opioid analytics

W.Va. county building opioid data hub

Hard hit by the opioid emergency, Harrison County, W.Va., is building a centralized data hub to help stem the problem.

“I attended a community meeting last week, and I didn’t have credible, confident information to report on any stats as far as how many overdose deaths [occurred] in a particular period of time, how many arrests [are] associated with opioids or crimes associated with the opioid epidemic,” county Sheriff Robert Matheny said in a Nov. 16 interview.

That won’t be the case by next spring, however. A $479,545, two-year grant from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance and a partnership between Matheny’s office and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) will enable the county to stand up a central analytical unit that would collect and study data from multiple agencies, such as the health and education departments and other stakeholders such as hospitals. Matheny expects it to be up and running by April 2018.

“We thought if we could obtain the best data that we can" and conduct data-driven analysis on  enforcement areas, we might be able to uncover patterns that predict movements of the drugs, he said. "We could utilize that information to move resources where they need to be.”

Many of the drugs that come into the state originate in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, he said, adding that he hopes to also use the system to partner with those jurisdictions to address the issue.

The bulk of the data will come out of the computer-aided dispatch system that Harrison County shares with neighboring Taylor County, but the plan is to run that against crime, health and education information, too, to create actionable reports for law enforcement officials and the stakeholders.

Matheny is currently looking for a data entry specialist and data analyst to be the unit's first employees, and he said he expects to have them in place by the first of the year. They’ll be employees of the sheriff’s office, but the analyst will be embedded at NW3C.

A data entry specialist is necessary because not all of the data will go into the system automatically.

“Somebody’s going to need to extract" relevant information from the data,  Matheny said. "It’s going to take some hands and eyes to look through and cipher this information before it’s sent on to the analyst to be put into some different programs,” he said.

The idea is to free the analyst up to focus solely on analytics, not data collection, according to James Foley, vice president of training and curriculum development at NW3C. Out of the gate, the system will use IBM’s Analyst’s Notebook, although other tools are under consideration.

Besides decreasing the number of opioid-related deaths -- 35 out of every 100,000 people in the state have died of opioid overdoses, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found -- Matheny and Foley hope to build a system that other jurisdictions can replicate.

“Where this is a little bit different than what’s been tried in the past … is the idea of making this an information sharing hub by taking in information of all sorts that relate to this problem, rather than just looking at it as a drug/crime problem,” Foley said. “I think by having a variety of data sources and then being able to put them together and take them apart and see what’s appropriate …  we’ll be able to hit at the problem from a number of different areas.”

Securing the grant was crucial to helping the county get this project off the ground, Matheny said. “It would have been difficult for the county government to find this type of funding, although it is of extreme importance,” he said.

Once the model is proved, the funding will follow, Foley added. “Having the funding for these two years will potentially, hopefully, show that this is a workable model," he said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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