Tag: Bellwether Foundation



Top row, Seethu Seetharaman, Michael Wall, Anthony Sardella; bottom row, Annie L. Shi, Chenthuran Abeyakaran.

Data scientists from WashU Olin have developed a process for flagging suspicious transactions across 100 pharmaceuticals—a process with a stunningly high level of precision and one that can immediately take aim at curbing the country’s decades-long opioid epidemic.

Working with a US Drug Enforcement Administration database that tracked six years’ worth of pharmaceutical transactions, the five researchers developed an “anomaly detection” system that could flag future suspicious shipments with 100% precision.

In other words, as the researchers noted, when their process says a transaction is suspicious, it is. Basically, their anomaly detection system doesn’t flag a transaction unless it’s sure—which does mean some bad buys could sneak under the radar if they don’t meet the system’s criteria.

“The signals of anomaly detection are very strong for these egregiously suspicious buyers,” the study’s authors wrote. “This renders our algorithm very valuable for practical use.”

Built to guide the fight

The system was conceived as a tool to help deploy limited resources as authorities tackle illicit trafficking in narcotics.

“Having 100% precision is a very important feature of our (process),” the research team wrote in its paper, under review with the Journal of Marketing. “We are willing to sacrifice some recall (and increase false negative errors) in order to enable the practical adoption of our proposed algorithm.”

The research team—all associated with Olin’s Center for Analytics and Business Insights—includes Annie L. Shi, a doctoral student in marketing; Seethu Seetharaman, co-director of CABI and Olin’s W. Patrick McGinnis Professor of Marketing; Anthony Sardella, CABI senior research advisor; Michael Wall, co-director of CABI and a professor of practice in marketing; and Chenthuran Abeyakaran, BS ’21/SI ’23.

Their work comes under the auspices of the Olin Brookings Commission, a project operated by WashU Olin and the Brookings Institution to address critical policy issues affecting communities. The project is funded through a grant from The Bellwether Foundation.

Organizers of the first commission under the Bellwether grant focused on the opioid epidemic that’s killed half a million individuals in the US in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In July, the federal government reached a $26 billion settlement with the country’s three major drug distributors and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson for their roles in the epidemic.

“Addressing this issue and enabling distributors to have a predictive system that can be used to flag and halt suspicious orders of opioid drugs, is the central focus of this study,” the research team wrote in its paper, “Nip it in the Bud! Managing the Opioid Crisis: Supply Chain Response to Anomalous Buyer Behavior.”

Training the anomaly detector

The team “trained” its anomaly detection system by using a recently released DEA database called Automated Reports and Consolidated Ordering System—or ARCOS.

That database tracked millions of prescription drug transactions—their manufacture and distribution—spanning 2006 to 2012. By zeroing in on opioid transactions, with the guidance of a smaller database of known illicit transactions, the research team identified patterns of behavior across 40 different criteria. The scholars also developed a standard they called “morphine milligram equivalents”—or “MME”—to create reliable comparisons among various opioid transactions.

Ultimately, they found that seven criteria were enough to create an extraordinarily precise tool to flag suspicious transactions. For example, when looking at “average MME purchased per transaction,” suspicious buyers purchased almost 10 times as much as legitimate buyers. When they looked at “median MME purchased per transaction,” suspicious buyers purchased almost 20 times as much.

In the context of the research team’s detection and alert system, members of the Olin Brookings Commission will likely investigate proposals that affect public policy affecting the trafficking of illicit narcotics. Some of those policy areas could include:

  • data sharing and cross-agency communication;
  • revised and modernized data reporting;
  • funding sources and spending needs for system maintenance;
  • response guidance when transactions are flagged.

Pictured at top: top row, Seethu Seetharaman, Michael Wall, Anthony Sardella; bottom row, Annie L. Shi, Chenthuran Abeyakaran.




WashU Olin’s Center for Analytics and Business Insights is on the cusp of creating a machine-learning tool to flag suspicious opioid sales, just as government lawyers announced a multibillion-dollar settlement against three major drug distributors—a settlement that requires a database to track the destination of every opioid dose.

Analyzing a database of more than 400 million opioid transactions from the US Drug Enforcement Administration—a database that includes 277,000 buyers from 2006 to 2012—Olin researchers are building an algorithm that would help law enforcement officials identify shady opioid transactions in the future. The Olin scholars are working to understand key differences in the characteristics and behaviors of convicted buyers who they have identified in the data set to that of unconvicted buyers to inform their model-building approach.

