The Digital Transformation of the War on Drugs

Local health and law enforcement agencies are using geographic information systems-based maps to address the rise in opioid abuse. By tracking prescribing patterns, naloxone use, and mortality, first responders can view high-risk areas and devote resources to reduce overdose-related deaths.


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Image credit: Esri

Opioid-related deaths are climbing steadily in the US. According to the National Institutes for Health, national opioid overdoses resulted in nearly 50,000 deaths in 2019 and were expected to spike in 2020 amid the pandemic. Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses jumped nearly 29 percent in 2020, though not all were fatal.

Trying to combat the rise of opioid use has proven difficult. Prescription opioids launched an epidemic, which continues to be fueled by an influx of illegally manufactured and distributed opioids. The entry point for many opioid addicts stems from prescriptions. Identifying counties with above-average opioid prescribing practices can help law enforcement agencies predict where overdoses are likely to occur.

Insights from Opioid Mapping

Local health and law enforcement agencies worked with technology firms and researchers to create The Opioid Mapping Initiative. Organizations can input and monitor opioid-related data on an Esri ArcGIS-based map to get a handle on where use is highest.

Esri’s ArcGIS uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology to create smart maps. Location intelligence from satellite and geospatial data is the base map upon which additional data is layered to provide real-time insights to specific activities. The map can track demographics, pharmacies, emergency response calls, and more.

The Esri intelligent mapping solution is also used by Walgreens for flu mapping with its WalMap application. ESRI has more than 1,000 analytical tools to give location data additional heft. 

The Opioid Map is used in a similar way to the flu map. Government officials can monitor the Opioid Map to discover patterns and trends that might otherwise go unnoticed. They can view and compare opioid prescription practices by ZIP code, county, or state to determine high-impact zones. By identifying areas with high or increasing prescriptions, law enforcement agencies can predict where the next outbreak of drug overdoses is likely to occur and dedicate additional resources to those locations.

Every Map Tells a Story

Beyond tracking prescriptions, the mapping technology is used to track other data that helps combat drug use. Mortality maps display drug-related deaths, providing a real-time indication of which areas can use additional outreach and support. Esri solution engineer Jeremiah Lindemann created a memorial story map, Celebrating Lost Loved Ones, after losing his brother to an opioid overdose.

Lindemann is also a driving force behind Esri’s National Naloxone Map. Naloxone, also known commercially as Narcan, is a drug used to counter the effects of an opioid. It is critical to saving lives after an overdose. The map identifies pharmacies where naloxone can be obtained, and a crowdsourcing component allows others to add clinics that distribute naloxone as well.

Some states have created maps that indicate drug drop-off locations, where people can dispose of unused opioids and other drugs to keep them off the streets and out of the water supply.  The City of West Allis Fire Department near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, created an ArcGIS map that tracks where first responders have administered naloxone. The map also displays drug take-back locations and opioid fatalities.

Digging Deeper in Ohio

Ohio has one of the highest opioid mortality rates in the country. Researchers found opioid deaths increased 169 percent over seven years, from 1,544 deaths in 2010 to 4,157 in 2017; about 13,000 overdoses were reversed when naloxone was administered.

heat map of Ohio counties showing drug use

Image credit: Scientific Reports

The researchers wanted to find out why. They analyzed drug use and epidemiological trends of the opioid crisis using data collected from the Ohio Department of Health using SaTScan software. SaTScan is a free software offering that uses spatial, temporal, and space-time statistics for data analysis.

The researchers mapped the data on Esri’s ArcGIS platform. Because they could look at the spatiotemporal dynamics, they were able to identify the most vulnerable populations, where they were located geographically, and the potential socio-economic drivers of the epidemic

GIS technologies enable organizations to drill down in unique ways to uncover hidden patterns, which brings a new weapon to the war on drugs. 

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