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Using Data to Disrupt Virginia’s Opioid Crisis

Marta LeFleor, Board Member and Michael Quinn, Community Relations Coordinator of the McShin Foundation served as mentors during the 2017 Governor's Opioid Addiction Crisis Datathon.
Marta LeFleor, Board Member and Michael Quinn, Community Relations Coordinator of the McShin Foundation served as mentors during the 2017 Governor's Opioid Addiction Crisis Datathon. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

As the opioid epidemic continues to affect thousands across Virginia, officials are looking for new ways to stem this public health crisis. The 2017 Governor’s Datathon brought together dozens of people who used public data to reimagine solutions to addiction. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.


On the second floor of the Library of Virginia, 15 teams huddle around tables, some typing rapidly on laptops, others looking pensively at screens. There are college students and data scientists; accountants and public health experts; coders and designers.

Anthony Fung: We’re focusing on things that really impact Virginians.

Anthony Fung is Deputy Secretary of Technology for the Governor.

Fung: If you have passionate people, even if they focus in a particular area they can come up with imaginative types of concepts and really run with it and develop something innovative.

Stakes are high for this year’s Governor’s Datathon. The tools and apps teams create could save lives.

Wesley Combs: My name is Wesley Combs, I’m with Mountain States Health Alliance.

Wesley Combs is from Southwest Virginia, an area hard-hit by prescription opioid addiction and overdoses.

Combs: I've seen the opioid epidemic really take a hold of that region. We see it at the hospital level, ambulatory and acute care. It knows no borders.

After falling in 2015, prescription opioid overdoses in Virginia rose to 465 people in 2016, according to the state Department of Health. Heroin and fentanyl deaths jumped 70% in that same period, to more than 800 deaths.

Combs: We have to do something. I personally believe that there are answers in these data sets and that when you put them in the right hands, you get the right analytic tools against it, I really think we can start to see trends and make actionable alerts, actionable things that we can do to attack this problem.

Datathon teams sifted through public information on overdoses, crime and education as well as financial, prescription and treatment data. They were also given questions to contemplate: What risk factors can be used to identify individuals early in need of treatment? How do those addicted to prescription opioids make the jump to heroin? Is depression a substantial factor in the rise in opioid abuse?

Vijay Mehra: It’s a great opportunity to see individual teams in a short amount of time come up with creative ideas based on the limited data they get.

Vijay Mehra is a technical mentor for the datathon teams.

Mehra: What I find exciting is the ability that they have to think outside the box. Be creative about how do you really apply this data to solve a specific problem. And you often don't find that in day to day operational environments.

Participants are taking diverse approaches to a complex problem, says Kevin Keogh. He’s a director at Captech, a sponsor of the datathon.

Kevin Keogh: It's not like there's a single question that 15 teams are trying to answer. There's a lot more latitude and a lot more opportunity for unique thought and unique solutions to be developed.

The datathon also invited subject matter experts, who served as mentors to the teams. Michael Quinn is in recovery from an opiate addiction, Marta LeFleor’s daughter died from a drug addiction. Both are involved with the peer recovery organization the McShin Foundation.

Marta LeFleor: We had a team and we said well maybe we start doing drug tests at pediatric levels and they're like ok, so 17 18? And we're like no, 10 11 [years old]. So it’s clarification more of the perception of what's out there and the reality of what's out there.
Michael Quinn: I think we kind of bring the human entity, like their brains kind of work in terms of science and data and so we provide that human experience that kind of makes it all come back together holistic.

Teams have two days to develop their projects, then just five minutes to present to judges. Wesley Combs’ and his colleagues with Mountain States Health Alliance built a tool that could be used by city officials.

Combs: People that could take action and say ok we're seeing a spike in activity in this certain zip code and so we don't have first responders, what kind of community resources do we have in that area? And so you're looking at trends, it could be anything from auto theft up to other kinds of burglary, murder, or homicide. So we're looking at all those different correlations there.

Virginia’s Department of Transportation also competed. Andrew Sweeney and his co-workers were decked out in hardhats and yellow vests. Their expertise included emergency planning, business innovation, and technical backgrounds.

Andrew Sweeney: We have some amazing talent, folks just innovative thinkers and we approach these everyday problems and something as big of the opioid crisis is just an opportunity for us to come out and  just be part of the solution.

