Degrees of Change “Zaps” Members to Easier Data Collection

January 10, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

Although NCAN members are increasingly interested in data collection, management, and use, there’s a misconception that effectively tracking data requires a large, custom (read: expensive) system. While it’s true that a data platform like Salesforce, Co-Pilot, or Gradsnapp can do a lot for a program’s data collection, storage, and analytics, there are other paths that – with some creativity, planning, and not as much time as you think – can lead to actionable insights for a program. Degrees of Change, an NCAN member based out of Tacoma, WA and operating in a growing number of cities, demonstrated one of these paths last fall at NCAN’s national conference in Detroit.

In a session titled “From Surveys to Interventions in a ‘Zap’: Cheap, Simple & Fast Methods to Make Real Data Work for You,” Degrees of Change President Tim Herron showed how his program has used free or low-cost web services to great effect. 

The challenge for Degrees of Change came in the form of needing to collect and analyze dosage data. Dosage data are a record of every interaction between a program and a student. These data often include information on services provided, service duration, and content covered. By tracking every interaction, programs can see which topic areas are of most interest to students. When connected to student-level demographic data, trends between and among groups can also be considered. But logging every interaction between advisors and students can quickly produce an overwhelming amount of data.

Here’s the system Degrees of Change established to collect, store, and display these dosage data:

  1. Set up a mobile-friendly interaction form using a service like Formsite, Wufoo, or even Google Forms. Populate it with fields like: student name, advisor name, duration of service, services provided, and notes. Power-users can add drop-down menus with pre-populated student and advisor names and checkboxes for services provided.
  2. Create a custom URL so advisors can quickly get to the form to fill it out from their phone or a laptop or tablet. There are a lot of services available to do this ( is one). Some of them will even allow for custom URLs per advisor so that when they arrive at step 3 below, relevant fields (like advisor name) are pre-filled.
  3. Connect that form to a database like SQL, Google Sheet, or Salesforce. Every time someone fills out the form, a new row recording an advisor-student interaction will be added into the database.
  4. Connect that database to a reporting dashboard (e.g., Microsoft PowerBI, Tableau). The dashboard includes relevant charts and graphs based on the dosage data. For example, it might have total interactions over time, interactions by advisor, and interactions by content covered. Each time the database refreshes, new data will get pushed into the dashboard, and the charts will update.

The lynchpin here is a service called “Zapier” (rhymes with “happier”). Where does it fit in? Everywhere it says “Connect” in the list above, substitute “Zap.” Zapier works as a connection between online web services. Using step-by-step, user-friendly connections, Zapier works off of “triggers” (e.g., someone filled out your form) that create “actions” (e.g., create a new row in the database).

Using this simple four-step process allows program staff to jump right in and begin looking for trends in their dosage data. In the long-term, dosage data can be connected to key student outcomes. For example, how many interactions did the average student who enrolled in college receive versus students who did not enroll in college? Which kinds of services did enrollers receive compared to non-enrollers? The possibilities are many!

Here’s a visual of how the process plays out:

Not convinced yet? Let’s look at another example.

In this case, mid-semester survey data collected from students in Degrees of Change’s success program were taking too long to process and analyze, making data less actionable and reducing the survey’s usefulness overall. Ultimately, DoC wanted to know how students were faring overall and be able to identify students who needed assistance and reach out to them quickly. So they put in something like this system:

  1. Use a service like MailChimp to create a bulk email with response buttons. Students could choose to “respond” with one touch in the email.
  2. Using Zapier, connect the email response button to a pre-filled mobile friendly survey (e.g., Formsite, Wufoo, Google Forms). In this case, the form had two questions like: “on a scale of 1-5, how is your semester going so far?” and “would you like to speak with someone from Degrees of Change about an issue you’re having?” It was also pre-filled with the student’s information (based on information from the Mailchimp email).
  3. Using Zapier, connect the survey to a central student database (e.g., SQL, Google Sheets, Access Database, or Salesforce). As students respond to the short survey, their information is populated into a central database.
  4. Using Zapier, connect the central student database to a reporting dashboard (e.g., Microsoft PowerBI, Tableau). Much like with the dosage data, as student responses are populated into the database, a reporting dashboard helps to visualize the data so that program staff can look for trends.
  5. Using Zapier, connect the central student database to advisors’ email addresses. A student’s assigned advisor is alerted via automatic email about students who answer “yes” to wanting to talk with a Degrees of Change staffer, or who rate their on-campus experience as less than a “4.” This serves as an early warning system that can help intervene with a student having trouble before things get too serious.
  6. Meanwhile, the system is also handling non-respondents. Students who didn’t respond to the initial Mailchimp email receive an increasingly urgent daily reminder to submit their short survey. This process also uses Zapier, which triggers Mailchimp to set a flag that shows whether a student has opened the initial email or clicked on the link inside. Simultaneously, advisors are receiving emails alerting them to low response rates, and are given lists of student non-respondents with whom they can then follow-up.
  7. Make it a game. In another effort to spur response rates, Degrees of Change created a separate student-facing dashboard that shows the completion rates of various campuses and cohorts, and awards points both for the overall completion rate and the speed of students’ responses. This friendly competition creates an incentive for students to complete the quick survey as soon as they receive it.

Here’s another visual of how this process plays out:

As mentioned above, many of these services are cheap or even free. The chart below shows the various pricing levels for some of the services mentioned above. The bold prices are the levels Degrees of Change uses, and you can see that their costs are about $200 per month, or $2,400 per year. With a little bit of sketching out how you’d like the process to work, Zapier and various web applications can help to set up processes that produce actionable data for your organization.

As always when working with storing student data, questions about privacy and data security need to be asked. Although programs sometimes balk at the idea of storing student data in the cloud, these programs should also ask themselves where their data are already stored. What do programs know about their current data security and practices? (Hopefully, a lot!) At the risk of over-generalizing, cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox,  Formsite, and others likely have more time and attention paid to IT security than the typical non-profit. DoC’s Herron notes that, “Most of these services are connecting on an encrypted connection, and you get to control access to it. A lot of them even have two-factor authentication that you can turn on. I feel pretty confident that the data sitting up there are as secure as I could make it on my own server.” He adds: 

The general principle is: you want to keep in mind the places where [the data are] going to sit. This is the one thing about this approach – is that rather than it just living only in your database, if you’re using forms it’s going to live in the form … It’s just being aware of that and keeping all of those accounts secure. Part of what you want to do when you evaluate each tool is to evaluate the security standard of the tool. That you understand it and that it’s acceptable to the level of security for your organization. People need to know that they’re making a trail, and it’s important to secure the trail at each stop.

Concrete steps that programs can take to help secure their data with cloud services are frequently changing passwords, assessing which staff actually need login credentials, and paying attention to security notices issued by individual vendors.

Don’t think you have the time to set this up? Degrees of Change is in the process of creating templates for the survey checking in with students and for the process that tracks the number of interactions with each student. These templates would allow Degrees of Change to quickly build these processes out for other organizations “for a lot less than you’d spend on a traditional developer,” Herron says. They’re hoping to begin offering the service toward the end of 2016, in addition to their already existing FoYoSt National Student Clearinghouse Data Visualizer

Next time you think your organization doesn’t have the time or money to collect and manage actionable data, keep in mind that you may be able to “zap” yourself to a creative solution.

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