Past Issues of Government Technology

Quantifiable Improvements

DCStat helps the District of Columbia get to the root of problems.

by / February 28, 2006 0
In the District of Columbia, a promising blend of business intelligence, GIS and executive leadership gave a once troubled agency new life. Known as DCStat, the system lifted the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) from what even some employees characterized as an ineffective and unresponsive agency toward meaningful reform.

DCRA's mission, according to its Web site, is to ensure the health, safety and economic welfare of district residents through licensing, inspection, compliance and enforcement programs. DCStat helps the DCRA see beyond traditional boundaries, such as precincts and jurisdictions. Like many agencies, a number of those boundaries have been built internally over the years, while others resulted from government not being able, or willing, to share data. By implementing DCStat, DCRA can better accomplish its mission by quantifying and analyzing departmental data -- resulting in a more complete understanding of the challenges confronting the community.

DCStat is a set of systems that have come together using a service-oriented architecture (SOA), which uses software applications that run across and bridge disparate systems to create a simpler technology infrastructure and achieve a higher level of service delivery.

DCStat was created to help city leaders make decisions based on real-time data. The system also allows the city to apply metrics to evaluate and manage staff performance, and deliver the best service possible to residents.

"DCStat is a tool helping the district managers and leaders begin to make decisions based on quantifiable information as opposed to anecdotal information," said DCStat Program Director Dan Thomas. "DCStat is providing the feedback loop into those leaders and managers on how well they're doing delivering services to citizens, how well they're doing fighting crime around the city, the basic measures of how safe and secure folks feel about where they live, and how they feel about the types of services the government performs."


Tragic Inspiration
In January 2004, in a crime-ridden area of the district known as Sursum Corda, the execution-style murder of 14-year-old Jahkema Princess Hansen rocked a city quite accustomed to its violent reputation. Princess, as she was known, was believed to be a witness in an earlier murder, and was shot dead in her home as she watched TV.

It was this detestable act that sparked the Hot Spot Initiative, which laid the foundation for DCStat. The Hot Spot Initiative, designed to identify chronically troubled areas like Sursum Corda, sought to help the city more intelligently deploy its resources to produce much-needed change.

"It all started with the Hot Spot Initiative two years ago," Thomas said. "The district organized 20 agencies and brought them together in a leadership team to make a concerted effort to go in and change those hot spots, to reduce the crime, to provide opportunities to people, job fairs, different things."

The leadership team's goal, he said, was to make places more livable, engage the people who live there and have them take control of their communities.

"It was the city doing everything it could, bringing all of its resources to bear in these areas. And out of that, there was an across-the-board decrease in violent crime," Thomas said, adding that crime dropped 34 percent decrease in one year.

Of those 20 agencies involved in the Hot Spot Initiative, the Metro Police Department (MPD) and the DCRA had perhaps the most invested in the community, due to the many services and programs each agency offered that required direct contact with residents.

The DCRA -- according to The Washington Post and even some DCRA employees -- was chronically mismanaged and ineffectual. With its hands in a multitude of community services -- including, but not limited to, business licensing, corporate registration, home, business and commercial inspections -- it was crucial that the DCRA transform itself so it could help transform the city.

In February 2005, the DCRA recruited Patrick Canavan as department director. Canavan worked for years as the director of neighborhood service at the mayor's Office of Neighborhood Action. He brought a tool he and Thomas had been working on, which they originally built to quantify the results of the hot spot initiatives -- DCStat.

"I was doing DCStat before I came here," said Canavan. "So Dan Thomas and I partnered probably a year, year and a half, prior to my coming to DCRA."

Canavan said he was part of a team asked to examine DCRA operations and recommend improvements. He told Thomas that this was a perfect opportunity to use DCStat.


Focused Efforts
DCStat, while unique, has roots in a famous New York City program known as CompStat, or Computer Statistics. CompStat revolutionized the way law enforcement agencies in the city fight crime by collecting and sharing data from all participating police precincts. Law enforcement agencies employing CompStat use GIS technology, data analysis and accountability metrics to create a regional picture of crime instead of one limited to a single precinct.

From the CompStat model, other cities began deploying similar programs. Baltimore took CompStat's approach of collecting data from multiple agencies but began using the data in a new way. The program in Baltimore -- called CitiStat -- expedites the sharing of data across multiple city departments instead of only law enforcement.

"The difference is I have a GIS basis, I've got business intelligence and I've got Web technology," explained Canavan. "When you put those three things together with very smart people, it yielded DCStat."

The program provides a wealth of comparative performance data across agencies, said Washington, D.C., Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck. "For the first time, agencies may view their operations and performance in relation to those of other agencies, and use the comparisons to set benchmarks to improve their operations."

DCStat draws data from an increasing number of sources. Of the 154 data sources currently used by DCStat, some of the most critical include: the MPD; the mayor's and DCRA's call centers; the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation; and the Department of Power and Water.

