Westchester IT department creates statistical analysis unit to provide new insight into county operations.
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."
Pozzi said it is Westchester County's challenge to figure how best to serve its inmates without the prod of statutorily required parole - a sword of Damocles - as is the case in state or federal prisons. "There are more people being discharged from local correctional facilities than are being released from all the state and federal combined, and [the country] is not looking at them."
How it Came to Be
As Jacknis started his statistical analysis unit, Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano directed in 2006 that all county that write contracts with outside agencies must contain language about goals and objectives that are supported by performance measures, according to Isley. In 2007, each department was asked to identify "super performance measures" that indicate how each department is fulfilling its obligations. "I would like to believe our pilot project started in 2006 [analyzing the Solutions program] helped to focus on the need to take a different approach at measuring our county government's successes or failures," Isley said.
When a county department wants to study the effectiveness of a program or action, it often calls the county's IT department for help. Although at first, Jacknis would reach out on his own and propose studies to county commissioners.
The cost to Westchester County is small. One staff person handles the multivariable advanced statistical analysis, and the county invested in a full suite of SPSS software that includes business intelligence, data mining and analysis capabilities. If more help is needed, Jacknis draws upon the expertise of employees within other departments. Then the IT department publishes a "working paper" on its findings - an important resource for county departments as they modify policy and strategies.
Jacknis said it's valuable for local governments to do their own statistical analysis. "There's always a local twist, there's always a particular combination of circumstances in your local area," he said. "Your geographic responsibility has some subtle difference from the generic kind of trends that have been found elsewhere. It is worth doing this on a local basis, and it doesn't really cost very much."
The county has put statistical analysis to use for studying everything from automobile traffic to police deployment strategies. When officials became concerned about attendance figures at the county-owned amusement park in Rye - Playland - after a couple of accidental deaths in the last few years - an employee was killed there in June 2007 after being thrown from the gyrating Mind Scrambler ride - they decided to look into the data.
Attendance figures are kept in a database, and the county's IT staff layered it with other basic information such as days of the week. Then they decided to look at daily temperatures and conditions. "It turned out that weather alone could predict certainly more than half of any of the variation in use of those facilities," Jacknis said, "sometimes as much as 75 to 80 percent. It's sort of amazing." Though weather seems like an obvious variable for attendance numbers, a new weather-adjusted attendance figure helps county employees when planning promotions, special events and ticket discounts.
In addition, Westchester County Public Safety Commissioner and Sheriff Thomas Belfiore has used the IT department's analysis for road safety.
"We found that some of the money that had been spent to straighten out roads was a bad thing," Jacknis explained. "We have parkways here that go back to the 1920s, and it slows drivers down. They had complaints that this was going to cause accidents, so they straightened out some of these highways. As soon as they did, the accidents increased because now you have a straightaway." Some highway junctions were found to have particularly high accident rates, and that helped the police department pinpoint where they should be positioned to help reduce car accidents.
That example of synergy and collaboration is increasingly common, Jacknis said. "Statistical analysis really helps people be more effective," he said. "Traditionally people want IT to help them be more efficient, but this is really helping them be more effective and to get to the heart of what we're doing, and how we can improve what we're doing."