No community is immune to today’s national opioid crisis. Arlington County, Virginia is among those working to combat the abuse and impacts of opioid use. And, they are doing it by harnessing the power of their information assets. This new approach has helped to tell Arlington’s opioid story and generate awareness and action. At the same time,it has informed how the County operationalizes and shares its data.
The Silo Challenge
Local governments are responsible for a wide range of services requiring the skills of highly specialized staff, ranging from traffic engineers and community planners to public safety and parks professionals, to name a few. The nature of this highly specialized and focused organizational structure results in a tendency to develop information silos that can make data sharing difficult. Arlington’s Department of Technology Services recognized the need to break down the County’s siloed approach to information. In doing so, Arlington would be empowered to more effectively deliver a host of services and better serve its community.
One notable example of information being limited by silos was on the public health front with the opioid crisis. As the number of opioid incidents increased locally in Arlington, departments across the County as well as private entities, such as hospitals and treatment centers, worked individually on opioid-related programming to tackle the issue. In response to the growing challenges these entities faced, a group named the Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative (AARI) was formed. Its goal was to ensure a more collaborative and comprehensive approach to addressing opioid abuse. To be successful, AARI needed to utilize different data sets for a more complete picture of the crisis and to better inform decision-making processes.
In 2017, the Department of Technology Services’ Open Data Team recognized a unique opportunity with AARI to share data and make a difference. Prior to the group’s creation, Arlington as a county, approached the opioid epidemic as separate agencies with independent missions. The County’s initial approach involved:
• Police and Fire responding to and investigating opioid-related incidents, providing emergency services in the event of an overdose, and pursuing appropriate legal resolution.
• Human Services providing a range of substance use treatment options for Arlington residents.
• Arlington Public Schools offering counseling to students who, among other challenges, face addiction and peer pressure to try drugs.
• Treatment centers and other community-based services offering a help network and a safe place to begin recovery.
AARI coalesced these efforts and developed a 360-degree view that its members shared when looking at the current crisis, as well as the questions they asked. Their questions cut across agencies and required coordination and information. Questions from Arlington County’s Police Department such as “What trends can we identify to further police investigations and ensure outreach and education are being conducted with at-risk communities?” Or Human Services inquiring “At what age are students saying they first tried drugs? And what did they try?” At the heart of these questions was the need for information outside of what is collected by the asking agency. They needed to break down the siloed approach to data for better information sharing and results.
While some data was being shared, the agencies involved had yet to fully reap the benefits of engaging the expertise and experience of Technology Services to further strengthen the programming efforts and the work of AARI. In 2018, the Department of Technology Services formally partnered with AARI to help achieve their goals by providing:
• a baseline of opioid incidents, overdoses and arrests since 2015 (see Figure 1);
• trend mapping and projections in arrests, incarcerations, hospitalizations, people seeking treatment, education, awareness, demographics and more (for example, see Figure 2); and
• Information around juvenile opioid use (see Figure 3).
The next steps involved long hours of gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and visualizing information from agencies, most notably from the Police. This effort culled the data that was needed, enabling better communications across agencies, and to elected officials and the public on the state of the opioid crisis in Arlington. The data helped to validate many of the anecdotal experiences of Police officers and substance use treatment providers working on the front lines of the epidemic, while protecting the privacy of those individuals involved. It also revealed some surprises. For example, Arlington County discovered a dramatic rise in overdoses for persons aged 51 and older, which prompted a second look at outreach and treatment support for this segment of the population.
Based on the success of this team effort, Arlington’s Department of Technology Services hopes to build on its foundation and expand data sharing with entities beyond its AARI partners to include hospitals, and other neighboring jurisdictions, as well as the state and federal governments. This next step requires a reporting standard that would allow the secure sharing of information that can be as easily used by the reporting agency as by the one receiving the shared information, while rolling up to state and federal statistics. The County is committed to pursuing this and other data sharing to better serve Arlington. Responsible and informative data sharing practices can pave the way for more robust and effective programming, initiatives and use of resources related to multi-agency collaboration.