​Denver Public Schools push for smarter data-sharing approach


Seven years ago, Denver Public Schools took a bold step toward data privacy. Back then, before student data privacy had garnered mainstream media attention and become a hot-button issue, the district built its own data warehouse to serve as a centrally managed hub for all of its data enterprise applications.

“We built this all on premise with security in mind,” said Josh Allen, the director of technology, architecture and strategy for Denver Public Schools, which is one of the fastest-growing urban districts in the country. But it was designed in a way that put a lot of attention on who could access the data and what their role was. “What you could see and do was all based on your job description,” he explained in a recent interview with EdScoop.

The data warehouse was also created, in part, so that departments could run reports and view data across systems from one central source. That decision positioned the Denver district as a forerunner in making data more interoperable.

Fast forward to today, when Denver Public Schools — and Allen in particular — are still on the front lines of an effort to make the data it collects more seamless to use and easier to transfer between various applications.

A major part of Allen’s role as director of technology now involves making sure that all new projects that will create or touch data follow integration and technology specifications, which may vary depending on the data or systems involved. That’s also meant putting greater attention on data privacy.

“In the last couple years, we’ve had someone in a student data privacy officer role,” said Allen. “Just this year, we’ve transitioned that role into a full-time position, and he oversees much of the integration we’ve had with external, cloud-based apps and other vendors.”

When Denver works with new cloud vendors for applications such as classroom management and curriculum tools, it relies on the popular rostering solutions Clever and OneRoster to build a link for sending data from the district on to the vendor.

“Just by simplifying those two specifications — using Clever or OneRoster — it makes our relationship with the vendor very specific in that we don’t have to do a custom setup,” Allen said. “We used to have vendors come and say, ‘We need files in this format and data in this other format. You can imagine if you have 20 or 50 of those vendors, it gets to be quite complicated.”

Getting vendors on the same page

So far, Allen said, most new software vendors are eager to agree to using one of those two services. What hasn’t been so straightforward is getting data sent from vendors to the district.

Denver has been working for months, for example, with Schoology, a learning management system vendor, on the most streamlined way to send students’ grades from online courses to the district’s student information system, housed in its warehouse.

The holdup? “There’s not a defined standard” for passing that information from vendor to district, Allen explained, which makes negotiations much more time-consuming. “There’s no defined way this has been done before. In a medical situation, or something like a hospital, there may be a way to exchange records that’s predefined. In education, there’s nothing that’s come before to offer a roadmap.”

The situation is likely to change as time goes by. Recently, Allen worked with his superiors and administrators in other district-wide departments in signing a new interoperability pledge from the nonprofit Project Unicorn, spelling out its commitment to finding solutions to the interoperability roadblocks.

At its core, Project Unicorn is an organization looking to create awareness around interoperability through new partnerships and Consumer Reports-style comparisons of the approaches various vendors are taking. The organization does not, however, endorse any particular set of standards, such as Ed-Fi.

The pledge and organizational goals of Project Unicorn immediately appealed to Allen, who works closely alongside national interoperability leaders as well as a statewide organization made up of IT leaders in Colorado that has banded together to extract more leverage from vendors when it comes to simplifying tasks like passing data back and forth.

“I just don’t think we’ve had the ability to enforce or get vendors on board to follow the same process,” Allen said. “I’d like a specification that both vendors and districts are following for both data import and export from whatever services are being offered, and something that’s synced across all districts that we can follow. Ideally, it would allow for the secure transfer of a student’s data and information from K-12 all the way into their higher-ed careers if they wanted to.”