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Meet the team of NIU women behind Illinois’ new cutting-edge educational data application

March 2, 2020

Last October, the Illinois Interactive Report Cards office at NIU released Illinois Postsecondary Profiles, a cutting-edge application that allows users to browse or search institutional data from community colleges, universities and professional training schools throughout Illinois.

“There’s never been a site quite like this before,” says Lima Chatterjee, a consultant on the project who was the original database designer. “We are sourcing data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission with plans to add more sources in the near future, and each of those data source systems are different from one another. So it’s been an evolving process from the beginning. We knew what we wanted to achieve, but we needed to work out the parameters. How are end users going to want to see the data – what do they want to know? What are they trying to achieve? How do we balance our desire to provide them rich information with the need to keep it understandable and engaging? Those are the challenges, but also the exciting opportunities of this kind of project, which allows you to take a challenge and solve it.”

As Chatterjee has worked on this project with Alan Clemens, director of NIU’s Illinois Interactive Report Cards office, they’ve gathered a small but talented team of women database and web designers with experience in for-profit and non-profit settings: Swathi Rayanapati, the lead web developer who built the screens and interfaces for the public-facing website; Niti Srivastava, the database manager in charge of day-to-day data processing, analysis and preparation; Zhuomingna Li, the quality assurance engineer who does testing and data quality checks on the site; and Swetha Palakoti, a graduate assistant from the NIU Management Information Systems program who recently joined the group.

From left: Niti Srivastava, Lima Chatterjee, Swathi Rayanapati, Swetha Palakoti and Zhuomingna Li.

According to Clemens, both the team and the project are special. “No matter how much time you put into conceptual development, a project with this many contributors and stakeholders continues to change constantly,” he says. “As each stage of the project is completed, it gives you a fresh perspective on what you can accomplish if you push it and yourselves just a bit further. Building a system designed as a resource for the public just fuels your motivation to rise to that challenge.

“In an industry where women are still significantly under-represented, it’s refreshing and notable to be able to highlight the accomplishments of a team like this one,” he adds.

The team says they appreciate the challenge of customizing the website and the fact that they have the flexibility to try out the latest technologies as they create prototypes and update this ever-evolving system.

“When you go to the website, whatever you see on the screen is unique,” says Rayanapati. “There are certain visualizations on the site that you can’t see anywhere else on the internet because those are customized only for Illinois Postsecondary Profiles (IPP), and there are certain libraries that we wrote on the front end to make that possible. It was also quite a challenge to make the website responsive and mobile friendly, as well as functional on the tablet and on any browser you see on the market.”

Rayanapati appreciates the opportunity she’s had to continue developing her skills and exploring new technologies. “I’m very happy because our director and all the senior staff members support us in trying new technologies and keeping our profile up-to-date with whatever is going on in the market,” she says.

Srivastava, who recently completed her master’s degree in management information systems at NIU while also working full-time for Illinois Interactive Report Cards, says this position has helped her apply and strengthen the skills she learned in her master’s program.

“When I was joining this team and also completing my graduate degree, I faced a dilemma: how would I be able to manage my work and study, too? But after I transitioned to full time, I found that whatever I work on here helped me a lot in my studies. I got practical knowledge here that I could implement in my courses, and vice versa, as well. When I was introduced to new technologies in my courses, I could implement them here.”

According to Chatterjee, the team typically brings a new graduate assistant on board each year, which allows the students to build marketable skills and the team to develop homegrown talent. (Srivastava, for example, first joined the team as a graduate assistant before moving to full time.)

“This job opportunity provides the graduate assistants with a competitive advantage,” Chatterjee says. “This kind of project gives them the opportunity to have intense, hands-on experience with their respective technologies and competences, which is quite different from many graduate assistant jobs. Here, they’re getting into the system and getting into deep hands-on learning mode. What they’re learning theoretically, this is the practical application where they can learn in parallel.”

Although Palakoti only joined the team in mid-October, after the soft launch of IPP, she already appreciates the learning opportunities the position provides.

“I was so fortunate to learn about this – a highly technical department that provides an assistantship!” she says. “If you want to be a full-stack developer, or somebody like Swathi who’s now an architect, you have to have an understanding of the entire architecture of an application. So when I found out about this position, I was obviously very excited. I’m still in the initial stages of learning this new project, which is always confusing, but I’m looking forward to being able to jump in and work in any part of the application.”

In addition to the excitement of mastering new technologies and designing an application from the ground up, the team also appreciates the chance to make a positive difference.

Chatterjee, who worked as a database architect and manager at Fortune 500 companies before coming to NIU, says, “What we’re contributing is going to make a difference in students’ lives, and that was one of my motivations when I decided to join NIU four years ago. This is very different from a for-profit company that revolves around profit and loss. Here, what we’re doing as part of our day-to-day jobs is going to make a difference in somebody’s life.”

As they celebrate the successful launch of their application and website, the team is already gearing up for the next stage of the project.

Clemens, who compares the current website to the “the first terminal at the airport,” says the site now allows users to search by institution to access a variety of data related to enrollment, cost, student progress and completion rates. In upcoming months, the team is excited to add two new components to the site: one which allows users to access data across institutions related to specific degrees and occupations, and one to access data based on student demographics such as age, race and gender.

As the application continues to evolve, Clemens is thrilled to be working with this group of people. “This team really enjoys and celebrates opportunity. They love the challenge of exploring new technologies and creating something innovative, and who could ask for anything better than that? From my position, I couldn’t ask for a more refreshing group to work with.”

The Illinois Interactive Report Cards Office is part of the Northern Illinois University Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development. IPP has been produced with funding from the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Community College Board.