New and larger jurisdictions have begun to join the Opioid Mapping Initiative, a coordinated effort to help local government agencies share insights and use data to visualize the story of the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis. 

As such, an effort meant to last a year when it was launched in October is now being prolonged. The Opioid Mapping Initiative, coordinated by New America’s Public Interest Technology Team, is being pushed forward by increased participation and interest, said Jeremiah Lindemann, a public interest technology fellow at New America who is coordinating the work.

The effort started with a diverse list of 10 agencies, ranging from Boulder County, Colo., to Orange County, Calif., to West Allis, Wis. It now includes 14 government agencies and two universities, with one notable addition being Cook County, Ill., which is home to Chicago.

“This started with me stalking governments that had already been doing things and getting them to share work in these venues,” Lindemann said. “No one had answers for everything, and they were all eager to learn from each other.”

There are essentially two facets to participating in the Opioid Mapping Initiative. The first is sharing data sets for use on the map, which is powered by the gov tech company Esri. This map, primarily, shows the locations and stories of deaths related to opioid use.

Users can click on instances where opiates have claimed a life and see where the tragedy happened, a picture of the deceased, and a story about who he or she was, essentially putting a human face on the epidemic to demonstrate that this is not an abstract problem, that it’s affecting people everywhere and of all different ages, genders and socio-economic backgrounds. It’s a timely effort, given that opioid use continues to worsen, claiming the lives of an average of 115 Americans a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The second facet of participation is a monthly phone call with the other agencies to share the work being done. These calls have already yielded results. For example, Tempe, Ariz., recently described a dashboard it was using to map EMS responses to overdoses. The Northern Kentucky Health Department subsequently reached out to Tempe and swiftly replicated their work in its own jurisdiction.

In addition to the 14 agencies that have actively joined, others have begun to listen to the calls without yet fully committing.  

One continuing challenge the group faces, however, is a reluctance by some local governments to publicize the severity of the opioid crisis within their boundaries. Lindemann said there is sometimes a sense that officials are worried a visualization of drug deaths will be a blight upon economic development.

“It gets stifled under the guise of economic development,” he said, “but it’s not so much about economic development right now. It’s about the development of the community down the road, and it’s about making a community better.”

Oakland County, Mich., a participating jurisdiction, can speak to that potential. Oakland County was using data visualization technology to show the high frequency of opioids being prescribed in the area, specifically showing that in 2015 there were 48 pills classified as opioids prescribed per resident, and not just per adult. There were 48 pills prescribed per man, woman and child. In 2016, that number fell slightly to 45.

“From a technology perspective, there’s a lot GIS can bring to the table,” said Tammi Shepherd, chief of application services for Oakland County Information Technology in an interview with Government Technology last year. “The dozen or so agencies participating in the fellowship are thought leaders in the area. We’re really excited to both share what we’ve done and learn about the best practices of others.”

Indeed, it would seem that more jurisdictions are seeing value in publicizing the severity of the struggle, as well as in coordinating with other agencies. Cook County actually reached out to the group to inquire about joining. Cook County’s largest city, Chicago, is often in the news for gun violence, but deaths related to opioid use have outpaced shooting fatalities.

According to local news reports, opiate deaths in Chicago have almost doubled since 2013, eclipsing 1,000. By comparison, there were 650 shooting deaths last year in the city.

Using tech to combat the opioid crisis is also a growing trend nationwide. Last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Opioid Fraud Detection Unit, a federal effort that seeks to use data analytics to identify malfeasance among prescribers. At the state level, related tech efforts are underway in Maine, Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others. While efforts are less common with city governments, jurisdictions such as Cincinnati have taken action, too.

Moving forward, The New America project has a trio of objectives: continue to expand to new jurisdictions, create more national data maps, and help communities to drive decision-making processes related to policies.

For Lindemann and others involved with the work there is a sense that peer pressure may be pushing more jurisdictions to join. In the Phoenix area for example, Tempe’s involvement has sparked interest among others in the region.

“Everyone has a part they can play, and it’s cross collaboration,” Lindemann said. “If you’re a county, you have death data, you probably have some law enforcement data as well. If you’re a city, you have first responder data, and then if you’re a health department, you have all sorts of community resources data such as where there are treatments and being more proactive about what’s out there. Everyone has some type of stake in this, and it is going to be a collaborative effort.”

Jurisdictions interested in joining the work can find more information here.