Published on 02-Aug-2012
"IBM predictive analytics has given us a new ability to gain valuable insights from our data, to target and strengthen areas that are in need of improvement, and to change the way we operate." - Christy Winter, Director of CQI and Practice-based Research at Families First
Professional Services, Government
Business Analytics, Predictive Analytics
Families First is a private non-profit organization based in Atlanta, Georgia. Originally founded as an orphanage in 1890, the organization has grown and evolved to become one of the largest social service providers in the state, providing adoption, foster care, family support, counseling and other associated services to approximately 40,000 people per year. Families First employs 120 full-time and part-time staff and around 80 contractors, working from seven offices and a number of community-based locations.
Families First wanted to find a way to assess the impact of its social service programs on the community. Analyzing data on program outcomes was a complex task, and staff were struggling to perform useful analyses with basic spreadsheet-based tools.
Families First implemented IBM® SPSS® Statistics and took part in two three-day training sessions on how to get the most from the software. Families First is now putting its new knowledge into practice and using SPSS to perform sophisticated analyses of program outcomes and compliance data.
The outcomes of over 80 percent of programs can now be assessed accurately, helping Families First focus its resources on improving performance in key areas. Standardized, automated analysis procedures help to increase data integrity and reduce data preparation workload by up to 94 percent.
Increasing the visibility of successful outcomes helps Families First sustain funding from existing sources and attract new funding partners. Families First now has the tools and skills to run its own internal program evaluation and research projects, instead of hiring expensive external consultants for every project. The solution has also proven valuable for compliance and incident management, providing an easy-to-use tracking system that replaces complex spreadsheet-driven reporting processes.
Families First is a private non-profit organization based in Atlanta, Georgia. Originally founded as an orphanage in 1890, the organization has grown and evolved to become one of the largest social service providers in the state, providing adoption, foster care, family support, counseling and other associated services to approximately 40,000 people per year. Families First employs 120 full-time and part-time staff and around 80 contractors, working from seven offices and a number of community-based locations to fulfill the organization’s mission: ensuring the success of children in jeopardy by empowering families.
Three years ago, Families First began to transform its business model by focusing on the outcomes of its programs and directing its operations to maximize positive impact on the community. At that time, the organization was running more than 35 programs, but only about 20 percent of them were able to measure their outcomes in a meaningful way. Moreover, since outcomes were recorded and managed using spreadsheet-based processes, even basic analysis was a laborious process.
“Becoming more outcomes-driven is not just a good idea in terms of strengthening programs and services, which helps children and families; it also has a significant impact on our sustainability as an organization,” explains Christy Winter, Director of CQI and Practice-based Research at Families First. “Our funding comes from government contracts, private donations and corporate grants – and increasingly, our donors expect us to demonstrate the results achieved with their investment. We know that we make a huge difference to children and families in the Atlanta area and across Georgia; what we needed was to be able to prove it.”
Finding the right tools
Winter’s department was given the task of finding a more sophisticated way to capture and measure results. She knew that her staff needed a more powerful toolset than spreadsheets could provide.
“We looked at various free and open-source statistics packages, but none of them was mature enough to meet our needs, nor were they very user-friendly,” she comments. “We also had one old copy of IBM SPSS Statistics installed on one of our PCs. It was a very outdated version, but it showed much more potential than the other tools we evaluated. We knew that with new licenses and proper training, SPSS would be the ideal solution for our needs.”
Winter made a convincing argument for the need for SPSS to the CEO of Families First, who decided to reach out to IBM. As a result, Families First was able to implement SPSS Statistics and participate in two three-day sessions of training.
“The IBM team was so supportive, and really offered us an amazing amount of help,” says Winter. “The combination of the software and the training gave us a huge head-start, and enabled us to start analyzing our outcomes data almost immediately, using far more sophisticated statistical methods than we had ever been able to use before.”
Developing best practices for analytics
The first SPSS training session covered areas such as data preparation and basic analysis, and was attended by 15 people from Families First.
“We learned a lot about how to standardize and document our analysis processes,” says Winter. “By defining clear best practices for each type of analysis, we have been able to improve the quality of our data and the consistency of our results. SPSS has a very good menu-driven, point-and-click interface, but we also learned how using SPSS syntax could give us access to even more powerful capabilities. For example, we’ve used syntax to automate the majority of the data cleaning and preparation process, which saves many hours of work.”