“We want to ‘learn’ what variables distinguish the ‘bad’ buyers from the ‘good’ buyers,” said Seethu Seetharaman, Olin’s W. Patrick McGinnis Professor of Marketing and co-director of the Center for Analytics and Business Insights. “Once we learn the important variables that distinguish bad buyers from good buyers, we train a machine-learning algorithm to take these variables for a given buyer and give a probability score of that buyer being a bad buyer.”

Research to support policy recommendations

Seetharaman, along with CABI co-director Michael Wall, is collaborating with Luoyexin (Annie) Shi, an Olin PhD student in quantitative marketing, on the analysis. The research underpins the first of three projects by the Olin-Brookings Commission. This first project centers on the opioid crisis and what policy measures are needed to confront it long-term.

The entire initiative was made possible by a $750,000 grant from The Bellwether Foundation Inc. This first commission, like the next two, is charged with tackling topics affecting the quality of life for people in St. Louis and across the country.

Seetharaman said the team’s work on the DEA data has quickly shown promise as a law enforcement tool to flag transactions that divert often legitimate prescription therapies toward illicit uses.

“Using the predictive algorithm, the DEA could predict a buyer’s probability of being a bad buyer,” he said. “This way, the DEA can allocate their human and capital resources wisely among high-value leads.”

A well-timed approach

The results come just weeks after lawyers for states, cities and counties plagued by staggering numbers of opioid deaths announced a tentative $26 billion settlement against three distributors of pharmaceutical painkillers: McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. The settlement would also include Johnson & Johnson, which no longer supplies raw material for opioids or sells such painkillers in the United States.

“Under the deal, the three distributors, which control 85 to 90% of the market, are required to establish and fund a ‘clearinghouse’ that shows where every opioid dose is headed,” The Washington Post wrote in its report on the settlement. “They must check the database before sending out each shipment of pills and hold theirs back if it appears that the recipient is asking for an extraordinary amount of drugs, a typical sign that some are being diverted and sold on the street.”

According to The Post, more than 100 billion prescription hydrocodone and oxycodone pills were distributed in the United States from 2006 to 2014. Last year, approximately 69,700 people died of overdoses involving opioids in the United States.

Shi said the database she’s analyzing—known as ARCOS, or Automated Reports and Consolidated Ordering System—covers the sale of 14 main varieties of opioids. Those can be further broken down into 170 kinds of substances, and further broken down into 9,133 different products.

The inaugural Olin-Brookings Commission includes a dream team of data scientists, law enforcement authorities, medical professionals and addiction experts with years of industry and policy experience between them. Commission chair Anthony Sardella—founder of evolve24, Olin faculty member and CABI research advisor—serves as a critical conduit between research efforts and the expertise of the commission.

In their current project, supported by CABI, the group is charged with identifying strategies for combatting the epidemic of opioids and recommending any changes in local, state and federal policy that might help curb the problem and sharpen the response from experts.

The commission’s next meeting is set for August 19. The group intends to issues its final report and policy recommendations in early 2022.




Members of The Bellwether Foundation: Ginger Smith, Bob Smith II, and John Wolfe, along with financial advisors from Dunker Street, toured Olin’s new Knight Hall and Bauer Hall buildings on December 9, 2015. The Foundation also held a board meeting at Olin that day. They were especially interested in visiting the new state-of-the-art Bellwether Classroom, named to honor the foundation’s generous support of Olin. The Bellwether Classroom features two translation booths, a full complement of audio/visual features and is the largest tiered classroom in Olin with 91 seats.

Bellwether Foundation logoThe foundation promotes the ideals and aspirations of its founders and supporters beyond their lifetime by providing funds to organizations for projects that anticipate the future in the areas of the arts, computer science, education, finance, health care, medicine, and the social sciences, including research in any of these areas.

In 2004, The Bellwether Foundation established a professorship in entrepreneurship and was named in honor of Robert Brookings Smith. Barton Hamilton is the Robert Brookings Smith Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship.

The Bellwether Foundation was established by the late Robert Brookings Smith, a former Washington University trustee and entrepreneur, and also the great-nephew of Robert S. Brookings, who served as the president of the university’s governing board from 1895 to 1928.