A system created by faculty at New Jersey Institute of Technology aims to help communities and organizations locate drug abuse hot spots in real time, and help reach users in need.

Monitoring online social media posts on platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, and combining that with geospatial data, the system known as DrugTracker would ideally create maps and charts that constantly keep up with the fast-changing landscape of hardcore drug abuse, including new street names for drugs and where users go for their fix.

"Oftentimes data is collected annually, which is way too slow. In our research we found that by using online social media, we can detect the distribution of drug abuse in near-real time," said Hai Phan, of the informatics department within NJIT's Ying Wu College of Computing. "The question is whether we can use online social media as an early warning system."

Phan said using data science to address a societal problem is what attracted him to the project. His team is still working on modifying its algorithms to remove unhelpful data from the system. DrugTracker is currently monitoring social media posts in Union County and captures hundreds of relevant postings per day.

"The number of deaths from drug abuse is higher than murder. It's a big problem," Phan said.

The NJIT effort is collaborating with Roselle-based nonprofit Prevention Links.

"We hope to identify from social media information on who is being impacted, what drugs are being misused and use the data to educate and better utilize our resource distribution," said Morgan Thompson, Prevention Links CEO.

Thompson said this big-data approach can help nonprofits allocate resources in a way that's more effective. Some of Prevention Links' programs, for example, involve on-call responses to the scene of an overdose.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.