What Is Data Democratization?


What if institutions stopped asking people “why do you need access to this data,” and instead began asking “what would it hurt if you had access”?

What if institutions shifted their default approach to data governance, away from saying “no,” and toward asking “how?”

As institutions in higher education accumulate more and more data, it is very easy for institutional research officers and other data stewards to feel uncomfortable at the thought of loosening their grip. The age of big data is also the age of big data breaches. For reasons both legal and ethical, institutions of higher education rightfully take their responsibility to protect student information very seriously. Without the right policies and trustworthy technologies, the safest approach will always be to minimize exposure through rigid gatekeeping.

Unfortunately, this traditional approach to data governance stands in direct opposition to the desire to promote evidence-based decision-making. How can you promote a data-driven campus culture when your institutional data is tightly held under lock and key? It’s like trying to push and pull at the same time.

Getting Started With Data Democratization

There are two necessary conditions for data democratization: (1) policy, and (2) technology.

From the perspective of policy, you need to have well-documented systems and practices that ensure your campus has a single source of truth. Good data governance ensures that data are accurate, complete, consistent, and reliable. But it must also ensure that the right people have access to the right data at the right time. In traditional models, the default level of access is no access. People are granted access as exceptions to the rule. But if you set out to write a policy that values data democratization (instead of a kind of data aristocracy), then universal access is the default and rule-based restrictions are established as the exceptions. How your campus defines and treats ‘exceptions’ is key to understanding your form of data governance.

From the perspective of technology, it is important that you have a data warehouse that is able to automate data cleaning and enforce your data governance policy so that everyone on campus knows that there is a single source of reliable truth they can trust. It is important that the warehouse allows for role-based and row-level security so you are assured that, even if universal data access is promoted and encouraged, that it is also role-appropriate. And it is important that you have a reporting environment that allows for self-service ad hoc reporting. Of course, it also helps if your reporting environment is reasonably priced. It doesn’t matter how many wiz-bang features a reporting platform has, if the cost per license is too high then true data democratization will be a financial impossibility.

Benefits of Data Democratization

An excellent example of data democratization in action comes from Coppin State University, as documented by a recent case study by Ovum. When Dr. Maria Thompson became president in 2015, the university had suffered from several years of enrollment decline. As a long-time Blackboard Intelligence client, Coppin State University already had the technology in place necessary to provide data to everyone on campus, but levels of dashboard access were not the same across departments.

How did Dr. Thompson and her team catalyze a culture that embraced data democratization? First, leading by example, a policy was put in place to prevent institutional decisions from being made without strong support from data. This applied especially to areas touching upon student success. Second, the university published a vision document that outlined its focus on enrollment, academic transformation, and student enablement with data and analytics at the core of the decision-making process.


By putting student success data in the hands of everyone on campus, and adopting a transparent, evidence-based approach to institutional decision-making, Coppin State University quickly saw strong alignment toward a common goal: growing the freshman class. In 2016, just a year and a half after Dr. Thompson assumed the role of university president, the size of the freshman class had increased by 50%.

To learn more about how Blackboard’s data warehouse solution, Blackboard Intelligence, can support data democratization on your campus, please visit our product web page or contact us to schedule a demo.

Download our case study about data democratization at Coppin State University