How Postal Service's Use of Data Analytics Helped Shut Down Opioid Suppliers

Over 90 Americans a day die of opioid overdoses, a number that keeps climbing.

In the fight against the opioid epidemic that has ravaged parts of the country, one agency has turned to technology to help reverse the trend of this increasing public health crisis.

In fact, data analytics played a key role in helping choke off a deadly international supply chain of opiates and helped bring down several illegal suppliers, said Kelly Tshibaka, chief data officer at the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General. Tshibaka spoke yesterday at Fedstival, hosted by GovExec and Nextgov.

Fentanyl, a potent opioid pain medication, is mailed to the U.S. via international shippers, leading to an alarming rate of overdose deaths every year, Tshibaka said. Because it’s “completely odorless,” Fentanyl often goes undetected by law enforcement and customs.

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Over 90 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Fentanyl, in particular, is so potent, even its residue could kill a person.

In May, an Ohio police officer involved in a drug bust overdosed after he brushed Fentanyl dust off his clothes. This sort of accidental exposure also presents a dangerous risk to USPS workers who in fiscal year 2016 alone handled 621 million pieces of inbound international mail, Tshibaka said.

“When [a suspicious package] gets through customs, it enters the Postal Service stream, which means 600,000 people are potentially being exposed to highly lethal doses of Fentanyl every day,” Tshibaka said. “That’s a real concern.”

So to address this health hazard and growing epidemic that claims around 90 American lives  every year, the team turned to data analytics.

Just a few months ago, the Postal Service started receiving more detailed electronic data in advance from international countries. That data was coupled with information from a previous drug bust that found a package with Fentanyl in the postal system. Agents now had 450 some residential U.S. addresses that had received packages “from a guy we know has been shipping Fentanyl,” Tshibaka said.

Parsing through all the data, OIG found another shipper who had been sending packages to the people on that list — 2,500 of them in the most recent months. Using data analytics and the lead from that one drug bust, OIG was able to identify 2,800 suspicious packages mailed to U.S. residential addresses in just a matter of weeks, Tshibaka said.

To Tshibaka, the technology could be a force multiplier in the war against the epidemic of  drug-fueled overdoses and deaths.

“Imagine the possibilities in what we can do with data analytics when we get various agencies that have the authority of law enforcement, authority of Customs and Border Protection around data analytics to stop this problem,” she said. “It’s really exciting and the opportunities are endless.”

Tshibaka’s office is no stranger to emerging technologies. Last year alone, data analytics tools used by OIG auditors identified nearly a $1 billion in findings. A total of 538 new cases were opened based on analytics — only one of which was unfounded, she said.  

‘We use data analytics from the past to let us know what might happen in the future,” she said, adding how geospatial analysis, machine learning and data visualization also add further insight to help auditors and agents.

The “old” way of auditing — more reactive than preemptive — has been augmented by new technologies, to gain new and better insights into massive amounts of data and target rich leads.

Her office builds data analytics models that pinpoint for auditors the areas for greatest risk for waste, fraud and abuse.

“So that’s an incredible win for our team because that means we’re getting things of merit to our agents and not wasting their time,” Tshibaka said.

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