Rhode Island’s Dashboard Tools for Overdose Response

A three-step approach for building community-focused dashboards to increase accessibility of local health data and lead a data-driven response.

Read Time: 5 minutes


During the COVID-19 pandemic, online data dashboard websites became a key communication tool for governments and news media. These online dashboards helped to connect the public to emerging health data on a near-daily basis. Visitors to these dashboard websites, such as the New York Times COVID-Tracker website, could find local data at the state, county, and city levels to understand changes in the pandemic close to where they lived. Their most popular features were maps with color coding by region to show where new diagnoses were rising, and tables that showed the states and cities with highest rates of new infections and hospitalizations each day.

Data dashboards have also been a powerful tool in understanding the overdose crisis. In the past ten years, overdose deaths grew quickly with rising heroin deaths and the introduction of the synthetic opioid fentanyl in the mid-2010s. Then, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw more than a 30% rise in deaths when fentanyl replaced other opioids in the drug supply. To respond to these significant changes, local communities need access to timely data on overdose death, nonfatal overdose, and toxiciology. Policy leaders in the U.S. agree that better access to updated overdose data is needed to help inform the local overdose response and to save lives.

In Rhode Island, our research team at Brown University School of Public Health launched a statewide overdose data dashboard in 2016. The online dashboard, PreventOverdoseRI.org, has the tagline, “Rhode Island’s home for the overdose crisis.” Anyone can access the website to find the latest overdose data visualizations and treatment access trends, with data provided by state agencies. Each data page connects visitors to educational infographics or harm reduction services like peer recovery supports, syringe service programs, fentanyl test strips, safer smoking kits, and naloxone. Visitors can also connect to care through our treatment directory or by calling the statewide 24-hour telehealth buprenorphine hotline.

As the ongoing demands of the overdose crisis rise, community-driven collaborations are essential to making powerful dashboards that are relevant, timely, and inclusive.

In a recent article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR)we summarized our approach and provided examples to inform future efforts in overdose dashboard development. We use a three-step process to build dashboards. First, we partner with the community and public health leaders to understand the data needs and interactive elements to include when visualizing state agency datasets. We call this a community-driven approach to building dashboards. For example, outreach workers might request timely hospital data about nonfatal overdoses visualized on maps. They need maps to zoom to neighborhood levels and include local landmarks and bus routes to better deliver harm reduction services. State agency leaders might also ask for maps and charts with dropdown options for changing between overdose counts and rates by town or by year.

Next, we use plain-language communication to describe overdose data trends and action steps. Each page has a clear message in the headlines, followed by accessible data visualizations, and ends with harm reduction education and ways to connect to care. To create this content, we use online readability tools to use common words and communicate at the 7th-8th grade U.S. reading level. We visualize the data with bar charts or maps and include clear headlines to interpret the data for our audience. This is our data storytelling process. For example, to show overdose deaths by race, our headline reads, “The overdose crisis has touched everybody in Rhode Island. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the overdose death rates for Black and Hispanic Rhode Islanders on the rise.” Another heading then explains the statewide approach to address these disparities. And the page ends with a link-out to a treatment page, asking visitors to “learn more about medications for opioid use disorder.”

We then evaluate our content with the evidence-based CDC Clear Communication Index (CCI) to ensure each data page is understandable and actionable. The CCI suggests reducing the mental math for website visitors whenever possible. For example“In 2022, three out of every four overdose deaths involved illicit fentanyl.”

Finally, we connect our data and plain language communication to help drive local, regional, and statewide action in the community. We continue to develop new dashboards in collaboration with local stakeholders, updating our approach from looking at past overdose surveillance trends at the town level to now looking ahead and forecasting future overdose risk at the neighborhood level. Community partners work closely with us to better visualize overdose risk at the neighborhood level, which helps inform the tools and content on each new dashboard.

As the ongoing demands of the overdose crisis rise, community-driven collaborations are essential to making powerful dashboards that are relevant, timely, and inclusive. The three-step approach outlined here may help other states and local communities further increase the accessibility of their data and lead a data-driven response.