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‘Opioid Mapping Initiative’ Shows Impact of National Crisis, Fosters Collaboration

New effort is bringing together government innovators from across the nation to visualize the opioid crisis and share best practices.

A new initiative is seeking to visualize the United States’ severe and worsening opioid epidemic while also bringing together local governments that have had early success using technology to combat its spread.

New America’s Public Interest Technology team, which works to connect technologists with public agencies, is coordinating this effort, dubbed the Opioid Mapping Initiative. As the name suggests, a foundational element of it is a visualization of the crisis, specifically a map powered by Esri that shows locations of deaths related to opioid use. Users can click on instances where opioid use has 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 in order 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 91 Americans a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The biggest thing I’m after is helping with awareness and education,” said Jeremiah Lindemann, a public interest technology fellow at New America who is coordinating the initiative. “There are still so many people who don’t realize how much of a problem this is. When people see it in their backyards, it goes a long way.”

Along with the map, the other two foundational components of the initiative are a collection of relevant data sets and a network of local governments who have signed on to share best practices. The first participants include 10 public agencies, the majority of which are county governments. The list includes, Bergen County, N.J.; Boulder County, Colo.; the Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division at the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management; DuPage County, Ill.; Fayetteville, N.C.; the Northern Kentucky Health Department; Oakland County, Mich.; Orange County, Calif.; Tri-County Health in Colorado; and West Allis, Wisc.

These jurisdictions have signed on to participate in monthly webcasts with New America, on which they will share best practices and other information. Lindemann also plans to blog in-depth about how the crisis is affecting each jurisdiction and how public servants are using tech to spread awareness and better distribute resources such as medicines and outreach workers. The timeline of the project is undefined.

“We’re in this for several more years at least, unfortunately,” said Lindemann. “I think the reason it’s in its infancy is that there’s not one magic potion that’s fixing all of this.”

As has been well-documented by the media, the Midwest has been especially hard hit by the opioid crisis, although the epidemic has reached into all states. Oakland County, Mich., has been working to combat increased opioid use for several years, focusing on the two major forms it takes: prescription painkillers and heroin. They’ve used tech to collect statistics that illustrate the full breadth of the crisis in their county, with work that includes mapping locations where residents can dispose of unused pain pills, mapping the locations of related deaths, and centralizing data to show the epidemic is not limited to certain demographics.

Trisha Zizumbo, the health education supervisor at the Oakland County Health Division, said numbers show that their average user is middle class, male, Caucasian, roughly 39 years old, and increasingly likely to have a college degree.

“It could be a soccer mom or a soccer dad who has a back injury and is prescribed pain killers,” Zizumbo said, “and when they’re out of that, they turn to heroin.”

Oakland County has also used data visualization technology to show the high frequency of opioids being prescribed in the area, 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. “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.”

Using tech to combat the opioid crisis is a growing trend throughout the nation. In August, 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. The New America project is working primarily with counties because that level of government generally has the most direct access to data on the impact of opioid deaths, as often times coroners are under county supervision.

Boulder County, Colo., is hopeful that participating will help hone their data practices and other work related to the crisis. They’ve spoken to nearby jurisdictions about the problems they face related to the opioid epidemic, but a coordinated approach and guidance from larger agencies has been largely absent, due to the quickly changing nature of the epidemic.

“Partnership is really useful for us,” said Jamie Feld, epidemiologist with the Boulder County Public Health Department. “I’m really grateful to [Lindemann] and New America for establishing this, because I do think it will make it more effective for locals doing the work on the ground. Sometimes it takes a while for state or federal agencies to develop guidance. So, it’s really helpful to have a peer-to-peer local perspective.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.