Alaska Agency Uses App to Monitor Alcohol Offenders

The app leads users through coping strategies, monitors how often they drink, identifies “triggers” and gives weekly feedback reports tracking their progress in kicking bad habits.

by Jerzy Shedlock, Alaska Dispatch News / June 1, 2015

(TNS) -- The state agency responsible for looking after drug and alcohol offenders working their way through the Alaska court system are trying a new intervention tool -- a smartphone application.

Step Away is a system for helping people with alcohol use disorders. It was developed by Patrick Dulin, an associate professor in the clinical and community psychology doctoral program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The app leads users through coping strategies, monitors how often they drink, identifies “triggers” and gives weekly feedback reports tracking their progress in kicking bad habits.

“One of the ways I think about it is that it’s like an external frontal lobe,” Dulin said. “It’s a control mechanism that’s outside of users' bodies.”

This instant intervention is made possible through devices that people carry constantly, as if cellphones have become part of their bodies, he said.

Alaska Pretrial Services is more than a month into a 12-week trial, with 19 of its clients applying Step Away to their court-ordered recovery efforts.

Pilot project

Dulin and colleagues started developing a prototype for Step Away in 2008. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) funded the pilot project, which Dulin described as more software system than app.

“I think the reason NIAAA was so interested in it is because it addresses a fundamental problem with addiction, which is people who have addictions rarely receive any help at all,” said Dulin.

Studies have shown that about 14 percent of people with alcohol disorders get treatment.

About 30 people afflicted by disorders participated in the pilot for six weeks, and the results were positive, Dulin said.

Dulin published the results of the pilot project in the peer-reviewed journal Substance Abuse. The study found that participants “demonstrated significant reductions in hazardous alcohol use while using the system … and drinks per day diminished by 52 percent."

“It was actually pretty similar in the outcomes that you’d see in most any kind of treatment but we don’t really know if that effect is going to last,” Dulin said. “That’s the focus of another big project we’re working on.”

Following that initial success, Anchorage-based iOS and Android app development business Catapult Consulting engineered Step Away.

Interviews, triggers and prompts

Step Away follows a nationwide trend of attorneys and agencies trying to give clients easy, stigma-free ways to kick their habits and comply with court orders.

Some apps go as far as allowing offenders to take on-the-spot tests of their blood alcohol levels using their smartphones.

Dennis Johnson, state program director for Alaska Pretrial Services, said Step Away is the first app the agency has used. So far, it has helped 19 probationers maintain conditions of release.

“The feedback we’ve been getting is tremendously good,” Johnson said.

While Dulin contends that Step Away is 10 apps in one, he said a key component of its nine-step program is interviews that identify addicts’ triggers. A major trigger for anyone with drug or alcohol issues is simply the time of day, he said.

Using the triggers and other in-app assessments, people set personal goals. If a person is strongly dependent on alcohol, Step Away will suggest they abstain from drinking but it also gives the choice of moderating.

Pretrial services clients do not have the luxury of moderation, as lapses in alcohol consumption can send them back to jail.

One of the app’s modules makes pictures pop up on users' phone screens. For example, it may display a family photo as a reminder of why they want to change. The app can also suggest that its user do something different.

The version of the app that pretrial services is testing includes geographical prompts too. When a client is near a liquor store or “exclusion zones,” said Johnson, the encouraging photos are displayed, depending on user preferences.

The location prompts are not turned on in the downloadable version of Step Away available in the iTunes app store.

“It seemed like people thought it was helpful but there was also some ambivalence about having a bell go off” when near a liquor store, Dulin said. “It’s probably the next feature we’re going to include in the intervention system.”

Investor: Step Away passes the ‘so what’ test

Step Away is free in the app store but a potential investor said drug courts -- also known as therapeutic or wellness courts -- are a definite market here and in other states.

“It meets the ‘so what’ test,” said investor John Wanamaker, managing partner of Alaska Venture Partners. “It has value; it’s not just another Angry Birds.”

Wanamaker also has a personal connection to addiction interventions. His father, Jim Wanamaker, was instrumental in forming Alaska’s wellness courts as a state judge.

“It’s always nice to find entrepreneurial projects that have the ability to impact and change people’s lives for the better,” he said. “It’s the ultimate double or triple bottom-line investment. There are folks who can benefit from this either by choice or prescription, participating through the courts.”

Wanamaker approached pretrial services about trying Dulin’s app.

Johnson, the program director, said the goal is having the clients speak with the developers of Step Away to improve the app and possibly implement it at the agency in the future.

Dulin said he hadn’t found a great use for the app until state drug court officials started talking about using it. Like Wanamaker and Johnson, he now sees an opportunity.

Step Away focuses on alcohol use disorders but Dulin said the system could apply to drug addictions.

“The fact of the matter is drugs of addiction have a real similar type of intervention, so it will be the same type of a system,” Dulin said.

Dulin will attend the National Drug Court Professionals conference in Washington, D.C., in July. He said he thinks he’ll catch the attention of colleagues and encourage them to use systems like Step Away.

©2015 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.