The Opioid Epidemic: Developing a GeoStory for Crawford County

Like many areas in the nation, Crawford County is reckoning with the ongoing opioid crisis, which is silencing the voices of young people, wreaking havoc on families, and eating away at the social fabric of many communities at an alarming rate.

Rebecca Dawson, assistant professor of biology and global health studies at Allegheny College, and student researchers are attempting to shed some light on the crisis locally and offer government officials statistical data and insights on where the problem exists specifically and how they might address it.

Through this community-based project, Dawson and the students are combining maps of data with narratives to create an interactive platform that shows where government officials might focus their efforts in defusing the crisis.

The research team’s primary tool is Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology.

“In its most basic use, GIS answers the question, ‘Where?’ Questions such as ‘Where are people living?’ and ‘Where are pockets of overdose calls?’” says Dawson, who graduated from Allegheny in 2000. “One analysis technique is referred to as ‘finding hot spots,’ and it visualizes data in aggregate form by using warm colors to show areas with high rates of incidents.

“We have pulled data from 911 calls, the coroner’s office, the courthouse, and from hospitals, among other sources,” Dawson says. “We are trying to find the hot spots for overdoses and create a map of Crawford County that shows officials the specific areas of concern. How should they target their services? What areas of care need to be addressed? How should they align with schools and service programs? Where exactly is the problem? What is the opioid story here?”

The project, which is being done in conjunction with Crawford County Human Services, started two years ago and has just finished the second summer of gathering data, Dawson says. Seven students have worked on the project thus far, she adds. Dawson and students Emily Forner ’19, Mary Kerner ’19, Valerie Hurst ’18, and Jenny Tompkins ’18 will present their methodologies and findings at the American Statistical Association’s Women in Data Science Conference in Cincinnati in October 2018.

“What struck me the most was just how many ways the data could be used to help better understand what’s going on in the county,” Forner says. “From looking more broadly at trends for the county as a whole, to comparing smaller areas like Titusville and Meadville, analyzing these issues from a spatial standpoint can really help to identify areas where resources should be targeted.”

“As a researcher the most beneficial part of the project was the connections I made with community stakeholders as well as learning new information about a topic I had never studied before,” says Kerner. “As someone who was attempting to tell the narrative side of the story, I was faced with researching why communities are being affected in the way that they are as well as the different strategies being implemented to hopefully alleviate the burden on affected community members.

“This led me to delve much deeper into the histories of each community, what is happening now that may be contributing to the problem, and what programs are community activists trying that may be successful in the future. This gave me a much broader perspective than I had originally had and will give me the tools to conduct further research in topics I am not immediately familiar with.”

Here is what the research team is finding so far.

Located in a relatively rural setting, Crawford County is at high risk for overdose deaths — 45 per 100,000 people as compared to the national average of 20 per 100,000. The project is mapping where overdose deaths have occurred, where overdose calls originated, where drug-possession calls came from, what areas of the county don’t have ambulance service, and where hospitals and licensed health clinics are located. The data they collect results in a GIS map sprinkled with multi-colored dots representing all of those data points collected from 2015 to 2018.

That map should show where clusters of overdoses are occurring, so social services can be targeted in those areas. “Ultimately, our goal is to improve community wellness and prevent trauma and to assist policy- and decision-makers with the allocation of resources and services,” says Dawson.

Still to be finalized are a summary of statistics based on demographics and a presentation of the findings to the community stakeholders. “We are trying to be careful not to stigmatize neighborhoods. These are difficult conversations,” she says.

Photo Credit: Derek Li
Photo Caption: Rebecca Dawson, assistant professor of biology and global health studies, left, and students Emily Forner, center, and Mary Kerner are mapping areas of drug overdoses in order to help Crawford County officials understand and address the problem.