Connecting state and local government leaders

Amid the Opioid Crisis, ‘The Best Ammunition That Public Officials Can Embrace Is Storytelling’


Connecting state and local government leaders

While maps can be useful, they can have very little narrative power when they stand alone.

In the process of reporting on the nationwide opioid crisis, there’s one common refrain that surfaces in conversations more than any other: “We aren’t going to arrest our way out of this problem.”

But, while there is overall consensus that the criminalization of drug use isn’t the right tactic to use, there is much less unity in identifying other approaches that state and local governments can take.

Richard Leadbeater, a state government industry manager at Esri, the Redlands, California-based geographic information systems software company has one idea: “To be honest, the best ammunition that public officials can embrace is storytelling.”

And, for Leadbeater, that storytelling comes in the form of data and maps.

This is by no means the first time mapping has been used in efforts to counter the spread of opioid addiction. More and more localities are using their own geographic data to keep their citizens safe and well-informed.

Oakland County, Michigan, which neighbors Detroit, created this map, which pinpoints medication drop-off locations using ArcGis to go along with their “Operation Medicine Cabinet” initiative, which focuses on keeping these prescription drugs from being misused.

Other governments are using mapping to show where naloxone—the opioid overdose-reversing drug—has been used to save lives. The fire department in West Allis, Wisconsin, for instance, makes use of one such map, showing each save with a color-coded star.

While these maps are useful, they carry very little narrative power. So, Leadbeater took it upon himself to create a series of maps that would tell a story.

Using the Esri-created Story Maps template, he wove together data on opioid prescription claims, drug poisoning fatalities, painkiller-prescribing providers, combined with congressional voting records to create a powerful narrative  about how the opioid epidemic has taken shape across the country.

Thanks to its clear graphics, and simple language, Leadbeater’s creation is a tool that even those without a background in data science can understand. And it’s this use of narrative that Leadbeater believes more localities should be taking advantage of.

“I want to stimulate the idea that it’s going to be important to embrace every tool that we have in our bag of tricks. Storytelling is a powerful tool to address these issues.”

Part of that, according to Leadbeater, means using storytelling as an integral part of public engagement. Simply put, in an era when up to 44 percent of Americans personally know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers, people want to know more about the state of the epidemic in their region, and they want to know what their locality is doing to fight it.  

Leadbeater is one of those people.

Just a week before his first conversation with Route Fifty last August, Leadbeater’s 21 year-old son attended a funeral for a friend whose death was connected to opioid abuse. And, in total, Leadbeater can name at least three people from his son’s high school who have died from similar problems with addiction.

And, he says, the fact that he doesn’t know what his locality—Howard County, Maryland—is doing to combat this crisis fuels his continued work to inspire more state and local governments to make storytelling a part of their broader strategy to fight this public health crisis. And, increasingly, it’s a strategy that government officials are trying on for size.

Mapping the Crisis in Northern Kentucky

Northern Kentucky is no stranger to the opioid epidemic. In 2015, on average, Northern Kentucky lost someone to a drug overdose every 40 hours—almost 42 percent of those overdoses involved heroin.

Last October, the Northern Kentucky Health Department—an agency that serves the residents of Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties—took an active role in bringing information like this to the community in a story map of their own. And, according to Judge Executive Gary Moore of Boone County, Kentucky, it’s quickly become one of the most valuable communication tools they have.

“I think people are shocked at the amount of addiction that exists in our community,” Moore says, “and the map helps us convey that.”  

The Northern Kentucky story map does more than just put all of the health department’s publicly available data in one place, it also contains information about syringe exchange programs and treatment options in the region and lets people know where they can obtain life-saving naloxone kits. In short, the story map helps clearly communicate communicate the extent of the problem, and all the government-led initiatives in place to combat it.

The map has had a concrete impact on how this region tackles the epidemic. Since the map went live, for instance, Judge Moore credits the tool, at least partly, with facilitating one piece of pending legislation. That bill seeks to add penalties for those trafficking in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, to the law books. The data shows that this change is quite necessary—nearly 33 percent of the overdose deaths in 2015 in this part of Kentucky involved fentanyl.

The Northern Kentucky Health Department plans to update their story map with new information every six months, and it’s a tool they hope will play a major role in their future efforts to end the crisis.

“Any time we can collect data and then transfer that to mapping, to where we can tell the story in a visual demonstration it is extremely helpful,” said Judge Moore “As a local official, as a county official, I use this tool often and I see the value of it many times over.”

Quinn Libson is a staff correspondent at Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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