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Helping Prevent Opioid Overdoses: Student Developers Build Web App on AWS

2022

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), drug overdose is now the number one cause of unintentional death in the United States. Since the early 2000s, the national opioid epidemic has been in the news with rising prescription opioid misuse and overdose deaths—and now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of drug overdose deaths involve opioids.  

To combat the opioid epidemic in San Luis Obispo (SLO) County in California, the county formed the SLO Opioid Safety Coalition (SLO OSC) in 2016 to address opioid misuse in the region. Since then, the coalition has worked to prevent overdose deaths and support people struggling with addiction. To help the community and prevent overdose deaths, the county decided to build a web application, Naloxone Now, in collaboration with the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS), which would help connect those in need to the life-saving drug Naloxone.

How Student Developers Use the AWS Cloud to Help Prevent Opioid Overdoses
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The Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub powered by AWS was the ideal collaboration for us due to its vast capabilities, innovative methodologies, and expertise inclusive of both tech-savvy students and technology professionals."

Jenn Rhoads
Coordinator, SLO Opioid Safety Coalition

Increasing Access to Naloxone

During the first 12 months of the pandemic, fatal opioid overdoses increased over 30 percent nationally, and more than doubled in SLO County. Facing the sharp rise of preventable deaths in their community, the SLO OSC needed to find a way to increase the community’s access to Naloxone—a life-saving treatment for opioid overdoses.

Currently, the drug is available at certain pharmacies, substance abuse clinics, and the local syringe exchange. However, since SLO County is relatively rural with limited public transportation, it is difficult for community members without cars to access the drug in an emergency. Social factors further impact access: “Many people fear they’ll be stigmatized if they ask for Naloxone at the pharmacy,” says Jenn Rhoads, SLO OSC coordinator. “And even if they are able to obtain the drug, they often don’t know how to administer it.”

SLO OSC needed a solution that would spread awareness about Naloxone and make the drug widely accessible to community members. “We realized early on that technology could help us achieve our goals,” says Rhoads. “We wanted an app that would show people how to administer Naloxone to stop an overdose in an emergency. We started looking for ways to bring our app to life. The Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub powered by AWS was the ideal collaboration for us due to its vast capabilities, innovative methodologies, and expertise inclusive of both tech-savvy students and technology professionals.”

Connecting with Student Tech Innovators

The DxHub powered by AWS connects public sector organizations with students across disciplines to solve mission-critical problems. It’s one of the 13 organizations that are part of the AWS Cloud Innovation Centers (CIC) Program, which provides an opportunity for nonprofits, education institutions, and government agencies around the world to collaborate with other public sector organizations. They can get support on their most pressing challenges, test new ideas with Amazon’s innovation process, and access the technology expertise of AWS to help create innovative new answers. All of the DxHub’s work with SLO OSC is pro bono, in exchange for students gaining the opportunity to work on real-world problems.

The students working on the SLO OSC project included student developer Reilly Salkowski, project managers Natali Markowitz and Danielle Knell, and graphic designer Chloe Heinz. For the students, using AWS to solve real-world problems is an invaluable opportunity that helps launch their careers, post-graduation. “We don’t have academic courses focused on AWS,” Salkowski says. “Getting this exposure has been such an incredible opportunity for me. ‘Learn by doing’ is Cal Poly’s motto, and the DxHub absolutely provides that. Not only am I building a real application, Naloxone Now, but I’m also getting access to stakeholders. Being able to work directly with a client is something you don’t get in typical coursework.”

Working with a Collaborative, Agile Approach

As part of its agile process, the DxHub team worked collaboratively with Jenn Rhoads. “We didn’t come in with a concrete idea beyond building an app,” Rhoads says, “And ultimately that was the best approach we could have taken. By working with the DxHub and leveraging Amazon’s Working Backwards principles and methodologies, we were able to bring a diverse group of people together to think through how we could administer Naloxone to stop an overdose in an emergency.”

After months of training, researching, developing, and designing, the students at the DxHub created the prototype: a web application that’s accessible on any browser or device. The app includes life-saving resources on how to prevent an overdose, including video tutorials. It also uses location information to show users the nearest pharmacy or clinic where they can find Naloxone. But perhaps the most innovative part of this application is its delivery feature—community members can fill out a short order form and have doses of Naloxone delivered to their door at no cost.

“Thanks to the DxHub, our community members will be able to access Naloxone and learn how to administer it without fear of stigma or judgment,” Rhoads said. “We’ll be able to get Naloxone in the hands of anyone who needs it, whether they are struggling with addiction themselves or trying to protect a friend, family member, or neighbor.”

Leveraging AWS to Create Open-Source Solutions

The student developers and designers at the DxHub built the SLO County’s application using AWS. They used Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to host web pages with text and videos about how to obtain and administer Naloxone. To support the app’s delivery feature, the developers leveraged Amazon DynamoDB (DynamoDB), AWS Lambda, and Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS). User information from the order form is securely stored in DynamoDB, with data sharing managed by Lambda. When an order status changes or a dose of Naloxone ships, Amazon SNS sends a notification message to the user to let them know their package is arriving soon. And because the DxHub creates open-source solutions on AWS, other communities can use the same code to add onto or build their own versions of the app.

“The mission of the DxHub, to use software to help make an impact on the community, was a huge draw for me,” Salkowski says. “With open source, developers can build on each other’s technology to make the world a better place.”

Spreading Awareness in SLO County

With the January 2022 launch of Naloxone Now there’s a buzz in the community from social workers, therapists, and harm reduction specialists about the impact it will make. Rhoads is optimistic that the app will help save hundreds of lives and fight the stigma that makes it less likely for people to seek help.

“This epidemic cuts across all income levels,” Rhoads says. “It impacts more than just opioid users because any drug can be laced with fentanyl. I hope that this app will be instrumental in helping people realize that having Naloxone in your house is like having a fire extinguisher—it’s a precautionary measure that everyone should take. Now, because of the DxHub and AWS, we can give our community members the tools and knowledge they need to keep each other safe.”

Cities, counties, and community members alike who are looking to help save hundreds, even thousands, of lives and prevent fatal opioid overdoses can adopt the app.

To learn more and use the Naloxone Now app today, visit naloxonenowslo.org.


AWS Services Used

Amazon S3

Amazon S3 is an object storage service that offers industry-leading scalability, data availability, security, and performance.

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Amazon DynamoDB

Amazon DynamoDB is a key-value and document database that delivers single-digit millisecond performance at any scale.

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AWS Lambda

AWS Lambda is a serverless compute service that lets you run code without provisioning or managing servers, creating workload-aware cluster scaling logic, maintaining event integrations, or managing runtimes. 

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Amazon SNS

Amazon SNS is a fully managed messaging service for both application-to-application (A2A) and application-to-person (A2P) communication.

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