Allegheny County agency grows social database

Despite worries, social service system praised for close attention to privacy

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For years, Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families workers could rattle off a slew of statistics about their charges, a list likely as tall as the kids themselves -- but couldn't tell you where the children went to school.

That, after all, was a different department.

Not anymore. In the decade following the administrative shakedown that combined four agencies into the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the county has built a massive database on its clients that rivals anything in the private sector, allowing case workers to pull up a life story -- counseling history, stints in jail, even grades at school -- with a few keystrokes.

And despite the inevitable allusions to Big Brother, the county maintains this database with close attention to privacy, a federal report praising the system recently concluded.

"It's a matter of how you do it with the proper safeguards," Marc Cherna, Department of Human Services head, said. "We're serving people and we're trying to help folks. It's about, can you help people and deliver better services if you can bring stuff together?"

"Big Data" is the new buzzword in business circles, an acknowledgement that companies have the capacity to collect more information about our habits and personal lives than ever before.

But while plenty of examples exist in the corporate world -- retail giant Target famously collects enough information about customers to accurately predict when they're pregnant -- the public sector has been slower to catch on.

Enter Erin Dalton, the Department of Human Services' deputy director of the Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation.

At the department's office building on Smithfield Street, she clicks through a mock-up of DataVue, the central access point to the agency's immense archives. (The names of the "clients," as they're called in bureau-speak, were redacted for privacy.)

After picking a name, she runs through the client's services record, which lists every psychotherapy visit, how long it lasted and how much it cost the county (50 minutes and $64). Searching a different name, she pulls up a list of institutions visited in the past year.

Using the database, a caseworker can look into the background of a client before a home visit, checking to see whether there's a history of drug use or whether a police officer should be brought along.

Not everyone in the building agrees that this information should be accessible, she admits.

"You can go into our workforce and find people who don't know this exists -- and others who don't think we should view it," she said. "We're still making strides."

But the database's effectiveness isn't under debate. It aggregates internal files -- including HeadStart information, mental health records and homeless listings -- and information from the outside, including parts of the court system and the Department of Public Welfare.

Last year, the database totaled 335 million records for nearly a million distinct people. Having all the information in one place helps solve the biggest complaint clients had against the department, Mr. Cherna said: Different caseworkers from different agencies would give conflicting information.

"We have 160 different funding sources ... we're serving 200,000 people over a year," he said. "There's a whole disconnect as consumers. How do you bring that stuff together?"

The effort started in 1997, when the department was officially formed.

Realizing it couldn't build the database by itself, Mr. Cherna's administration reached out to foundations including the Heinz Endowment and the Mellon Foundation for financial help. They agreed, with the stipulation that some of the data be made available for public use.

The going was tough in the beginning, said Lisa Caldwell, a bureau manager at the Office of Information Services. Many agencies were reluctant to part with their clients' data, fearing privacy violations.

"We were beating on people's doors, begging them," she said. "Now, they're coming to us."

The work paid off. Allegheny County was recently highlighted in a Government Accountability Office report on data warehouses that lauded the department's efforts to streamline services through data.

The county's warehouse is widely cited nationwide as an example to follow, report author Kay Brown said. On the other side of the state, the department's counterpart in Philadelphia plans to build a similar system and recently sent representatives to Pittsburgh to take a look.

"Allegheny County pops up quite often," said Jerome Uher, spokesman for the American Public Human Services Association in Washington, D.C. "I know they've had to confront a lot of this red tape and restrictions. It's always good to hear what they're working on."

Which is all nice for Mr. Cherna to hear. But what's next?

Well, now he wants birth records.

"It's about continually trying to improve and get more," he said.

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Andrew McGill: 412-263-1497 or amcgill@post-gazette.com


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