To take one example, Families First produces a quarterly report on the results of its counseling program. Preparing the data for basic analysis under the old process was a laborious manual process that took approximately four hours. With SPSS syntax, it can be completed within 15 minutes, a 93 percent improvement.
“The counseling report is just one of about 30 similar reports, so when you add them all up, the time-savings are really considerable,” comments Winter. “As a result, we have a lot more time to spend on doing the analysis itself, so we can gain much deeper insight into the data.”
Training tailored to business needs
The second training session enabled five members of the CQI and Practice-based Research team to explore more advanced analytical techniques.
“The trainer from IBM had a background in social services, and was able to use some of our own data to demonstrate the value of more advanced analyses,” says Winter. “Tailoring the training to our specific needs made it much more valuable; many of the things my team learned during those three days, we’ve put directly into practice in the real world. Best of all, I am still in contact with our trainer and can consult him whenever I have a question about statistical methods. He’s always happy to help out.”
Deeper analysis of outcomes
Before the implementation of IBM SPSS Statistics, approximately 50 percent of Families First programs were able to provide some basic analysis of their outcomes. Today, the proportion has risen to more than 80 percent, and the level of analysis is much more sophisticated. For example, Winter’s team can assess the statistical significance of outcome data, and can analyze ongoing trends instead of simple frequencies.
“We’re currently working on a large-scale evaluation of our counseling program,” comments Winter. “The IBM SPSS software is helping us analyze customer surveys to understand which areas of counseling we’re handling best, and which need further improvement. Additionally, we are able to run statistical tests on our pre-post surveys to determine impact of the services. These data will, in turn, be used to make program improvements and ultimately strengthen our services. We’re also gaining insight into the reasons why some people start coming to counseling, but do not continue. In the future, we hope to be able to predict when someone is likely to quit, so we’ll be able to intervene and hopefully motivate them to continue receiving services until they have stabilized.”
Bringing research projects in-house
The solution is also having a transformational impact on the way Families First conducts major research projects. Formerly, the organization lacked the resources to manage research projects in-house, so it often needed to hire external consultants. Now, since SPSS provides a more automated, less labor-intensive means of analysis, the internal team has enough time to work on special projects in addition to its day-to-day work.
“Our first internally owned research project in recent years is about to get underway,” says Winter. “We’ll be examining the impact of a curriculum for divorcing families, which aims to help them develop co-parenting skills. When the course curriculum was designed in the 1990s, the demographics and social realities of Georgia were significantly different to what they are today: for example, we have a much larger Spanish-speaking population, and we have seen an increase in the number of people who take the course who are unmarried parents rather than divorcing couples. We want to find out whether the curriculum is still as relevant and effective for modern families, and make sure it still delivers on the original objective of minimizing the negative impact of divorce on children and improving co-parenting relationships.”
The project will compare the situation in Georgia with a similar program in Indiana, and will be managed without any external support.
“The ability to run our own research projects will help us preserve more dollars for community services,” states Winter. “Moreover, we anticipate that the research project will yield valuable information about the effectiveness of the curriculum, so we can improve the co-parenting course and make it more relevant for today’s parents. The sales of this curriculum are an important source of income, bringing in approximately $250,000 per year, and we hope that with improvements in the content, we can sustain and even grow this revenue.”
Finding new uses for analytics
In addition to measuring outcomes and assessing the performance of educational classes and programs, the SPSS solution has also found employment in a number of areas that Families First had not anticipated prior to its deployment.
“It was only once we had got up and running with SPSS that we realized its potential for analyzing compliance data,” explains Winter. “We have two or three audits each month from various external bodies, and we used to manage all the relevant data in a set of huge spreadsheets. Now we can track and monitor all compliance-related activities much more easily – so we can see how many audits we have had, who did them, and what the results were. We can track trends and make better decisions about how to meet our compliance requirements.
“The same is true of incident management. We operate four group homes, and every time there is an incident at one of them, it gets logged in our database. With SPSS, we can get much deeper insight into the patterns formed by these incidents. For example, we have been able to look at the times of day when issues are most likely to occur in each home, and we can adjust staffing levels to make sure there’s enough support on-site during peak periods.”
She concludes: “IBM predictive analytics has given us a new ability to gain valuable insights from our data, to target and strengthen areas that are in need of improvement, and to change the way we operate. By becoming more outcomes-driven, we will increasingly be able to maximize positive impact on families and communities in the Atlanta area and across the state of Georgia.”
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