DCStat delivers data from various agencies to fill in holes -- ensuring decisions are based on fact rather than anecdotes, Peck said. "As a result, DCStat enables district leaders to focus on what's important to citizens, and how fast and effectively government can respond to these needs."

The system functions on the city's intranet and is run by off-the-shelf software applications that draw data from participating databases in real time or near real time. By combining this data with GIS tools and business intelligence for in-depth analysis, also known as data "drill-downs," the DCRA can create dynamic, up-to-date maps of problem areas and accompany the maps with in-depth, real-time analysis of the problem's cause.

"You can pull up the map and see where folks aren't getting service, where the call has gone overdue, where agencies aren't meeting their service-level agreements," said Thomas. "It's a big red ugly blob when it's not getting taken care of."

In addition to GIS mapping, DCStat also employs Fast Data Search, an enterprise search engine that collects data from newswires and internal sources. The data can then be used to send alerts to key city officials via an RSS feed.

"Some of the business intelligence that will do trend analysis says, 'When you have these 16 critical factors all aligning, this is the result 90 percent of the time.' Wouldn't it be great to have an alert on my e-mail the next morning that says, 'These 16 factors are going up on these three city blocks. You should be paying some attention here'?" said Canavan. registration, home, business and commercial inspections -- it was crucial that the DCRA transform itself so it could help transform the city.

In February 2005, the DCRA recruited Patrick Canavan as department director. Canavan worked for years as the director of neighborhood service at the mayor's Office of Neighborhood Action. He brought a tool he and Thomas had been working on, which they originally built to quantify the results of the hot spot initiatives -- DCStat.

"I was doing DCStat before I came here," said Canavan. "So Dan Thomas and I partnered probably a year, year and a half, prior to my coming to DCRA."

Canavan said he was part of a team asked to examine DCRA operations and recommend improvements. He told Thomas that this was a perfect opportunity to use DCStat.


Focused Efforts
DCStat, while unique, has roots in a famous New York City program known as CompStat, or Computer Statistics. CompStat revolutionized the way law enforcement agencies in the city fight crime by collecting and sharing data from all participating police precincts. Law enforcement agencies employing CompStat use GIS technology, data analysis and accountability metrics to create a regional picture of crime instead of one limited to a single precinct.

From the CompStat model, other cities began deploying similar programs. Baltimore took CompStat's approach of collecting data from multiple agencies but began using the data in a new way. The program in Baltimore -- called CitiStat -- expedites the sharing of data across multiple city departments instead of only law enforcement.

"The difference is I have a GIS basis, I've got business intelligence and I've got Web technology," explained Canavan. "When you put those three things together with very smart people, it yielded DCStat."

The program provides a wealth of comparative performance data across agencies, said Washington, D.C., Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck. "For the first time, agencies may view their operations and performance in relation to those of other agencies, and use the comparisons to set benchmarks to improve their operations."

DCStat draws data from an increasing number of sources. Of the 154 data sources currently used by DCStat, some of the most critical include: the MPD; the mayor's and DCRA's call centers; the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation; and the Department of Power and Water.

DCStat delivers data from various agencies to fill in holes -- ensuring decisions are based on fact rather than anecdotes, Peck said. "As a result, DCStat enables district leaders to focus on what's important to citizens, and how fast and effectively government can respond to these needs."

The system functions on the city's intranet and is run by off-the-shelf software applications that draw data from participating databases in real time or near real time. By combining this data with GIS tools and business intelligence for in-depth analysis, also known as data "drill-downs," the DCRA can create dynamic, up-to-date maps of problem areas and accompany the maps with in-depth, real-time analysis of the problem's cause.

"You can pull up the map and see where folks aren't getting service, where the call has gone overdue, where agencies aren't meeting their service-level agreements," said Thomas. "It's a big red ugly blob when it's not getting taken care of."

In addition to GIS mapping, DCStat also employs Fast Data Search, an enterprise search engine that collects data from newswires and internal sources. The data can then be used to send alerts to key city officials via an RSS feed.

"Some of the business intelligence that will do trend analysis says, 'When you have these 16 critical factors all aligning, this is the result 90 percent of the time.' Wouldn't it be great to have an alert on my e-mail the next morning that says, 'These 16 factors are going up on these three city blocks. You should be paying some attention here'?" said Canavan.

Internally the DCRA is applying the same tools to save money and improve employee performance.

"We've plugged into the human resources systems and things like that so we know if there are folks abusing sick leave," Thomas said. "We're applying [DCStat] in the way Baltimore has, and we're watching for things like overtime. When you look at Baltimore's model, they've said they've saved such a large amount of money in those areas, and we're trying to mine for the same thing."

