Sep. 19, 2018 3:51 pm

In Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philly, Code4PA takes aim at the opioid crisis

The second annual hackathon invites volunteers to parse the public datasets related to opioid use and abuse at four sites across the Keystone State this Sept. 21 and 22.
Data portals across Pennsylvania are teaming up for a hackathon aimed at helping volunteers and their good ideas to find solutions for the state’s opioid crisis, which killed 2,235 people in 2016.

The Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC), Code for Philly and the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania in Harrisburg will host sessions on Sept. 21 and 22 for the second Code4PA hackathon, which will form teams of volunteers — both coders and non-coders — to parse the public datasets related to opioid use and abuse across the Keystone State.

“Last year we had our first Code4PA hackathon and it exceeded our expectations,” said Julie Snyder, director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Data and Digital Technology.

The Code4PA team knew they wanted to focus on the opioid crisis for this year’s coding challenge: In addition to the Open Data Pennsylvania team creating an opioid information database, Gov. Tom Wolf in January declared the opioid epidemic was a disaster emergency. But they wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just technologists focusing on the problem, or just state agencies working in a vacuum.

“We wanted to broaden the project and feel like the whole state is included, because this is a statewide problem,” Snyder said; in Philadelphia alone, for instance, over 1,200 people died in 2017 from drug overdoses, most of which could be attributed to opioids. “The purpose of these types of events is to get at the various angles, and get support from the Commonwealth, the tech industry, the healthcare industry and academia, who have the students that can analyze data, do predictive modeling and help us look at trends.”


“Through these partnerships we’re able to look at different aspects of the data and how we’re treating it, so we can see if we need to change the services or even modify how services are being delivered so we can save lives and get information out,” she said.

The winning project from last year’s event was KnowPA, a portal that analyzes crash data and weather patterns to predict what areas are most at risk for crashes, allowing state agencies “to plan ahead and deploy resources to make these areas more safe,” according to its site.

The state’s Open Data Pennsylvania portal has over 100 datasets on the portal, and specifically for opioids, there are approximately 30 sets of state-level data. Code4PA also connected with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — federal agencies the team knew would have really good data that could be used along with the state-level data, including crash datasets, naloxone reversal data, drug and alcohol intake data, overdose information, and data on opioid seizures and opioid-related arrests.

As part of the project, WPRDC created a tool for people to submit use cases, said Open Data Officer Jere Matthews.

“We spoke with nonprofits and asked them, ‘Where are your gaps, what do you wish you had?’” to treat opioid patients and mitigate the harm, she said. “We heard that families and individuals who are having to deal with this don’t know where to go to get help, they don’t know where to start. And first responders are saying they would like to be able to communicate across the state about what they’re seeing.”

An app or program that would map overdoses or arrests or other data, for instance, could help neighboring counties see what might be headed their way, and allow officials to prepare.

The Code4PA program has tripled in size since last year. Instead of one site in Harrisburg, there are four: one in Harrisburg, one in Philadelphia and two in Pittsburgh. Some 400 people have signed up to participate, and they’ll be divided into teams that will spend a month to create an app or tool or new approach using the data and present their findings on Oct. 20.

“The underlying piece is that it’s important to be able to connect with people across the state, people who are interested in helping their communities, using their skillsets to come up with ideas,” Matthews said. “They want to know, ‘What can we do, how can we use this data to help our communities and save lives?’”

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