Map Monday: Predicting Risk of Opioid Overdoses in Providence

By Chris Bousquet • May 21, 2018

Complementing Harvard’s Map of the Month series, each week, Map Monday highlights a data visualization that enhances understanding of or helps resolve a critical civic issue.

Each of the last two years, life expectancy in the United States has dropped. While initially jarring, this statistic is less surprising when you consider the scope of America’s opioid epidemic. More than 115 Americans die everyday from opioid overdoses and that number is growing. Last summer, President Trump declared the epidemic a national emergency.

American cities have responded, and increasing access to support services has arisen as one critical priority. With its Safe Stations program, the City of Providence has staffed all 12 fire stations across the city with trained professionals that connect individuals with services to combat abuse and addiction.

In order to understand how well this program is serving Providence residents, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Urban Spatial Analytics created a data visualization predicting overdose risk across the city. Analyzing data on actual overdose locations as well as community protective resources, risk factors, and neighborhood characteristics, the researchers were able to assess risk across Providence. By then overlaying the locations of Safe Stations, the map reveals those neighborhoods with access to sufficient services and those in need of new stations or other interventions.

City heat map of overdose risk with pins representing fire stations

The visualization shows that areas in North and South Central as well as West Providence have high overdose risk, but no fire stations to provide help to those in need. In order to highlight potential locations for new Safe Stations, the researchers also mapped other public facilities—including hospitals, EMS facilities, and police stations. Many of the communities currently lacking service sites are home to law enforcement facilities, which may therefore be a logical new location for Safe Stations.

Heat map of the city showing law enforcement facilities overlaid with overdose risk
Law enforcement facilities serve many neighborhoods currently without Safe Stations

And even if not the site of dedicated Safe Stations, the highlighted facilities can provide other types of support to help those in need. The map enables policymakers to take an intersectional approach to opioid abuse, showing schools, libraries, SNAP vendors, and grocery stores in addition to hospitals and police stations. With this information, practitioners can think about how interventions like public education campaigns or even better access to basic resources that influence quality of life can affect addiction and overdoses.

The researchers also released a report documenting the methodology and source code behind the map. Equipped with this information, other cities can replicate this work, allowing them to better understand overdose risk across their communities and develop interventions that serve neighborhoods in greatest need.

About the Author

Chris Bousquet

Chris Bousquet is a PhD student in philosophy at Syracuse University. Prior to that, Chris was a Research Assistant/Writer for Data-Smart City Solutions. Chris holds a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College.