June 1, 2008 By Matt Williams
Former Westchester County CIO Norman Jacknis isn't much of a golfer, but he can take some credit for boosting attendance at seven public golf courses that the county operates in southeastern New York. Since Westchester's IT department began using statistical analysis under Jacknis' leadership in mid-2005, government officials in many of the county's departments, including parks and recreation, have moved toward a "performance measures" approach.
Staff working in the county's Department of Information Technology overlaid weather data with attendance figures, and the dates of special promotions and discounts at the golf courses. From that data, the county figured out it could do a better job of attracting golfers on bad weather days. "High humidity - not so much the rain - but high humidity is a real killer because I guess it really drains your energy," Jacknis explained.
The end result is that the county's golf courses now call hardcore golfers to announce open tee times on especially muggy days - a reverse 911 for duffers. That's just one innovation spawned from the county's statistical analysis unit that operates within the IT department. Other surprising conclusions have long-term ramifications for how the county does business, from building roads to deploying police officers.
"We're sitting on this gold mine of data, so we created a unit to start analyzing all the data we've been collecting to figure out what program policies work for what kinds of people, and what doesn't," Jacknis said.
The IT Department's statistical analysis unit is "pretty rare" among local governments, said Jacknis, who remains an unpaid consultant to the county after joining the global strategic consulting unit at Cisco Systems Inc. in February. Analysis is typically farmed out to a budget office or an individual department - assuming the data is analyzed at all. Westchester County, at minimal cost, took a step beyond the traditional IT mission of processing information, hardware and software.
The county isn't just managing information; it's interpreting it.
Behind Bars, Ahead of the Curve
In early 2006, Department of Correction Commissioner Rocco Pozzi teamed with Jacknis to crunch numbers to determine if the county's drug dependency treatment program, Solutions, was effectively treating inmates. The study, which was recently submitted to the American Society of Criminology, found that Westchester County prisoners who participated in the drug program are re-imprisoned 9 percentage points less often than nonparticipants. Various studies estimate New York state's recidivism rate is 25 percent, which is about the national average. The study spurred the county to continue funding Solutions, which costs $600,000 per year.
"The mindset is to look at the good things we know we are doing, and really statistically prove that they are doing what we know they're doing," Pozzi said. "We know these are good programs; it's just that we never counted them ... and then we created a report that we can hand to the public."
The past five years, the federal prison system has latched onto the buzzword "re-entry," which refers to the rehabilitation of prisoners when they are released back into society, either via parole or other social programs.
The concept of re-entry also has become a concern for local governments such as Westchester County, which oversees 400 to 500 sentenced inmates at any one time - a total of 10,000 admissions in one year. Most of those people go home sooner or later.
"By measuring [our drug rehab program], we realized one glaring discrepancy was the outreach piece, which is being talked about around the country," said Clyde Isley, the county's Department of Correction deputy commissioner. "We can begin to identify what makes these people involve themselves in criminal activity, but when they're only here for an average of 45 days. ... Once they leave our facility, we have no influence whether they follow through or they don't."
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