INSTITUTION: America First Credit Union

PROBLEM: How to convey the company's risks and opportunities to executives, and do it succinctly?

SOLUTION: Visualize the data on iPads with a business intelligence app

The strains of the recession forced the $5.2 billion-asset credit union, Utah's largest, to reduce costs wherever possible. In November 2010 it began to replace its laptops with Apple iPads, the first of which went to the credit union's chief financial officer, controller and network manager.

The tablet computers cost $499 to $699 - about 50% to 75% less than the notebooks America First had deployed. Plus, the iPad's $25 metered monthly service fee was 40% less than broadband plans for the laptops. Management, meantime, was trying to resolve another problem. It was taking executives too long to make sense of the credit union's financial information. That's because they faced what anyone who's tussled with Excel spreadsheets and dry financial prose to glean any insight has had to endure. Senior staff had to distill meaning from dense, general ledger-style text and line items.

The pressure, meanwhile, to translate the numbers faster had reached a tipping point at the recession's tail end, when the National Credit Union Administration was hounding credit unions to prove they had sufficient risk controls. And America First was due for a summer exam. By yearend America First's chief financial officer, Rex Rollo, had got an inkling that the iPad's touchscreen and interface had the portability and user experience that might help risk management by solving the institution's vexing inability to provide financial reports to principals in a compelling, standardized format.

"Once we got the iPads in our hands, we saw they had a lot of potential," says Thayne Shaffer, America First's controller and vice president. "Our CFO told me, 'Get a team together and see what you can do with these.' " Shaffer felt that if the iPads could be fed data via a smart visualization app that could transform the reams of financial information into pictures with a bit of descriptive text, then revenue, risks, cost and geographic trends could be more easily understood, management could have a better understanding of the credit union's financial health and thus work faster to promote it. Such data visualization has come to define business intelligence (BI).

America First's prior method of emailing PDFs had produced confusion over versions of documents. Meanwhile, initial production on a proprietary BI app was taking too long, and internal development on an HTML, Safari-based version that required VPN communication showed clunky performance. So after a member of Shaffer's group suggested he try Apple's app store, he tempered his skepticism and "did a search on 'BI' and found a bunch of stuff."

Roambi, a data visualization app for iPads from MeLLmo, which works with multiple types of databases, inspired the most confidence. (Other multiplatform, mobile BI visualization tools include LiveDashBoard, MicroStrategy, Pentaho, PushBI, QlikView and SAS Mobile.) Testing began on a free version of the app, which Shaffer linked to a single Excel spreadsheet. "As soon as I started seeing what Roambi could do, I realized it had a user experience people would gravitate towards," he says.

Plus, Roambi could be integrated inexpensively and easily with one of the credit union's existing data systems. While the app will work with all the credit union's main data engines, including Oracle's Essbase, which America First taps for financial and historical analyses for budgets and forecasts, and SAP's BusinessObjects, which is used for static loan pool studies, Shaffer chose Microsoft's SharePoint content management tool to centralize this data and feed it to the Roambi app, because doing so required no further licensing; it was already contracted for use throughout the credit union, so it could cull data from the other systems at lower expense.

Since recreating the static pool analyses in SharePoint, Shaffer has considered "moving toward decommissioning the BusinessObjects application," he says. America First deployed the enterprise version of Roambi in July 2011; it now serves 47 users.

With the app on their iPads, senior executives and board members get access to the same financial indicators as soon as the data is compiled. And it's presented graphically. Internal financial questions can be answered faster, because potentialities are conveyed heat-map-style, making them easier to grasp. America First uses Roambi reports to assess economic indicators affecting asset liability; monitor risks in loan distribution, concentration, delinquency and writeoffs; gauge revenue opportunities; and measure branch performance.

This story originally appeared at Bank Technology News.

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