A weaving at the Kensington Storefront, inspired by Philly's addiction epidemic

The key to saving more Philadelphians from fatal opioid overdoses could be as simple as a smartphone app, says a Drexel public health researcher.

Professor and associate dean Stephen Lankenau spent the last year creating an app that aims to prevent deaths by OD. In the same way ride share apps connect drivers with passengers, the app will connect people carrying Narcan with people experiencing overdoses.

“The concept of a bystander witnessing an overdose and saving a life with naloxone, it’s a powerful idea,” Lankenau said. “We want to create a community of people who are trained in providing naloxone, and somehow link them together.”

What better way to link people than through their phones? With the Unity Philly app — which developers will pilot as soon as they find enough participants — folks can send out an alert if they see someone who is overdosing. It’ll automatically initiate a call to 911, and also notify all app-users within a three-minute walking distance.

At the push of a button, a community of people who carry Narcan will become aware of a nearby overdose — and hopefully one of them will be able to step in and save a life.

The responder’s page on the Unity Philly app Credit: Screenshot / Unity Philly

Boosting the trend of saving lives

Lankenau is jumping on board at the right time. Philly officials and local nonprofits have spent years normalizing the idea of carrying Narcan. In 2018, the city invested $100,000 in billboards and social media to get the medication into the hands of everyday citizens.

And for the first time in five years, the number of fatal overdoses decreased a bit. Many outreach workers attribute the drop to the growing popularity of the overdose antidote.

“In the last year or so the idea has really gotten a lot more currency,” Lankenau said. “The city and state are giving out naloxone in a robust manner. Prior to that, naloxone was a bit more underground in how it was distributed.”

The app will begin its pilot phase as soon as 100 Kensington residents agree to try it out and test its effectiveness. Of the participants, half will be people who are actively using opioids. They’re essential, Lankenau said, since they’re the ones most likely to be in communities where someone could overdose.

From beginning to end, the trial period will last 12 months. What will success look like?

Lankenau’s answer: “If the app comes into play and it results in naloxone being delivered in a fairly rapid manner.” If it appears to work well, he wants to expand the app’s reach from Kensington to the entire city.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement and interest in the possibilities,” Lankenau said. “But it’s still in a very early stage.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...