OSU students create app to report 'bad batches', cut down on overdose deaths
In the fall of 2020, a group led by Ohio State students launched an app designed to cut down on overdose deaths in central Ohio.
The app alerts users to "bad batches" of drugs, laced with deadly substances such as fentanyl.
The team is currently working on a revamped new version of the app they hope will make it even easier to report bad drugs and prevent overdoses.
Dennis Pales is a fourth-year student at Ohio State, and director of community relations for a harm reduction nonprofit called the SOAR Initiative.
“People who use drugs have been communicating about bad batches for a long time, but a lot of these have been very informal networks," Pales said.
"So we came up with the idea to use technology to sort of bridge the gap between what's already happening in the community to allow people to have more readily accessible information."
Pales helped found SOAR as a freshman three years ago. He says the group was spurred into action when an OSU student overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine at a campus-area bar.
“It was just so shocking to me, because I think me and like many other students, we didn't realize this was even an issue that was happening. We didn't know that young people were at risk. We didn't know that people who weren't using opiates were at risk of encountering opiates in whatever substance they were using," Pales said.
The student's death is part of an alarming trend.
In Franklin County alone, the coroner's office reported 744 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2020, which accounted for 87% of the total overdose deaths that year.
Nationally that same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports nearly 92,000 people died of drug overdoses—30% higher than the year prior.
The rate of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids including fentanyl increased by more than 50%.
Ayaz Hyder is an assistant professor in the College of Public Health at OSU and advised the SOAR team early on.
"That's one of the reasons we really need something like the SOAR initiative and their outside the box thinking because while current programs and initiatives and strategies are working, they're gonna take some time to show the impact of their strategies," Hyder said.
Dr. Hyder's work involves data-driven modeling of public health outcomes, including the opioid crisis. While he is sure the SOAR app is saving lives, he said it's hard to show statistically things that didn't happen.
“They didn't overdose, EMS wasn't called, they didn't go to the hospital, and they didn't get to go into treatment or they didn't die. So in other words, it's really hard to quantify," he said.
Whenever a bad batch is reported in an area by community members or health officials such as the coroner, the app sends users a push notification describing the harmful substance and where it was encountered.
There's also a text-based service for people without smartphones.
The SOAR team's work has attracted the attention of harm reduction advocates far and wide.
Oona Krieg is co-founder and CEO of BRAVE, a cooperative that builds tools to detect and respond to overdoses across North America.
“[The SOAR] team is amazing. They are some of the sweetest people that I have ever worked with," Krieg said. "They're doing this because they feel like it is the right thing to do."
Krieg has a complicated past that includes drug use, as well as survival sex work and homelessness. She said the SOAR app equips people still trapped by drug addiction with life-saving information.
“If you have an alert saying, 'hey, that purple dope is terrible and people are dropping like flies all over the place in your zip code', it will change the way that you approach your next use," Krieg said.
The SOAR app is completely anonymous, without the involvement of police.
Developers hope to release the new version of the app within the next six months.
More information about the SOAR Initiative's harm reduction efforts can be found here.
More information about BRAVE can be found here.