Use Maps to Attack the Opioid Crisis


The Key Word Is Crisis

In 2014, more than 30,000 people in the United States died of opioid overdoses. Since then, the number has kept rising. Forecasting shows that trend continuing unabated into the future. The victims of opioid addiction are average people: soccer moms, pastors, students, husbands, grandparents, and children. It seems that no one that is immune. What’s going on?

Opioids are often prescribed and then used by people to relieve pain. Some of those people become addicted. Some of them accidently overdose and die. Many store opioids in their home medicine cabinets, where the drug is discovered and tried by family members and friends. Some of those people become addicted, overdose, and die. This cycle radiates out from homes across the country and is as likely in small towns as in big cities. The war on drugs doesn’t seem to impact the problem, which has grown into a very real crisis.

Is there a way to attack the problem and make a difference? Perhaps the solution starts with government. State and local governments have a lot of experience in dealing with crises. Think of all that they’ve learned from responding to earthquakes, wildfires, floods, and hurricanes. Governments know how to prepare for and attack disasters. They know how to assess catastrophic situations, mobilize resources, adjust to changing conditions, and then transition into recovery mode once the crisis has past. Couldn’t government play a strong role in combating the opioid abuse crisis?

Phase 1

Governments have been using geographic information system (GIS) technology and mapping as part of the planning, response, and recovery process for decades. For example, when governments confront a crisis such as a natural disaster, their first order of business is to quickly pull together all the information they have about the geography, current conditions, historical events, and the current demographics of an impacted area. GIS is particularly well-suited for bringing together complex data from many different sources and breaking down that information into meaningful and actionable chunks.

Governments can apply the same strategy to address the opioid abuse epidemic. In the first phase, they can use GIS to pull together data about prescriptions written, overdoses, deaths, and arrests and combine it with population details. This information can be compared to data on social service programs, law enforcement intervention, and relative population health. In a very short time, a baseline can be set and the locations of hot spots can be determined.

Phase 2

Just like dealing with natural disasters, the second phase is to use GIS to bring new data in from the field. New data can consist of geoenabled surveys conducted by volunteers and crowdsourced information collected by using map-based websites. Local public safety departments do this all the time. They call it “monitoring situational awareness.” In the case of opioids, measuring data points—such as the effectiveness of drop-off locations for unused prescriptions—can be used to bring in new data.

What is being suggested is a local government rapid response system to the opioid abuse crisis. While there will continue to be the more drawn-out processes of studying the problem, communicating findings, and establishing programs, governments can be more proactive by using familiar strategies in something akin to emergency management, where GIS is used to rapidly collect and analyze vital data so that informed decisions can be made fast and tactics can be adjusted quickly based on new information.

Phase 3

In the third phase, maps and geospatial analytics provide data-driven opportunities for allocating resources in the form of staffing, funding, programs, and equipment. GIS is used to target where those resources are most needed and who they will help.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of using GIS is the rapid deployment of information products—namely, maps—that keep the public informed and engaged. Online interactive maps can help citizens recognize the scope of the problem and make it easier to see how it might affect them and their loved ones. Maps offer a visual common language that everyone understands. Governments can use maps to simplify citizen access to resources, such as apps that point individuals to programs that connect addicts and their families to services near them or help them find a drop-off location for unused prescriptions. They can use GIS to put a face on the problem, using story maps to tell compelling, geocentric stories about people and their community.

When responding to a natural disaster, seconds matter. Why shouldn’t the same apply to the opioid abuse crisis? Governments can measure data points and make rapid strategy adjustments that saves lives. They’ve learned how to do it by responding to other types of crises. Governments can use a wide variety of data to keep people informed and bring the power of community to bear on serious issues. Using GIS to make data-driven decisions results in new funding mechanisms and programs optimized for success.

Can you see how these tactics and GIS could be applied to the opioid abuse crisis?

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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