August 19, 2008 By Wayne Hanson
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."
Bailey says ORS is also doing a study for the Department of Education. "Unfortunately, in South Carolina we did not always have the ability to track a kid from year to year." Bailey said the study will tie educational data to Medicaid system data for low-income children, and to the social services and juvenile justice systems. "And what that means is that ... you would be able to do analysis to see how Medicaid children are doing in school versus food stamp children, foster care, or protective services cases that weren't removed from the home. You could look at the impact of all of those. And the next step we're going to is ... to be able to look individually at each of those kids with a tracking number and -- without knowing who they are -- look at their history in terms of how did they get where they were in the educational system, in health, or with social services, or with law enforcement ... What caused their blocks and their breaks and their successes?
"That's an awesome capability. Government has a responsibility to use all the information that's sitting in every computer they can get their hands on, to better understand and evaluate why our programs work or don't work and how to come up with better outcomes. If we do that, you add to government a volume way of work per employee and who gets the best outcomes. We can use that to improve those that aren't doing so well."
Connecting human services data to elected officials responsible for funding programs is one of the possibilities said Bailey. "Tell them the problems people have in their districts ... How many people are on food stamps or in foster care? How are kids doing in school? continued Bailey. "And once you do this, when they are elected, you can evaluate every year how things have gone. It sort of feels like democracy."