IDA Team Leads Charge to Track and Combat the National Opioid Crisis

“If we think about a football team, as great as the quarterback might be, what good is it going to do if you’ve got 11 quarterbacks?” Culverhouse’s Institute of Data & Analytics (IDA) Director Jason Parton explained the institute’s interdisciplinary approach to research with a football analogy. “This team is interdisciplinary, and the skill sets of the team members are complementary.”

For instance, although two of the primary contributors to the project are statisticians, Dr. Subha Chakraborti, a professor in Culverhouse’s Department of Information Systems, Statistics, and Management Science and Dr. Parton, an associate professor from the same department, specialize in what may seem like slightly different spaces, theory, and application, respectively. Furthermore, the team consists of faculty in health analytics and management information systems. This disciplinary agnosticism makes way for several other innovative research undertakings in the IDA, such as the STANDD (Sex Trafficking Analytics for Network Detection and Disruption) human trafficking initiative, electric vehicle analytics, and combating the opioid epidemic. The point is to be able to solve a problem with the best expertise available and a collaborative approach seems best suited for that.

The project, like many in the IDA, hits the sweet spot between innovation and application. ISM doctoral student Chase Holcombe said, “You see some researchers that do some really cool, methodologically novel things, but may not have a lot of application. Some researchers are quite the opposite: maybe they have a cool application, but not really moving the ball forward quite as much methodologically. I think the IDA is really a unique place because we’re quite frankly doing both, and we’re hitting on all cylinders right now.”

The IDA has been using its considerable horsepower to begin analyzing some of the data related to monitoring the prescription opioid epidemic. In January 2023, Yuhui Yao, currently an assistant professor at UA’s College of Health Sciences and a former doctoral student of Chakraborti’s; a postdoctoral fellow of the IDA, Xin Yang, a former IDA researcher; associate professors Jason Parton and Matthew Hudnall, both from the ISM department; and Dwight Lewis, associate professor from the Management Department, published a paper in the prestigious Journal of Quality Technology. This paper was selected as the featured article in the American Society for Quality (ASQ) Insider last month.

The publication is a high-level achievement that showcases the interdisciplinary work going on at the IDA. The paper focused on new analytic methodologies and set the foundation for further work to help monitor the opioid epidemic, which could include developing more elaborate systems to track and predict areas (states, counties, cities) where opioid abuse might exist and prepare stakeholders to make actionable decisions.

“This is all about monitoring and trying to locate instances over time or space in a state, a county, a city, a neighborhood where something may be going on and we have the data to kind of zoom in on it,” Chakraborti said. “The monitoring methodology, it’s like a search light. You put it on the appropriate data and hopefully you find something that may be of significance.”

The IDA strives to be a place for methodological and applied researchers to come together, to work on interesting collaborative research ideas involving teams of faculty, students, and postdocs, and is currently involved in a number of interesting “real world” projects. Though it is still early in the opioid surveillance project, it is already seen as a leading example of this kind of research on a national level. “There are new calls coming out from the Department of Justice to develop new centers around the country. They’re all being told, ‘model yourself after what they did at Alabama’,” Parton said.

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