New York state provides human service programs to hundreds of thousands of clients across 58 districts. Typically each county has one human services district that provides services for food stamps, housing assistance, child-care subsidies and health care, to name a few.

Although the state's human services agencies have historically analyzed their data to gauge performance, the 1997 State Welfare Reform Act forced these agencies to evaluate their programs' success in an entirely new way.

Human services commissioners and their executive team managers in all 58 districts went looking for a way to analyze data with an easily accessible application that could merge data from multiple sources.

"We needed to track such things as receipt of benefits by clients over time and to determine when they reached their 60 months of federal benefits, and when they would need to be switched over to state programs," said Bob Mastro, CIO of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA).

The OTDA joined with the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) and the Office of Medicaid Management (OMM) to find a way to better report and analyze the volumes of information available.

The agencies eventually settled on a "dashboard" tool -- an application that translates complex information into easily read and understood gauges -- powered by business intelligence.

Business intelligence tools come from a broad category of application programs and technologies for gathering, storing, analyzing and providing access to data, and they help users make better business decisions. It usually includes query and reporting capabilities, statistical analysis and score carding, and often uses a "dashboard" concept for an easy-to-use interface.

"One of the most staggeringly primitive problems facing organizations is the difficulty they have accurately answering even the most basic questions," said Ian Charlesworth, senior research analyst for the Butler Group, a Europe-based IT consultancy and research firm.

Going Dashboard

Officials want to know what's happening in their districts, why it is happening, and what should happen in the future. The agencies hired performance management software vendor Cognos to develop a pilot project to address this need.

The result was a dashboard tool that generates standardized reports from information pulled from multiple databases. The two-month pilot project encompassed three districts, and its success led to full implementation in February 2006.

At press time, 48 local social services districts were on-board, with the remaining 10 expected to go live before summer 2006. Before switching to the dashboard, each district employed a number of staff members who manually queried multiple data sources to answer statistical questions. The dashboard streamlines the process by providing that same information electronically, now giving those staff more time to focus on other tasks.

"It does allow us to analyze data better, in that you can get a view across multiple data sources and look at it all in one place," Mastro noted.

The Web-based dashboard is password protected, and accessible on the district level only by commissioners and designated staff. In New York state, human services are state-supervised but county-administered. Local counties appoint each district commissioner, and each social services district is limited to accessing its own data.

Unlike individual districts, the supervising state human services agencies -- the OTDA, OCFS and OMM -- can look at each county's data, as well as statewide data.

Although the state can't require districts to utilize the dashboard, commissioners have embraced the concept wholeheartedly, because it makes data available on the desktop, and the dashboard's reports are tested to ensure accurate and consistent information.

Finding the Data

The dashboard utilizes Cognos ReportNet (now called Cognos 8) to pull raw data from a Department of Health Medicaid data warehouse, a CONNECTIONS data warehouse that hosts child welfare data, and a welfare

Leslie Friesen  |  Contributing Writer