Code4PA 2018 – The Opioid Epidemic

What a rush!  For the last month, I’ve been participating in the second annual Code4PA event.  This year the challenge was to use PA Open Data (helloooo gorgeous) to generate ideas to solve PA’s Opioid Epidemic.  I was fortunate to get picked up by a team of talented data analytics students from Harrisburg University!

Organizers did a tremendous job of generating positive energy and connecting teams with resources.  Our team chatted with a UX Researcher, industry subject matter experts, people with real-world experience navigating addiction, and Commonwealth Data Officers.  Any question we had or data set we asked for, they hustled and delivered!  New data sets were published faster than we could consume them.  28 teams participated across the state!

In 2016, it’s estimated that the Opioid Epidemic cost PA over 53 Billion dollars.  There are cooperative educational campaigns and I could flood you with links and sources.

We have so much data.  So what’s wrong?

Difficulty 1:  Much of the information is private, protected, or aggregated by county.  

Take a minute and review the map HERE.  What do you see?

Philadelphia and Allegheny counties stand out and no surprise – they are counties with the highest population.  Of course the highest numbers exist in counties with the most people.  They have the highest lottery sales and prizes, too- can we correlate Opioid Use Disorder with lotto sales? (There’s another data joke for those of you following along)

In terms of analytics, if we want to move from descriptive (what happened?) to predictive (what will happen, how can we intervene?) the information is nearly meaningless when aggregated by county.  Human behavior does not follow county lines.

We need a way to target interventions to specific demographics in a way that accounts for individual circumstances, rather than county of residence.

Difficulty 2:  Reporting is after-the-fact and not connected with any real-time accountability. 

One of the most interesting data sets was Risky Prescribing Measures.  Doctor shopping, high dosages, overlapping contraindicated prescriptions – again, we know these are high-risk practices.  I applaud Pennsylvania for coordinating their Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) with 17 other states. 

What’s going wrong?

“…dispensers are required to collect and submit this information to the PDMP no later than the close of the subsequent business day.”

By the time a pharmacist reports, the bottle is already in the user’s hands.  Authorized users of the PDMP search when the patient and prescription is long gone.

We are chasing the problem after it’s released into the wild.  We need to change the order of events and link access to accountability in real time.

Difficulty 3:  Resources exist, but are underutilized, insufficient, or difficult to navigate.   

Imagine for a moment you are a person seeking treatment.  What brought you there?  What personal anguish or crisis are you experiencing that would cause you to say, I cannot go on like this, I need help…?  Perhaps it’s discovering a pregnancy.  Or experiencing an overdose and naloxone reversal.

When you call the existing hotline you can access information and get a list of treatment providers.  Then, you must call around to see if they have room, whether they take your insurance (if you have it), and get placed on a waiting list.

Do you have kids?  What about transportation?  What about your home situation – are you safe?  What do you do in the meantime?

One of the hotline options is to have this information mailed to you.  Please imagine again, yourself:  desperate for assistance, suffering, afraid.  Compelled to use again and possibly lose your life – how long can you wait?

Our team’s contact didn’t miss a beat.  “Oh, you have twenty minutes.”

Delays in accessing treatment are a barrier to recovery.  

We heap administrative work upon a person who at the time is patently unsuited to do it.  We need to make access to human contact and treatment as fast and easy as possible – as easy as ordering an Uber ride.


To address the three difficulties above, our team HU2Rescue proposed a two-arm solution.  One side coordinated resources and streamlined access to treatment.  The other was a three-fold e-prescription system which educated users and provided accountability, with the intent of reducing new opioid use disorder cases.  Between these two “arms,” treatment providers had the ability to contact treatment seekers and efficiently coordinate their own intake volumes.  The e-prescription system would generate real-time, individual, and actionable data.  Over time one arm would feed into the other, and become the data set PA needs to predict and prevent.   

(I’d love to share the two applications with you, but they are currently unpublished from the web – we don’t want to derail anyone’s genuine search for resources.)

Out of the 28 teams I’m proud to say we won best prototype/API, and we learned so much!  Not bad for our first time participating in this challenge. During an impromptu review of our project and experience, several team members seemed wiling  to try again next year!


I am writing this from the perspective of just one dataviz weirdo.  Our team recognized there were many resources already available.  Our intent was to work within the existing framework, not reinvent it.  Nothing I’ve written should detract from the noble efforts of those who have worked incredibly hard to build what exists today.  We have to do something, after all.  But I do see gaps.  Pennsylvania is throwing millions of dollars at a problem.  And in the meantime, people – your friends, neighbors, possibly someone in your family – are suffering and dying.


If you or a loved one is suffering from Opioid Use Disorder, please know there are resources available.  Call  1-800-662-HELP (4357) today.

Pennsylvania residents:  Do you know you can obtain life-saving Naloxone without a prescription? Thanks to the PA Physician General, there is a standing order for the general public.  That means YOU.  Educate yourself, carry it, save a life.


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