How is Burlington, VT using technology to help solve their heroin crisis?

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Burlington, VT (@BtvDotGov) has been struggling with a serious heroin epidemic.

Arrests, fatal overdoses, and treatment numbers have jumped in the past years. One outcome of this epidemic, is the dangerous littering of used syringes throughout the city. A couple years ago, Burlington needed some way to safely and efficiently locate and collect these syringes ' as well as garner important insights by understanding the locations where they were dropped.

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In 2012, Burlington implemented SeeClickFix to allow citizens to report non-emergency issues from their smartphones or desktops into the city's centralized request management system. Burlington has been using SeeClickFix to address a variety of issues across departments, including illegal dumping. One of the service request categories available to citizens was called "Miscellaneous" for issues that fell outside other defined request types. In 2013, Burlington noticed that more and more citizens started reporting these dropped and found needles around the city.

Bill Ward, Director of Code Enforcement for Burlington, is a veteran of the Burlington Police Department. These experiences made him well-equipped and trained to begin picking these dropped syringes up along with his Deputy Health Officer. He was extremely happy that these syringes were being reported, after all, the average citizen understandably is unlikely to know the best way to handle the syringes without putting themselves in danger. Then, he was able to notify citizen through SeeClickFix that "someone was taking care of it". Once the amount of reports became significant, Bill realized that he needed a more sustainable way to address the issues. "It was creating much more work for me," said Bill, "And, most importantly, it's not like these issues are a couch on a greenbelt or trash; it has some immediacy to it and needs to be addressed as soon as possible."

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In order to implement a comprehensive solution to tackle this problem, the City of Burlington needed to collaborate across departments and with outside groups. Bill connected with Tom Dalton of the Howard Center (@HowardCenterVT), a working group that addresses issues around substance abuse. "I saw the need to connect with someone else who really has [picking up syringes] as part of their daily operation," said Bill, "And Tom works directly with the Burlington Police Department if there are reports [of dropped syringes] through their dispatch center or through their 911 or non-emergency number." What they began to find is that more and more citizen were using SeeClickFix instead of these numbers: "People were finding reporting on SeeClickFix much more convenient."

Initially, Bill would notify Tom and the Howard Center staff with a forwarded email with the issue. Soon he realized that SeeClickFix had tools that allowed the passing of issues to easily flow across departments and groups: "Then I saw the efficiency of having a watch area, searching specifically for 'needle' or 'syringe', or having the specific issues directly and automatically assigned to Tom's office immediately." The issues would automatically come into an administrative email at the Howard Center.

This collaboration has led to an extremely efficient system of addressing these dropped syringes quickly. "What we've seen," said Bill, "Is that [the Howard Center] is much faster than what we were able to do and sometimes even within an hour ' which is phenomenal."

"And," said Bill, laughing, "It's less work for me!"

Bill expressed the value of the connectivity between Burlington's city government and outside groups: "Since Tom is not part of the government, this is a great example of partnership between the Burlington Police Department, the Howard Center, and the Burlington Code Enforcement." A partnership that can only grow; and, as Bill said: "We're a staff that is closing issues and letting the public know the issue has been addressed and the work has been done."

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Heatmap data of found syringes from Burlington, VT was used to determine appropriate placement of public drop boxes.

In addition, the Howard Center and the city have been using the data collected on where the syringes were being most frequently reported. Heat maps, time of year analysis, and other data collected at the scene was compiled to inform decisions on where to put safe drop-off boxes for used needles across the city as well as what neighborhoods to give the most attention and resources ' such as events, programming, and new centers.