BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme is the premier weekly current affairs programme running at 10:40pm each Tuesday. Over 40 years it has established an enviable reputation for hard-hitting investigations on the stories that matter in Northern Ireland.
The Spotlight NI team began an investigation into a perceived problem around the misuse of, and addiction to, prescription drugs in Northern Ireland. Based on a dossier of information they had received relating to drug dealers and the misuse of prescription drugs they wanted to be able to identify and analyse the prescription of opioid and opiate-like medication to see whether they could substantiate a problem.
Whilst Spotlight NI were able to access freely available anonymised prescription records issued by the Business Services Organisation, the very scale of the data available meant that the team needed help in analysing it and identifying trends and changes in prescription patterns which might indicate areas for further investigation.
Lyndsey Telford, the key BBC journalist involved, had previously worked with Red Olive and so we were contacted to see whether we could help analyse the 20+ million prescription records available for Northern Ireland between 2013 and 2017.
The BBC NI team provided a list of areas of interest including changes in prescribing habits among a range of drugs over time. As we collaborated on the investigation we listened to the team’s feedback and gradually honed down our analysis.
This analysis showed a steady prescription volume of Diazepam, a drug known in the past to have been subject to misuse, over the period. However, it also highlighted an upward trend in the prescribing of Pregabalin (trade name “Lyrica”) which showed a 46% increase over the same period. While the scale of the increase was surprising, the data evidence did seem to resonate with anecdotal experience on the ground.
Red Olive specialises in extracting value from any volume of data, including helping to spot patterns as was the case here.