demonstrated at a meeting attended by faculty deans. Kato explained that "the current system produces the aggregate results from each faculty, but the data cannot be analyzed from different angles. The new system enables exploratory data analysis, displays data as graphs, and enables data mining to reveal more information, granting greater freedom with analysis tools and ways to visualize data. Many asked questions along the lines of "I want this information but can it achieve this?" The prototype clearly demonstrated the importance of an environment that allows exploratory data analytics."
Speaking on the strategic use of data, Ohya said "visualizing the University's strong points and sharing that with the general community will boost the University brand name. It will help us identify the various aspects that characterize Gifu University, establish our next center for research excellence, identify our weaknesses and new strengths, and subsequently help us improve our research capacity and the quality of education offered."
In explaining the development approach being used, Kato said "the system is being developed by Fujitsu's developers from a remote location and offered up to us for feedback. The Strategic Integration Database will be used by all faculties and the University's administration team, so we started by collecting opinions from those who would use the system on a daily basis. We also started small, with a limit on initial costs, and slowly increased funding as we confirmed positive results. This approach used by Fujitsu suited us: we avoided developing unnecessary features and focused solely on what we needed. We look forward to working with Fujitsu again to tackle problem solving and create new value in the future."
Discussing plans for future development, Fukushi said "we intend to use feedback collected on-campus to improve the system further before its full implementation. We are currently contemplating whether to run a demonstration of the prototype at other universities for a third-party perspective. We are also considering whether to include Microsoft Azure AI services to further improve analysis efficiency."
Gifu University is planning to implement the system across the board, and will keep taking steps to improve the Strategic Integration Database as a key tool for institutional research.
- Location: 1-1 Yanagido, Gifu City 501-1193, Japan
- Outline: Gifu University has five faculties, in Education, Regional Studies, Medicine, Engineering, and Applied Biological Sciences, and nine graduate schools. The University is a place for personal development and produces graduates who strive to never stop "learning, exploring and contributing" for the benefit of society. The university itself also operates under the motto of "learning, exploring and contributing" in its local community.
- Website: www.gifu-u.ac.jp