Pozzi said it is Westchester County's challenge to figure how best to serve its inmates without the prod of statutorily required parole - a sword of Damocles - as is the case in state or federal prisons. "There are more people being discharged from local correctional facilities than are being released from all the state and federal combined, and [the country] is not looking at them."

How it Came to Be

As Jacknis started his statistical analysis unit, Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano directed in 2006 that all county that write contracts with outside agencies must contain language about goals and objectives that are supported by performance measures, according to Isley. In 2007, each department was asked to identify "super performance measures" that indicate how each department is fulfilling its obligations. "I would like to believe our pilot project started in 2006 [analyzing the Solutions program] helped to focus on the need to take a different approach at measuring our county government's successes or failures," Isley said.

When a county department wants to study the effectiveness of a program or action, it often calls the county's IT department for help. Although at first, Jacknis would reach out on his own and propose studies to county commissioners.

The cost to Westchester County is small. One staff person handles the multivariable advanced statistical analysis, and the county invested in a full suite of SPSS software that includes business intelligence, data mining and analysis capabilities. If more help is needed, Jacknis draws upon the expertise of employees within other departments. Then the IT department publishes a "working paper" on its findings - an important resource for county departments as they modify policy and strategies.

Jacknis said it's valuable for local governments to do their own statistical analysis. "There's always a local twist, there's always a particular combination of circumstances in your local area," he said. "Your geographic responsibility has some subtle difference from the generic kind of trends that have been found elsewhere. It is worth doing this on a local basis, and it doesn't really cost very much."

Many Applications

The county has put statistical analysis to use for studying everything from automobile traffic to police deployment strategies. When officials became concerned about attendance figures at the county-owned amusement park in Rye - Playland - after a couple of accidental deaths in the last few years - an employee was killed there in June 2007 after being thrown from the gyrating Mind Scrambler ride - they decided to look into the data.

Attendance figures are kept in a database, and the county's IT staff layered it with other basic information such as days of the week. Then they decided to look at daily temperatures and conditions. "It turned out that weather alone could predict certainly more than half of any of the variation in use of those facilities," Jacknis said, "sometimes as much as 75 to 80 percent. It's sort of amazing." Though weather seems like an obvious variable for attendance numbers, a new weather-adjusted attendance figure helps county employees when planning promotions, special events and ticket discounts.

In addition, Westchester County Public Safety Commissioner and Sheriff Thomas Belfiore has used the IT department's analysis for road safety.

"We found that some of the money that had been spent to straighten out roads was a bad thing," Jacknis explained. "We have parkways here that go back to the 1920s, and it slows drivers down. They had complaints that this was going to cause accidents, so they straightened out some of these highways. As soon as they did, the accidents increased because now you have a straightaway." Some highway junctions were found to have particularly high accident rates, and that helped the police department pinpoint where they should be positioned to help reduce car accidents.

That example of synergy and collaboration is increasingly common, Jacknis said. "Statistical analysis really helps people be more effective," he said. "Traditionally people want IT to help them be more efficient, but this is really helping them be more effective and to get to the heart of what we're doing, and how we can improve what we're doing."

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor