Cook County Details Data-Driven Success at Big Data Week

by   |   May 9, 2014 5:30 am   |   0 Comments

Just three years ago, the second most populous county in the United States, Chicago’s Cook County, was in crisis. With a population of 5.2 million – larger than that of 29 U.S. states – the county faced a 16 percent budget deficit.

Much worse, this massive, 23,000-person bureaucracy lacked systematic, data-driven ways to develop priorities or track its performance against those goals.

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“We looked at what other, high-functioning governments were doing,” explained Chief Performance Officer Andrew Schwarm, who detailed the county’s launch, in 2011, of the STAR (“Set Targets, Achieve Results”) performance management program.

Schwarm discussed how data helped transform the county at a Big Data Week event in Chicago Wedenesday.

Now in its third year, Big Data Week involved more than 180 events in 30-plus cities worldwide. Along with live presentations in Chicago and elsewhere, the global event featured live Web video streams, meetups, events, networking functions, demos, discussions and hackathons.

Serhat Cicekoglu, Director, Center for Risk Management at Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University, welcomed the audience (who attended in-person and via streaming video) by underscoring the relevance of data analytics to business management in general.

While business has grappled with explosive amounts of data and technology complexity before – data mining, ERP and multiple iterations of “The Internet” – this time feels different, Cicekoglu said.

“The source of the data is much less centralized, more real-time and much more unstructured,” he said.

A Tool for Improvement

In his presentation, Schwarm emphasized that STAR uses operational data and goal setting to improve the quality and efficiency of the county’s services, and to communicate these improvements to the public.

It’s a tool for “learning and improvement,” he said, adding, “It shows how and where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there.”

The public can access STAR via the Web at https://performance.cookcountyil.gov.

The site, launched in 2011, replaced its quarterly PDF-based reports with an interactive dashboard last October. It’s reports compile data on more than 750 metrics for 50 county agencies.

Not surprisingly, Cook County collects massive amounts of data across many different functions. Schwarm focused on four of these – public safety, health, taxes and economic development – and noted how STAR was making a difference in each by cutting expenses, improving efficiency, and delivering data insights that will inform new products and services.

Take, for example, the Cook County Jail, one of the largest single-site county detention facilities in the United States. An analytics project is ongoing at the facility “to get an understanding of who is in the jail and why,” Schwarm said. The purpose of the project is to help reduce the overall size of the jail’s population, he added, noting that about 70 percent of the facility’s detainees are being held for non-violent offenses.

By understanding how an individual enters the judicial system, as well as his or her likelihood of showing up at a future court date, the county can begin to make informed decisions about who needs to be locked up and who doesn’t, Schwarm said.

As this project continues, performance management has already shown its value with another core function of county government: tax collection.

Thanks to data collected from multiple agencies and systems, the county has been collecting taxes on time for the past three years – a deadline that Cook County had not been able to meet in 30 years, Schwarm said. In addition, performance data provides decision makers with valuable information to be used in deciding how best to direct those tax dollars.

Looking ahead, Schwarm said, the future of Cook County’s initiative will be to take data collected from agencies and their departments, and tie it ever closer to individual employee performance. A commitment to systematic tracking of county employee hours has already reduced waste by about one hour per employee month, Schwarm said.

Ellis Booker is a freelance journalist based in Evanston, Ill. Email him at ellisbooker@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisBooker.


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