Best practices for getting started with data

Tips on how to best approach your question that may involve data and information technology.

Before beginning to work with data, it’s important to identify the data you might need, and see how it all fits into the university data ecosystem.

Common questions people have about using data

You might have some or all of these questions when starting out with data.

Common questions

  • What’s the easiest way to solve my problem?
  • How long does it take?
  • I’m working with a vendor, do I need to work with DoIT too?
  • Will I need to follow a more structured process if I plan on buying or using some new technology?
  • How do I get my users access?
  • Is there an existing solution, or is my question about something new?
  • Are there more people that I need to be involved with?
  • How does my work fit into the bigger campus picture?
  • What policy or best practices should I be following?
  • How is data involved in my question?

And also:  I’ve never done this kind of work before, are there resources to help?

Thinking about data in a new way

The tools plugged into the campus data ecosystem can range from supporting cutting-edge research to quick quizzes in lecture halls.  Each tool allows us to have powerful working and learning experiences, but can also add complexity.

Our data ecosystem has become overgrown in recent years as each change increases its complexity. By aligning expectations and clarifying best practices for individuals on every level of involvement, we can shift towards a more transparent and sustainable infrastructure.

When approaching problems involving data, the first step is to determine the root of the problem trying to be solved. By being familiar with campus data requirements and recognizing repeatable patterns, you might not need to find a new solution or approach for every issue.

Rules governing data

Whether you’re looking for a new tool or want to make sure that you and your department are using data appropriately, it’s important to understand the types of data you use and the policies that shape the work you want to complete.

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Where data exists

Every piece of information collected at the university falls under a data domain (academics, budgets, human resources, research, and facilities) with a Data Steward and policies. These policies are guided by our institutional needs along with legal guidelines, such as FERPA and HIPAA. As some data domains cover restricted information, it’s important that you are comfortable with and understand the risk involved with handling data.

Requesting access to data

Identity data integration (IDI) is the process by which information about UW–Madison and UW System identities (students, faculty, staff, affiliates) is available for applications. This service facilitates the release of identity data specifically intended for use in identification, authentication, authorization, and contact management. Learn more and submit an identity data request.

Dive deeper


Security is being built into the infrastructure of the new way we approach data use, so data users won’t need to worry about extra layers of cybersecurity.  When engaging in these new practices, folks can know they are following secure practices.

Three key components to practicing data security:

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1. Understand security risks

Everyone at UW-Madison should complete cybersecurity training about passwords, but also understand that there’s always attempts to access UW data, and a lot of responsibility falling onto different groups to protect important information.

Even if tools pose minimal technical barriers to set up, there’s a chance that they may involve restricted or sensitive data, such as federally protected student information. If a data steward hasn’t been engaged to grant explicit authorization, these tools may be out of compliance with university data policy.

In order to avoid compliance incidents, transparency and communication are key.

  • Talk to an expert first or follow intake processes to be able to identify concerns or roadblocks in the early stages, rather than engaging with IT or data governance teams only when absolutely necessary.
  • Ensure that your team is consistent and updated on training, especially if your data work has an amount of risk involved.
  • There’s a difference between what makes work easier and what is permissible by law/policy. If you are unfamiliar with appropriate procedures related to your work, ask.

2. Stay up to date on training

Training is important from a security standpoint. We want to make sure that training is in place and is documented so we can have consistent results and that folks are able to keep the uptime of their app even if people leave.

Keep up to date with whatever training you have access to related to your data use – whether it’s from UW, or provided by vendors about a tool, be comfortable with the process of accessing data and how you use it just in case something goes wrong.

3. Securely giving users access / logging in

The campus login system, UW-Madison Login (aka NetID Login Service) is the recommended solution to log people in to your tool using their UW-Madison profile.

Administrators are able to integrate their web-based application with the NetID Login Service in order to avoid having to set up and securely maintain their own authentication and authorization. Restricting access to certain information can allow users to work with data without having to take ownership and responsibility of it.

When working with a third-party tool or vendor

Folks at UW-Madison can use third-party vendors to provide goods and services such as new tools or software.  When working with a vendor, consider the following:

It might still need UW data to work

While the vendor provides a tool and technical documentation, DoIT encompasses many of the teams that will help you make it work, such as logging in with a UW Madison profile, or connecting other UW info.

Connecting to data

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Connecting UW information to third-party tools

Vendor suggestions that their tools will integrate with the UW data, should not be assumed to work.  It is possible considerations will need to be made for security, data governance, and the technical implementation.

It’s recommended to talk to someone to get help and answer your questions earlier in the process.

Purchasing tools/products

Purchases can be made from Shop@UW, from contracted vendors, or from external vendors with additional procurement steps. Detailed guides on purchasing, searching vendors, contacting purchasing specialists, and other procurement steps are provided by the Division of Business Services.

Who might also need to be involved?

  • Cybersecurity oversees Risk Management Frameworks required for each new tool on campus utilizing vendor documentation
  • Identity and Access Management helps to set up user authentication via NetID Login
  • The Help Desk can provide user support based on shared documentation
  • The Office of Data Management and Analytics Services for policy and data governance

There is guidance and help available to identify which teams need to be involved throughout the Intake and integration processes for your new tool. Rather than risking unsecure integrations or vendor promises falling short, you’ll have contact with all of the appropriate teams to make sure your needs are being addressed safely.

The later stages of the Intake Process will also set your team up to easily work with DoIT Communications and the Help Desk if needed.


If you are considering adding a new product or tool, digital accessibility should be part of the decision making process.

Buying accessible technology | Evaluating technology for accessibility

Use an existing service

It’s possible that there’s already a service on campus that will address your needs. You can find the list of current IT Services, eligibility, costs, and access information in the Information Technology service catalog.

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It's faster

Selecting a pre-approved solution will be faster than discovering, approving, and integrating a new tool. In any situation, the teams guiding you through the Intake Process will be able to identify how long projects will be estimated to take along with what long-term maintenance will be needed.

It's already supported and approved

Whether you have specific questions or are looking for general guidance, reach out to an expert to get connected with the contacts and resources you’ll need. The university data ecosystem has many moving parts to keep track of along with countless pages of institutional data policies, and our teams exist to help you navigate them all.

There's help when you need it

Existing services have support, security, and in some cases best practices or examples of how they are already being used at UW-Madison.

If you’re unsure if any existing tools fit your team’s needs or if you would need to discover a new tool, contact our Enterprise Architects to discuss and explore your options.

Get help

General questions

Talk to an expert to get answers, guidance, and advice for your specific question.

Contact an expert

Data Stewards

The point person to help get access to the institutional data you need to use.

Find a data steward

What is institutional data?

Submit an Identity Data Integration (IDI) request


Folks who frequently use, access, and share data at UW-Madison.

TechPartners, Data Wonks, BI Community of Practice, more tech support groups