Respect the Unexpected: Addressing Stakeholder Needs in Open Data Projects

July 01, 2016

In our work with StreetRx, Epidemico strives to provide rare and rapid public health insights while supporting the needs and well-being of people who transact in diverted pharmaceutical medicines. The values of transparency, innovation, and beneficence are at the core of what we do at Epidemico, and we are encouraged to see those virtues reflected in ProPublica's recent response to discoveries about their Prescription Checkup tool.

After creating a tool that sheds light on the prescribing behaviors of doctors around the US, ProPublica learned that it was being used to find providers who might be more likely than their peers to prescribe controlled substances. Some organizations might have reacted by hiding these findings or restricting access to the tool in order to prevent an unintended use of their service. ProPublica's decision to not only disclose their findings, but to enhance their site with information on drug-related risks and resources available to people who face them, demonstrates a laudable response to the challenges posed by unintended uses of open data systems.

We often receive questions about StreetRx voicing concern about providing information to people seeking diverted prescription medicines. Our response is that the tools are designed such that visitors cannot coordinate transactions nor implicate themselves in criminal activity. Additionally, we recognize a unique opportunity to engage with visitors seeking information about black market drug prices, and respond by pairing pricing information with resources on relevant health and social services.

We applaud ProPublica for their transparent and thoughtful response to unintended use of their tools, and believe that when you build a tool that attracts the attention of vulnerable and marginalized populations, taking the opportunity to meet them where they are at with supportive resources is just the right thing to do.

This post is authored by Mike Gilbert, a Senior Project Manager at Epidemico and avid proponent of applying harm reduction approaches to public health informatics.