In Sweeney’s presentation to the judges, he said the VDOT team developed their idea after pondering the data. 

Sweeney: We found this staggering statistic that 80 percent of heroin users get on to heroin starting out by abusing prescription drugs. So if we can stop addiction early we can do something, build a tool that can help providers and patients stop [addiction] early.

VDOT’s proposal is a tool that helps people safely return unused prescription opioids, while gathering usage data and feeding it back to the prescribing doctor. Others also focused on prevention by using data from the PMP or Prescription Monitoring Program. One created an app where a patient advocate like a friend or family member could see when a loved one was refilling a prescription.

Prince William County Presenter: Alexa, open Prescribe.

Prince William County’s team  - the third place winner - incorporated the growing use of voice-based artificial intelligence, like Alexa with algorithms to help doctors more easily access risk analysis.

Prince William County Presenter: Prescription history.
Alexa: Susan has been prescribed three scheduled narcotics in the past 60 days. Risk factor: High! Would you like me to provide more information prescribe with application?

Another team developed an app connecting those overdosing with people trained to use the opioid reversal drug Naloxone. Some groups, like Chesterfield County’s team developed a tool to monitor effectiveness of drug treatment and prevention programs. The second place winner was a team from CPA firm Kearney and Company. They made a dashboard that aligns funding for drug programs with death rates from opioids.

Kearney and Company:  So our problem statement was looking at: is there a need for greater transparency and oversight of resources? And what we actually found is that there's $22.5 million from 2016 that was funded but never spent related to opiod programs. So there's an opportunity here as you get better transparency over this issue and the funding associated with it to better use available resources.

The winner of the 2017 Governor’s Datathon included data scientists from Analytics Adventures and staff from the Virginia Center for Addiction Medicine.

Analytics Adventures: Part of the reason we’re in this opioid epidemic now is because of over-prescribing, lack of education and lack of resources in the community.

Stas Novitsky: I look at the questions to be solved and in my mind immediately I could envision an app that would hit at least five or six of the questions to answer in one iteration of it.

Stas Novitsky says their holistic approach addressed many of the questions posed by datathon organizers. As a person in recovery, he was able to connect a lot of dots.

Novitsky: I was thinking of what what did I want when I was in early recovery and what did my parents want and then I reached out to my friend Captain so have the police department and got his feedback on what would work from the police side and so that it all came together and the user interface that I designed through the process and then we put all the pieces together.

Novitsky explains how the app works. First, it serves youth.

Novitsky: First it serves as middle school to high school age. This app could be deployed to them at the middle school level during the health classes and then later use that in their personal life if they're feeling stressed. It offers them cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and also connects them to resources in their community, so jobs, mentoring, hobbies, and sports. So keep them engaging in the community, connected to people that are doing well and want to see them succeed because if we connect our youth with the proper resources and mentors and we keep them engaged in their life, they're much less likely to go and fall into drug use if they see something positive coming out of staying clean and doing well.

The app also provides resources for parents, connecting them to support groups, recovery coaches and treatment options. It also serves people with addiction:

Novitsky: So it's got eight main modules that are based on SAMHSA Wheel of Wellness, such as housing, environment, financial, health. All of these would be built into the app and it would allow the individual to kind of check those off their list to make sure that they are achieving overall wellness instead of just in one narrow aspect.

The tool is also designed for emergency personnel; they can use the app to report data from overdoses and arrests, to communicate with other departments and to connect people with treatment resources.

Novitsky: And the next part is for community resources and so these these would be individuals that want to volunteer or perhaps the treatment centers or or someone who just wants to mentor people... And so what happens when when the teens or people that are addicted flag that they want to learn more about this topic or they're looking for a job, on the community resource screen they would get flagged that someone is looking for these resources, are you willing to help? You would hit, yeah I’m willing to take on two three people and then you would get assigned to them kind of like when you hail Uber on your phone.

The Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services would also use the app, to see where and what resources are needed and reimburse private and public entities for the resources they’re providing.

Novitsky: I believe that we've created over all of a well-developed concept and I think seeing that implemented would greatly reduce opioid overdoses in drug use in Virginia and probably nationwide as well.

All the 2017 Datathon ideas with be shared with leaders in health and public safety as well as recovery organizations, and finalists will present their projects to State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine and Secretary of Health Bill Hazel. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.