Last year, Rock County officials wanted to know what was causing delays in parents being reunited with children taken from them by Child Protective Services.
They suspected parents’ untreated illnesses and disorders were part of it, but they didn’t have evidence.
A human services data analyst found the proof.
She pored over 175 case notes and confirmed officials’ suspicions: 78% of parents whose children were removed had unmet mental health and/or substance abuse needs. They also had difficulty accessing care.
The discovery prompted the department to reconsider its structure, communication and services. Officials used the analyst’s report to nab a $188,000, two-year grant to establish a family drug treatment court for parents whose children have been removed by CPS.
The analyst, Kendra Schiffman, represents a growing trend in Rock County, where data analysis is surging. Officials say data paint a fuller picture of operations, tell stories about trends and foster efficiency.
Data analysis, they say, is making a difference.
In coming months, the county administrator’s office plans to hire an analyst to replace one of the two assistant to the administrator positions. Three analysts have been hired since 2018—two filled positions that were eliminated—and by October, officials plan to implement a client-assessment data system for human services clients.
Cost and return
New software and staff aren’t without cost. The base salary for the county’s new analyst will be $55,583 annually. Schiffman is paid $67,526 a year, and new data software in the human services department will cost about $16,000 annually.
But researchers and officials say returns on investments in data can be exponential.
Jane Wiseman, CEO of the Institute for Excellence in Government and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, said a local government in one case saw a 5-to-1 return on investment by hiring personnel tasked with analyzing data.
“If you look at the way we live our lives, whether it’s your Fitbit or the analytics behind your movie recommendations, our whole life, we’re swimming in data,” Wiseman told The Gazette. “So, I think there’s a growing expectation that government ought to be able to figure these things out, too.”
Kate Luster, director of the Rock County Human Services Department, said public institutions previously considered investments in data resources a luxury. Now, those investments are viewed as essential, she said.
“It’s a budget priority for us to continue to develop our quality improvement resources so that we are more data savvy and data prepared and competent,” Luster said. “We have to, and we’re vulnerable if we don’t.”
Luster said the human services department has been using and analyzing data for business operations and fiscal tracking at least since she joined the department in 2009.
In that time, the department has collected client data, such as admissions and discharges in outpatient clinics, emergency detentions, rapid re-admissions and voluntary and involuntary hospitalizations.
But Luster said the department now is shifting to gathering more nuanced information around client experience and service improvement.
She pointed to Schiffman’s discovery involving out-of-home placements, which are rising across the state. Luster said the department wants to avoid leaving kids without a permanent residency for extended periods.
Schiffman, who has a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, was a professor at Beloit College for five years before joining the human services department in May 2018. She is one of five department analysts and said much of her role is to interpret numbers, understand social contexts and craft responses.
To continue collecting data, Luster said, the department plans to implement a new program, Reaching Recovery, that will track data about a person’s progress in mental health or substance use from the onset of treatment.
Clients will rate their experiences with treatment, Luster said, which will increase data about client experience and allow the county to compare its assessment of client progress to clients’ self-reported satisfaction.
“We could potentially learn that people who come to us with opioid use disorder ... six months out, they’re able to say they’re in a better place, and we’re lining up with that,” Luster said. “... It’ll just help us be better.”
Nick Zupan, an epidemiologist in the Rock County Public Health Department, is among the new county employees tasked with compiling and tabulating data.
Zupan started in 2018. He analyzes public health information—such as sickness and disease reports—makes determinations and transmits findings to county leadership and the community.
By tracking data, the department determined influenza would spike later than usual this year. Zupan said the department used that to inform its health care partners to encourage ongoing immunizations.
Marie-Noel Sandoval, director of the public health department, said the department also analyzed data and worked with county schools to lower vaccination waivers.
Shortly after taking the helm in 2015, Sandoval hired an intern to sift through data on school vaccinations and assemble a report. The department then targeted schools with higher waivers and scheduled meetings with administrators. Eventually, officials discovered waivers were being made easily available at those schools.
The department suggested schools provide waivers only by request. As a result, the schools saw a decrease in the number of immunization waivers, Sandoval said, which means more students were vaccinated.
Sandoval said the department had mounds of data collected when she started but had limited capacity to analyze them. The department hired Zupan to serve as a data analyst and identify trends, Sandoval said.
He was instrumental in producing the county’s groundbreaking interactive map on groundwater nitrate contamination in well water, which was the first of its kind in the state and required a higher level of data analysis and visualization, Zupan said.
“When you bring in somebody whose job is dedicated to deal with the data and work with the data and identify those gaps in the data, that just gives us so much more power to be able to address the issues that we need to address,” Sandoval said.
Data analysis also has shifted how the county approaches road maintenance and reconstruction projects.
Duane Jorgenson, director of the public works department, said the county evaluates road conditions every two years using the state’s pavement surface evaluation and rating system. County employees drive all 212 miles of county roads and determine whether they have surface defects. Each segment is given an overall grade from 1 to 10, with 1 being the poorest.
In previous years, the county commonly focused on roads needing immediate attention—those graded between 2 and 3—and diverted resources to reconstructing them.
Jorgenson agrees those portions need to be repaired. But he says more attention should be paid to roads graded between 4 and 6 because they deteriorate quicker, and upgrading them can allay future reconstruction costs.
The pavement rating system hasn’t always been at the forefront in the county’s discussions on road conditions, Jorgenson said, but it could be used to determine trends by comparing each years’ ratings.
For example, in this year’s analysis, about 56% of the county’s roads, or 120 miles, were graded between 4 and 6—a 10% increase from 2015, when 46% of the county’s roads were in similar conditions. About 6% of the roads this year were rated a 2.
Jorgenson said the data indicate the county should focus on maintenance efforts in coming years to prevent reconstruction, which can be at least three times more expensive.
“We’re trying to look at the whole picture,” Jorgenson said. “What do we really have to do to address the whole thing? We aren’t taking a reactive approach, we’re taking a proactive approach.”
What researchers say
Wiseman said hiring data personnel is key to ensuring governments aren’t using bad data and unfairly targeting vulnerable populations.
It’s like a symphony orchestra, she said.
“You might have an exceptionally talented violinist, a great cellist, percussion, they could all be tops of their fields. But without a conductor, they might all be playing at different paces,” she said.
City governments across the country have been ramping up their data systems in recent years, according to multiple studies by Wiseman. In 2015, Chicago developed a model to predict which of its more than 15,000 restaurants and food establishments were most likely to cause foodborne illnesses, Wiseman wrote in 2016.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the collection of overdue payments to the city surged from $300,000 a year to $2.5 million after hiring three full-time data officers. South Bend, Indiana, reported saving $5 million on a series of route optimization and fleet management projects after applying data analytics, Wiseman wrote in 2017.
David Weimer, a professor at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, said data analysis in local government is growing largely because computing has become relatively inexpensive and widespread. Younger employees also bring more knowledge and aptitude for technology and software, he said.
Researchers say data are part of many facets of life—phones, computers and the private sector. They ask why government should be different.
“If you had a really bad stomach ache, and you went to the doctor, and the doctor said, ‘You know, I could run some tests and stuff, but why would I gather that data? You’ve got a stomachache. Let’s take out your appendix,’” Wiseman said.
“We think that’s preposterous because we just expect that there’s data. …We’ve just got to start demanding that government use data.”