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Location intelligence helps Mississippi fight fraud, hurricanes

Mississippi's Department of Human Services implemented a business intelligence system with location data and mapping. It helped during Katrina -- but has many potential uses.

Integrated business intelligence (BI) with location-based data mapping has not only helped the Mississippi Department of Human Services fight food-stamp fraud and react to one of the deadliest hurricanes in the nation's history, it will ultimately transform the entire agency, according to its chief information officer.

The Jackson-based department implemented a BI system with integrated location data and mapping functions, initially to fight food-stamp fraud, according to CIO Bud Douglas. Mississippi was able to capitalize on a system originally developed by Louisiana, he explained. All Mississippi had to do was invest in implementation consultants and the software licenses from New York-based BI vendor Information Builders Inc. and Redlands, Calif.-based mapping vendor Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI). The combined BI and mapping technology, often referred to as location intelligence, will make a huge impact on the department, Douglas said.

"Everything we do is location dependent," he said. "You could run 100 [text] reports and never see the things that pop out when you put them on a map. The system is very powerful, and we plan to expand it to assist everything we do at the agency."

For the last four months, the department has been using the system as originally intended -- to fight food-stamp fraud -- but it got an unplanned, early look at the new BI system's capabilities during Hurricane Katrina last year.

Fighting food-stamp fraud with location intelligence

The system's data sources include transaction records from electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, which is how states now deliver food-stamp benefits. The cards work like debit or credit cards, using the "EBT" option commonly seen on grocery store checkout systems, so all transactions are electronically recorded. The department has also geo-coded (assigned geographic identifiers to) all of its food stamp clients and merchants. The system takes in nightly batch downloads of EBT transaction data and combines it with the geo-coded data. Using Information Builder's Web Focus tool with integrated ESRI mapping software, Douglas said, investigators can run reports, put color-coded data on a map, and scan for unusual activity.

If we had another evacuation [as happened during Hurricane Katrina], we could run a report showing everyone on the coast, where they are and what help they need
Bud Douglas
chief information officerfor the Mississippi Department of Human Services on possible future uses of location intelligence

The department won't publicize all of the patterns it looks for, but red flags include frequent whole-dollar amount transactions or many high-dollar-value transactions at a specific store, which might indicate that an employee is trading cash for food-stamp benefits. Mapping can give other indications of fraud, such as clients driving long distances, past other food stores, to visit a particular merchant that shows many unusual transactions. The new system has already been a boon to investigators, Douglas said.

It's helped the state's small staff of 10 investigators sift through a backlog of suspected fraud cases to identify and prioritize them -- so that law enforcement agencies can further investigate the worst offenders. By suing and fining fraud perpetrators, Louisiana was able to recoup its costs in 18 months, Douglas said. Mississippi is just beginning to collect the additional evidence needed to take fraud cases to court, but he is hoping for similar results.

But there's more to it than the money, Douglas said. Though the department was still in the process of implementing the system when Hurricane Katrina hit, it was immediately helpful for tracking statistics. Since the EBT cards work nationwide, the system was able to track information about people's movements and new locations.

Future uses of location intelligence

In the longer term, the department envisions location intelligence supporting most services it offers to citizens. Douglas and his boss, Col. Don Taylor, executive director of the department, have big plans. First, they want to extend the current system to the aging and adult services division, Douglas said. The department wants to geo-code all of these clients, along with data about whether they require special services, and add that to the system.

"Then, if we had another evacuation [as happened during Hurricane Katrina], we could run a report showing everyone on the coast, where they are and what help they need," Douglas explained.

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The system could also be helpful for optimizing the logistics of meals-on-wheels, he said, adding that it could help the foster care and adoption division. Children in the state's care could be geo-coded, along with school districts, biological parents, addresses of known sex offenders, and other facts that might determine where they should be placed. Ultimately, Douglas hopes to share the location intelligence system with Medicaid and other agencies in order to streamline delivery of many other state services.

Since the location intelligence system is easily accessed via the Internet, collaborating across agencies is likely to be much easier than past efforts, Douglas said. With 1,900 workers in 143 locations in the department of human services alone, technology has traditionally been a challenge. But by using Web-based applications that can run on almost any computer, he's hoping to change all that.

"I'm trying to transform this whole agency," Douglas said. "I'm overwhelmed by the number of applications of this technology that are relatively easy to implement."

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