Having available the sophisticated internal data analysis afforded by DCStat establishes a check-and-balance structure that is lacking in much of the public sector. Overcoming the culture is a difficult and daunting challenge. With DCStat, isolation and cultural resistance are circumvented, and everyone can see and measure the performance of others.

"Many of the agencies, including my own, were built to sort of be independent and not share nicely with others," said Canavan. "That became your independence point -- you didn't have to provide data across agencies that could show you as failing or not."

Canavan said the greatest question was posed at a DCStat presentation -- the city administrator asked an agency head why its issues weren't getting addressed, and the agency head responded by saying the director of that particular division didn't agree to include the division's data for analysis "So the whole equation flipped from, 'I'm not getting into this,' to, 'How quick can I get into this to support my case?' That was the culture shift right in front of me."

Even though DCStat's primary purpose is to improve public safety, the DCRA continues to find ways that money can be saved while safety issues are addressed. Code compliance issues, for example, are tackled while the DCRA discovers millions in uncollected revenue.

"We're finding places where folks aren't compliant," said Thomas. "We found that 94 percent of single-family residences are not compliant [with DCRA codes]. It presents safety problems; it presents revenue problems with people not paying what they should. We found -- conservatively -- that $3 million or $4 million in revenue would pay for that kind of thing."

Thomas noted that the DCRA suffers from a shortage of building inspectors. These newly discovered millions, however, will go toward hiring the additional employees needed to keep residential structures up to code, thus improving safety for citizens and having the system start to pay for itself by identifying uncollected funds.


On the Front Lines
For the DCRA, having a whiz-bang data analysis and mapping tool is essential for helping improve service delivery and public safety. But DCStat is nothing if it doesn't help the men and women on the front lines better serve and protect the citizens of the District of Columbia.

DCStat gives police and inspectors the data that can improve their service delivery, and more importantly, potentially save their lives. The data mined and analyzed by DCStat is available in the field via a secure, wireless connection Web-portal called Mobile View, which can be accessed via PDA or by computers in an officer's patrol car.

While en route to or arriving at any particular crime scene, a police officer can enter the address and view the entire history of that residence, street or neighborhood. All criminal activity, service requests and individual criminal history can be quickly scanned, and the officer can arrange for backup, if necessary.

The same is true for inspectors. Code violations and any complaints help an inspector determine the appropriate action to take when entering a particular residential area. Furthermore, the dispatchers who send police officers and inspectors also have access to this data, and provide it before sending people out on the street.

Housing inspectors, for example, can submit an address on their PDAs, and receive information regarding the goings-on at that location, Thomas said.

"We know if there have been any service requests from there, what type they were, whether they were taken care of on time or not. We know if there have been any crimes on the block, what kinds of crimes they were. It's like having a little Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thing."

Dispatchers sending police or DCRA code enforcement staff to an area can look for various types of activity in that area, Thomas said, and can urge those in an area to be more cautious or call for backup.

Canavan said DCStat helps focus the efforts of police officers and inspectors who deal with residents in person. The system assists the two departments by helping them work together more effectively while also improving how they work apart.

The police like it because the inspectors can handle the civil action instead of the criminal action, he said. "So when they start to work together better, the cops feel empowered, and they can then focus a lot more on crime stuff instead of quality of life stuff."

On the other side, DCStat finds new ways to more effectively deploy city inspectors.

"With our housing inspectors, we pretty much had a one size fits all," Canavan said. "We had 39 planning clusters; every cluster got its own housing inspector -- without any regard to the things that DCStat told me were important like the density of the housing stock. If it's an area with huge apartment buildings, you need more inspectors."


Work in Progress
The District of Columbia has a lot of work to do. Cleaning up the streets and shedding its reputation for violence will not be easy. With tools like DCStat and the leadership of people like Peck, Canavan and Thomas, successes are readily evident and finally calculable.

"DCStat is already an indispensable tool for district decision-making," Peck said. "We hope that in the future, the system will help sustain gains made under these programs and others like them. Our goal is not only to know what is happening now in the district, but to anticipate problems, understand underlying causes of persistent problems, and to build and test effective management strategies in response."

Canavan said DCStat is helping to prove -- with real-time data and dynamic GIS maps -- what the DCRA inspectors and MPD patrol officers have known all along, but were unable to define.

"When we bring them in and show them the data for their neighborhood, or show them frequency, they get really excited about it and almost universally they say, 'I told you so. I could have told you that,'" Canavan said. "It's accepted as, 'This is what my anecdotal evidence has told me all along. Thank you for finally validating it.'"

The goal of the Hot Spot Initiative, and now of DCStat, is to improve the quality of life for everyone. That improvement begins by understanding and addressing the roots of problems in neighborhoods and communities.

"It's a very exciting time ... we're putting things together in a way they haven't been put together before," said Thomas. "That's helping us get to the point where we can start to see some patterns and different things going on. So are we effectively providing services? That's what DCStat is about -- trying to reduce that down to a quantifiable form."
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.