IT managers rely on pivot tables, a powerful yet often overlooked function in Excel. Pivot tables summarize long lists of data without requiring the user to write formulas or copy cells. The tool allows a user to sift data by age, location, ethnicity and other variables easily.

In this way, IT staffers are turning out new data sets every 10 days, which social service workers at ground level can then apply to MST to generate maps as needed. Right now, nearly 30 of the state's 43 social service agencies are running MST. The system continues to roll out statewide, Cox said.

This isn't the first time mapping applications have been used to improve efficiencies within a social service program.

Take the example of food stamps in Mississippi. In 2005, the Mississippi Department of Human Services announced it would implement a GIS program to curtail fraud, the idea being to track the distances customers traveled in order to use their EBT cards.

In California, the Department of Social Services teamed with the nonprofit Stuart Foundation to chart data about children in the state's Child Welfare System. The database calculates outcome measures, including such line-items as maltreatment in foster care homes and time to reunification with family.

The system also generates maps indicating the distances between removals and placements of foster kids throughout the state. To do this, it relies on an in-house GIS along with other technologies.

Those familiar with such efforts say there are pros and cons, the cons being mostly cost. GIS packages can easily run millions of dollars, said Daniel Webster, a research specialist in the Child Welfare Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

In addition to the cost, GIS systems are often complex, requiring a certain level of technical sophistication. "So there are finance and technical barriers that keep a lot of people from using it," Webster said.

Washington's use of MST, on the other hand, delivers readily accessible technology: an application that is both affordable and easy to use for the program coordinators who generate maps at the local level.

"A lot of the more sophisticated packages will have more powerful features, more powerful analysis tools, but they don't need that type of special analysis capability [in the foster care system]. They just need to be able to make maps," Webster said.

Perhaps equally important is that the off-the-shelf program was designed with the visual element in mind. MST meets the user at the graphical level, with all the charts and data left to run behind the scenes. "People don't go into human services because they are comfortable with anything that has to do with tables and numbers," Webster said.

It's just the opposite, in fact. "They come in because they want to help people," he said. "They don't want to deal with math or statistics."

Facts on the Ground
Now people can see graphic evidence of kids leaving their neighborhoods as they travel through the foster care system. Will the locals therefore volunteer their homes as foster way stations? Those who work at the community level say it could very well happen.

Some say the system could serve to focus caseworkers' attention on the geographic aspect of placement. While geographic data has been available before, "It's not the kind of thing where I can just get it in five minutes," said Jill Kinney, a regional coordinator in Washington's Family to Family program, a local child-welfare initiative.

Foster care needs "tend to cluster, and they don't always cluster where the staff would predict," she said. By highlighting problem areas, MST maps could help caseworkers pinpoint their efforts and work more efficiently.

At the community level, social service organizers say they have been impressed by

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer