Statistics sometimes get a bad rap, as being somehow divorced from the real world of complex events and relationships. But in several notable cases, statistics helped provide a useful view of seemingly diverse and sporadic events.

Back in the 1980s for example Jack Maple, a cop in New York City's subways, got tired of responding to crimes after the fact, and decided to put together information that would predict where crimes would occur. He had no computers or fancy analytic technology -- just crayons and butcher paper -- but Maple's analysis of crime statistics superimposed on maps of the subway, revolutionized police work, and comstat, as it is now called, has enlisted the help of computerized analytical tools and has spread to police departments around the world.

The South Carolina Office of Research and Statistics (ORS) is also breaking new ground in the use of statistical data. ORS crunches the numbers to help analyze a broad spectrum of social services programs -- from health to justice, education and corrections -- to provide a sort of "information dashboard" for some 20 state agencies and private health-care providers, in order to help the state assess the effectiveness of various programs and focus social services money and attention where it will make the biggest difference in the lives of those being served.

"One of the projects we did," said Pete Bailey, health and demographics section chief, "was to look at what happened to children that aged out of the juvenile justice system, what proportion of them were incarcerated later, and so on. The Department of Juvenile Justice itself didn't have any data on adult arrests or incarceration, but we do, because we receive that from state law enforcement. So with permission, we conducted a study."

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Wayne Hanson  |  Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government