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Louisiana State University

Louisiana State University

Streamlining Grant Administration and Compliance With Secure, Real-Time Data

The Social Research & Evaluation Center (SREC) is a center of research excellence at the Louisiana State University (LSU) College of Human Sciences & Education. SREC fosters healthy social systems by designing, implementing, and evaluating community and social initiatives. The center conducts research on social, economic, and behavioral health, and plays a critical role in community development, education enhancement, and health promotion.

A key role of the center is in administering grants and ensuring its clients meet all grant compliance requirements in a way that reduces the burden of tracking and managing data, giving their partners more time to focus on the meaningful work funded by the grant. 

Spreadsheet-Based Data Collection and Management Impacted Efficiency and Security

SREC works with clients and partners across the state of Louisiana – from school districts and health facilities to the state department of education and university entities – as part of its grant programs. The data-intensive nature of grant administration and compliance, which requires tracking, monitoring, and reporting data across many stakeholders, makes program administration complex and challenging. 

Before moving to Knack, SREC often collected data for state and federal reporting via spreadsheets emailed from multiple providers at different sites. “With the health grants, there are sometimes many, many providers and many sites involved in the grant administration. When you need data at the end of the month from 50 sites, you don’t want 50 Excel spreadsheets and emails,” said Stacey Terrio, a research associate at SREC. 

All of those spreadsheets added complexity and burden to the process of gathering, unifying, and validating the data. The manual process of integrating data and following up on missing reports, errors, and omissions added significant roadblocks and delays to gaining important data insights. This led to delays in program improvements and in tracking metrics needed for compliance reports. This manual work also took hours that could have been spent on other activities like research and partnership development. Trying to execute data management using spreadsheets also left the team with limited security controls over data requiring restricted access.

Between the need to streamline workflows, gain real-time access and visibility to data, ensure timely compliance reporting, and meet strict data security requirements, a new solution was sorely needed.

Knack’s Robust Security and Real-Time Access Give Back Valuable Time 

When looking for a new solution, the team at SREC knew it needed a robust online database solution that would reduce or eliminate the challenges presented by spreadsheet-based software. The solution should also provide the agility and flexibility to adapt to its diverse range of programs. SREC needed a solution that could be built and deployed by members of the team who had the content knowledge to build the processes but didn’t have extensive experience coding software. Choosing Knack’s no-code platform checked the boxes on all requirements.

Stacey Terrio is one of the primary Knack app builders within SREC and collaborates with the organization’s other builders to create needed applications. “Most of what we need Knack for is its easy-to-use forms-based data collection and data management capabilities. It lets us more efficiently collect what we need from our partners who are not at the university,” said Stacey.

And Knack provides the data security and granular user-access controls necessary to ensure data is secured and properly handled. “Knack has eliminated the need to coordinate and send files. The app is just there and partners have role-based access to get the information they need when they need it,” said Stacey.

Eliminating the Burden of Grant Compliance

Grant compliance can be a tedious process when it comes to ensuring the right metrics are tracked and managed. Delivering apps with a simple interface is key, so users can see exactly what information is needed and how to input the data. “For our education programs, we’re building the app and collecting the data that are reported from the districts and then aggregating it for our state partners, like the Louisiana Department of Education,” said Stacey.

By building easy-to-use custom apps and making updates to improve workflows and data management, clients have more time to do the work they’re meant to do. “I don’t want them to have to think about the application. I want them to focus on serving more students. I want them to just be able to go in and easily input their reporting data,” Stacey said.

“Knack helps us reduce the compliance burden for our clients. So maybe you’re spending 10% of the time rather than 20% on reporting things back to your grant monitors. Now you can spend more time actually increasing the capacity of the services that you provide to your community, or the student body you’re embedded in,” added Stacey.

When it comes to the end-to-end process of maintaining grant compliance with reporting requirements, there are a variety of benefits the team at SREC realized when they moved to Knack apps.

Real-Time Access Drives Faster Insights and Decision Making

Using the apps for data collection and data management means that not only does the SREC team not lose time to more manual processes, but its clients benefit too. “Our clients, as a result of them loving the interface provided with the Knack app, want more and more real-time access to the data they’re inputting,” said Stacey.

The real-time access they get from Knack means everyone can do their job more efficiently and effectively. “Some of the project managers may have mental health providers embedded in the schools. So, they need to see what the providers put in their reports when, say, they refer kids to services,” said Stacey. With reporting forms built into Knack, project managers now have the information they need when they need it.

Robust Capabilities Eliminate the Need for Multiple Apps

Similar to its administration of education grants, SREC manages health projects. The health-related apps are some of the most complex because they involve long surveys that have to be completed.

Before Knack, SREC used a platform called Qualtrics for surveys and then uploaded the responses to other systems including Knack to clean, analyze, and report on data.

More and more we’re leaning on Knack in ways that are really positive for us because we don’t have to use more than one product. Building more capabilities straight into Knack rather than maintaining a separate platform and moving data to Knack means we can give our clients real-time access to the survey data and insights.

Stacey Terrio, Research Associate at SREC. Louisiana State University

Prior to unifying the whole process on Knack, SREC used Knack’s API to move the survey data into Knack, but this process was completed with the help of SREC staff and graduate assistants and took up to 48 hours to move data from one platform to another. Now there’s no waiting for survey information. The surveys are built in Knack and clients get real-time access.

Secure User Access Meets Strict Data Security Requirements

With clients and partners spread across the state of Louisiana, having secure data transfer processes is a necessity. While LSU’s secure file transfer system provided a way to share files with external partners, it slowed the process of giving clients access to the data. Now clients have secure, personalized access to the information they need.

Whether building apps for education or health-related projects, multiple user access roles are required in order to ensure that only those with a need to have access receive access to any given set of data. When building apps, defining the right user-access levels and controls is a top priority. “We’ll build a level of access for the mental health provider, the project manager, and the state partner. Each of these users sees different things and can access and export what they need.”

Streamlined Workflows Regain Time for Higher-Value Activities

The education and health grants involve multiple clients and partners. That makes it a challenge to collect and report on all required metrics.

“Knack has made us more efficient. We put in the time upfront to build the apps, but once it’s running, we’re freed up to do other things. If I tried to manage this data manually, without Knack, I would never have time to conduct research or do a literature review,” said Stacey.

The controls, automation, and the clients’ anytime access allow the app to run mostly on autopilot between reporting cycles.

My clients are able to self-serve and interface with the Knack app so I don’t have to field constant emails. We can see who’s turned in what, and it makes the communication easy. It also reduces the errors and omissions that often happen with spreadsheets. And if there is a problem, it’s easy to investigate it on our side. I can go in and see when a record was changed, and who or how it was changed.

Stacey Terrio, Research Associate at SREC. Louisiana State University

SREC has set up automated emails to trigger follow-up tasks in response to form submissions and notifications to keep activities moving forward. “For example, if we complete an assessment on a student, and then that assessment comes up for follow-up, say in six weeks, then we have an automated reminder that goes to the provider and the project manager letting them know to initiate a follow-up,” said Stacey.

Fast App Iteration Drives Continuous Improvement

The simplicity of building and updating with Knack means that when the app is launched, updates are fast and easy. Some updates are related to access permissions when a user doesn’t have visibility to some of the information they need. “Maybe I forgot to assign them access to a specific page. I can correct that quickly and move on,” said Stacey. 

Once an app is launched, Stacey and her colleagues learn a lot about useability and which features are most helpful. Feedback plays an important role in continuous improvement. “Sometimes they just need an extra field on a view page or a table that I just didn’t know they needed. I can just drop in the changes and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is, this is great. Now that I have this extra field to sort or filter data by.’ There’s lots of learning with each new app build,” said Stacey. 

The team documents items users raise, and some are automatically added to all new apps because they save time in data management or reporting. “For instance, now we don’t build any objects without a last-updated field because that information ends up being super critical for us,” Stacey said.

“We’re constantly thinking about new ways we can use Knack. There’s been a lot of interest in more dashboards, and we’ll continue to build out our surveys in Knack. Those are the two biggest uses that we’re focused on.”