Innovations That Inspire

Promoting Societal Impacts through Data Insights and Collaboration

Recognition Year(s): 2024
School: Culverhouse College of Business, The University of Alabama
Location: United States

Data-driven approaches, multisector engagement, and hands-on learning drive an innovative, federally funded initiative to develop a comprehensive data center focused on using open intelligence to address the opioid crisis.

Call to Action

The devastating impact of the opioid crisis on communities in the United States is impossible to ignore. Over 100,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses in each of the last two years, with over 80 percent directly linked to opioids.

Organizations active in abating the crisis, however, often find it difficult to obtain reliable, up-to-date data, comprehensive analyses, and actionable insights. Pervasive gaps exists in the data resources that are needed to direct efforts. This is true whether these gaps arise from long delays in accessing data through official channels, from the limited options for interconnection between data types and sources, or from the few sources of data available throughout the states. Data gathering may also be negatively affected by misinformation shared on social media and in mass media.

The lack of reliable information is an especially thorny aspect of devising methodologies to address the opioid crisis, which is further complicated by multistate distribution networks. Law enforcement and support organizations make tremendous efforts to address the crisis but often operate with limited cross-border data and without the triangulation of multiple data sources that can generate predictive models, high-impact analytics, actionable intelligence, and interpretive insights. Better data sharing among agencies, along with improved digital tools, all consolidated at a central source, would help address this crisis of public health, public safety, and community.

The Institute of Data and Analytics, or IDA, a research center in The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business, was tapped to spearhead the creation of the Southeast Regional Drug Data Research Center (SR-DDRC), expanding on the IDA’s long-standing successful work in collaborative partnerships serving the public interest.

Innovation Description

The SR-DDRC is supported by a 3.5 million USD award from the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to construct an innovative data center serving the southern region of the United States. Based on work done at Culverhouse’s Institute of Data and Analytics in developing Alabama’s Central Data Repository, the center features faculty, staff, and students working together to implement a bold vision for comprehensive data accessibility and transparency while maintaining protections for individuals and data.

The SR-DDRC’s main priority is to develop a data center that hosts drug-related data from public and private sources across a 17-state region. Interlacing data from public sources, the SR-DDRC will provide a multifaceted view of the drug crisis with minimal intrusion of state boundaries.

Additional tasks will engage key decision-makers in states across the region to promote the flow of data-based insights and innovations in networks of public safety, public health, and community organizing.

The SR-DDRC will host new materials to assist users in understanding and interpreting the information it produces, providing a pathway for detailed academic investigations. The data center also offers hands-on training opportunities for students involved in the work, preparing them for high-impact careers upon graduation.

Finally, the SR-DDRC will serve as a replicable model for regional data centers that host multidisciplinary research efforts. The model’s objectives are to advance knowledge on drug misuse and abuse in the United States; to reduce overdoses; to promote public safety; and to support prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery services.

Innovation Impact

After only one year, the SR-DDRC has already demonstrated results that emphasize its impact. Data have been obtained from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Census, the National Emergency Medical Services Information System, and most recently, the National Incident-Based Reporting System. Data agreements with regional states are in their last stages of finalization.

A website is in development that will provide dashboards for states, counties, and specific areas in the southern region of the U.S. Individual data reports are being planned that will improve our understanding of the rise of the opioid crisis in this region and the factors in its perpetuation; in addition, models will be developed that identify predictive factors. The project will also organize an annual meeting to share analytics on collected data and facilitate interstate coordination of response efforts.

The project has already provided students and trainees with key opportunities. Student projects include an examination of autopsy data to identify important factors in opioid use as well as the preparation of a longitudinal investigation to determine the impact of public policy decisions on neonatal opioid withdrawal. Student engagement is, and will continue to be, a key goal of the project, as is its expansion to students throughout the region over time.

It is our hope that the SR-DDRC will become a pioneering program in addressing the opioid crisis in the 17 states comprising the heavily affected Southern United States, through its integration of drug data into an accessible, usable, high-value data resource.

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