Software engineer Michael LeGrand and his team of young computer programmers hope to prevent heroin-related deaths with Bad Batch Alert, a free and anonymous text messaging service they created to notify people when a cluster of heroin overdoses occurs in the Baltimore area.
The life-saving idea came out of heartbreak.
In 2016, LeGrand lost a friend to drug overdose. She died in Florida after overdosing on heroin mixed with carfentanil, a synthetic opioid estimated to be 10,000 times deadlier than morphine. She was one of 10 people who died from the same batch of tainted drugs.
“If there had been something in place that alerted her about a deadly batch of heroin in her area, it may have saved her life,” LeGrand told DrugRehab.com.
The service began operating in July. It draws data on the location of opioid overdoses from the Baltimore City Health Department, which compiles information submitted by local paramedics. When a spike in overdoses occurs, Bad Batch Alert automatically texts a warning message to subscribers in the immediate area.
“This service is similar to the Amber Alert system,” said LeGrand. “But instead of receiving a text alert about a missing child, you receive an alert about a large number of people overdosing close to you.”
Sharp increases in overdoses may indicate that tainted opioids, such as heroin mixed with a more powerful substance, are circulating nearby.
Heroin users don’t always know exactly what they’re consuming. Fatal overdoses may occur when people unknowingly inject contaminated heroin that is much stronger than their usual dose.
Bad Batch Alert also connects people with local resources, including a 24-hour crisis helpline, vans providing needle exchange services and a schedule for naloxone training courses provided by the Baltimore City Health Department.
As of October 2017, more than 400 people have subscribed to receive Bad Batch Alert notifications. People in the Baltimore area can sign up for the service by texting “Join” to 952-222-5378.
In 2013, LeGrand and his wife founded Code in the Schools, a nonprofit that strives to expand access to computer science classes in Baltimore. The program recruits promising student programmers in the area to work on coding projects.
To create Bad Batch Alert, LeGrand collaborated with five high school students and young adults with a passion for coding.
“When we started this project, it just made sense to pull them in,” said LeGrand. “They’ve been great. They provide insights, and they write a lot of the code.”
The Bad Batch Alert team comprises young people with big dreams. David Jerome Gatewood Jr., a Baltimore City College graduate, aspires to use technology to cure cancer. And Davon Harris, a freshman at Stevenson University in Pikesville, Maryland, wants to develop technology that enhances the world.
“I believe that making the world strong, knowledgeable, powerful and influential for others will pave the path to great improvement,” reads Harris’ bio on the Bad Batch Alert website.
Since the project began, computer science students have spent three hours each Saturday developing, implementing and improving Bad Batch Alert. LeGrand praised the students for their confidence and dedication in helping bring his vision to fruition.
“They care about helping people so much,” he said.
Susan G. Sherman, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Baltimore Sun that Bad Batch Alert could present challenges. She said many drug users have prepaid cellphones, which restrict minutes and the ability to receive text alerts.
Mike Gimbel, former director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, told WBAL-TV 11 News that the service could have public health consequences. Someone battling addiction may be attracted to the toxicity of tainted drugs, he said.
“This program actually scares me to death,” said Gimbel, who is in recovery from heroin addiction. “This has the potential of actually killing more heroin addicts than helping heroin addicts.”
However, the service does not reveal the location of a potent batch of drugs. Instead, it shows subscribers a three-square-mile region where a spike in overdoses occurred, making it difficult for people to pinpoint the exact location.
“All we’re saying in these texts is, ‘Hey, something’s happening in your community,’” Mark O’Brien, director of opioid overdose prevention and treatment at Baltimore City Health Department, told WBAL-TV 11 News.
LeGrand is convinced the service can make a difference in local communities.
“I believe in harm reduction and access to information that can save lives,” said LeGrand. “I want to give people tools to help save their life.”
In Maryland, opioid misuse has gradually worsened in the last decade.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in March in response to the opioid epidemic’s effects on the state.
The number of opioid-related deaths in Maryland increased from 628 in 2007 to 1,856 in 2016, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In 2016, fentanyl was involved in 1,119 deaths in Maryland.
Number of Heroin-Related Deaths in Maryland
While Bad Batch Alert only operates in Baltimore, LeGrand said that he and his team are working to employ the service in other jurisdictions in Maryland. He hopes that the alert system will expand to serve other locations in the United States, helping people of all backgrounds avoid opioid overdose.
“I just think about my friend,” said LeGrand. “Everybody’s life matters, and everybody is a person who can recover from addiction.”