25 Years in the Data Mines
In a few months, I will be retiring from NCCD after more than 25 years. I have been reflecting on how changes in technology during my tenure at NCCD have impacted the research and services we provide our clients.
Before joining NCCD in the mid ‘80s, I worked for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections on risk and needs assessment research. Thinking back, it seems almost like the “Dark Ages” of information technology. Social services and corrections agencies possessed very little digital information about their populations. All the early risk and needs assessment studies required case readings and punch cards to gather and analyze data, a laborious and time-consuming process that required highly specialized equipment and knowledge.
Though a few days’ turnaround was incredibly fast by the analytical standards of earlier times, by today’s standards it is unacceptably slow. Today, vast amounts of data are gathered, moved, stored, and processed at extraordinary speeds. Analyses that took days are now down to minutes, sometimes even seconds. Such astounding processing capability opens up a new world of analysis and service.
Even more significant is the change in who has the ability to access and analyze data. At the beginning of my career, computer processing power existed only in large data centers operated by governments, universities, or large corporations. NCCD rented time from university data centers to conduct its data analyses. It was unthinkable that an organization such as NCCD could ever own the processing capacity for large-scale analyses.
The world of data processing has changed dramatically, and NCCD has not just kept pace—today, we are on the leading edge of data processing capability. This growth has been driven by the needs of our client agencies, because NCCD takes the time to understand how clients record, store, and process data and looks to help fill gaps in their data processing capabilities. SafeMeasures® is one way we do this.
SafeMeasures began in the late 1990s, which was a time of great change in social services, particularly child welfare. Social service agencies, having developed modern information systems, found themselves swamped with data but lacked the expertise and capacity to turn this data into timely, actionable information. Even today, many agencies that are hungry for direct and timely data analysis lack the skills to effectively analyze and leverage the data they have.
SafeMeasures represents a different, service-based approach to data analysis. Our staff of analysis and case practice experts works directly with each agency to identify the performance measures, data, and analyses that best meet their individual needs. Each night, SafeMeasures receives massive updates of case-level data from child welfare and Juvenile justice agencies across the country. This new data is merged with existing records. Hundreds of detailed, individualized analyses are generated for each agency, all ready by start of business the following day.
Through SafeMeasures, NCCD applies the technologies of rapid data analysis through the distribution power of the Internet. More importantly, we leverage in-depth knowledge of both technology and case practice into a straightforward, easy-to-use analytical service, saving agencies the time and expense of building their own monitoring systems. We are able to spread the cost of a very large, sophisticated data center across multiple customers, ensuring that even the smallest agencies can access sophisticated analyses at affordable prices. By understanding client needs and circumstances, NCCD provided a simple, economical solution to a difficult and persistent problem.
As I look to the future, I am confident that the solutions and innovations required will come from organizations like NCCD. Though smaller than data giants, such organizations are nimble, able to adapt to changing circumstances, and bring forth innovations in quick developmental cycles. Governmental agencies will continue to be challenged in holding on to top analytics and research staff. Smaller, specialized groups need to step in and provide those services. What is needed are centers of excellence, each specializing in various subject areas (e.g., corrections, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, child welfare, Medicaid) staffed by case practice, research, and technology experts. Leveraging such expertise across multiple agencies and domains is the only affordable and practical approach to dealing with the avalanche of data coming our way.
Peter Quigley serves as managing director of NCCD’s information services. Since joining NCCD in 1986, he has been responsible for a wide variety of projects and tasks, including risk and needs assessment, workload analysis, and information technology. Peter holds a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in sociology from Northern Illinois University.