National crises are deeply local concerns, demanding local solutions

Jeremiah Lindemann is a Public Interest Technology Fellow at New America, where he runs the Opioid Mapping Initiative, a coalition of local government task forces devising new strategies to combat the opioid epidemic.


The term “crisis” is often used to refer to something huge––national or even global in scale. A “crisis” is a wave overtaking community after community. Something unstoppable, but also potentially something with a one-size-fits-all solution. Technologists have increasingly become a part of the response team when a crisis hits, and one easy way technologists tackle crises is by creating maps, graphs, and infographics. Because of the national attention that crises get, resources like these are often on a national scale. But the reality is that crises are usually deeply local concerns, demanding local solutions.

This is where I focus, as a mapping specialist who helps local governments translate the national to the local in order to help those working on a community level in treatment, education, law enforcement, and harm reduction centers that fight the opioid epidemic. These folks are already well aware of the problem. They don’t need a technologist to “unlock the data” and show comparative rates of addiction between counties. Instead, they need technologists to use localized data to illuminate where specific issues can be addressed.  

A common challenge for local governments who want to use data to combat addiction and overdose is the lack of one specific person or department that compiles the data sourced from different department and organizations. Many governments confront this challenge by creating cross-cutting local task forces that are staffed with technologists.

One of the best task force examples is the Pinellas County Opioid Task Force, which has developed a wealth of information on the epidemic specific to the county, including maps of deaths and treatment locations. Though started by the County Department of Health, the group incorporates dozens of other partners in the community. The task force fosters cross department collaboration with a diverse leadership team. Ewa Knitter, a data evaluation specialist with the Department of Health, and Christianna Kretschmann, a GIS Specialist with Business Technology Services at the County, help lead the data and mapping initiative. But even with a solid task force, Knitter told me that communication between all the different people involved in obtaining data can be a challenge.

Knitter highlights a key issue: as with most issues technology tries to address, communication is a key ingredient. With the opioid epidemic, the people who have insight into different aspects of the epidemic are as varied as the people on a city bus, including epidemiologists, treatment providers, law enforcement, the medical community, non-profit organizations, elected officials, and advocates that have been personally impacted. When these task forces and their sub-committees are empowered with local data, they can better coordinate responses that fit the community’s needs— but only if they can establish a good communication strategy.

Smooth communication not only means good internal processes, but also established external ones. Several local task forces use data to look outward and collaborate with each other, through the Opioid Mapping Initiative. This group of 17 local governments meets monthly to share insights, present their data dashboards, and workshop problems. Many of the governments map the same data sets, including mortality, overdose responses by first responders, and community resources such as treatment, naloxone distribution locations, and prescription drug drop boxes. Each community then shares the ways they use the maps in their communities. Places like West Allis, WI and Tempe, AZ not only use their data to educate the community about what is happening, but also to better allocate their first responders based upon these events and to justify purchasing naloxone. The latter usage of the data harkens back to the original motivation that formed their local task forces— fire departments and first responders who wanted new ideas that could help them save more lives. The technologists in these task forces listened to their needs, saw how data could assist them, and empowered them with the tools to make an impact on the ground.

As local task forces evolve and grow, they are able to harness their data for more ambitious mapping projects. The Tri-County Overdose Prevention Partnership in Colorado originally partnered with Adam Anderson, a public health epidemiologist well versed in tech, to create a series of maps and visualizations for public awareness. As the group developed subcommittees, they tried new things. Now, for instance, the Prescription Drug Drop Box group is using maps to  examine drive times between existing drop boxes, locations of pharmacies, and population distribution to effectively identify the best places for new drop boxes in the Tri County area.  

In my decades of helping local governments use technology to solve public problems, I’m most encouraged by the use of task forces to effectively coordinate services and get the most out of their data. Technologists are vital to the success of these groups, whether they are confronting the opioid epidemic or other long term issues like homelessness and pedestrian fatalities.  But before technologists can be a part of the solution, they need to be part of the conversation. So if you want to help drive impactful change, keep it local. Go to a community meeting. Search for a task force in your area. Understand what the community’s goals are, and use your skills to get them there.