Anthropologist Lee Hoffer watches drug deals in a virtual city neighborhood on his computer at Case Western Reserve University.
But, what looks like a computer game are real drug activities constructed from research data Hoffer has collected from fieldwork with heroin dealers.
Hoffer's model has brought about innovative ways of thinking about heroin use and the illegal market distributing the drug.
He now turns to building computer models based on methamphetamine users and dealers from Cuyahoga and Summit Counties in Ohio. A recent award of a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) will expand his work.
He plans to recruit 204 participants, with help from Northeast Ohio social service agencies. The users and dealers, whose information will remain confidential, will contribute data that goes into the agent-based models he is constructing. These simulations use complexity theory and techniques from artificial intelligence to design what look like computer games.
"Conducting experiments not possible in the real world has advantages in trying to understand the consequences of social relationships that drug users value," states Hoffer.
He will build elements of a virtual city with the new set of real life data. Using handheld devices, the study's participants will record usage levels, time intervals of drug taken and also the cost of buying and selling drugs.
Then the anthropologist and his co-investigator Georgiy Bobashev, a statistician from RTI International, will enter different factors such as needle exchange programs, social service outreach or additional police protection to actually see the impacts on drug usage in the street.
Using a simulation model based on data from the streets can demonstrate how outcomes are generated and identify parameters to change the status quo.
The end goal is to create a tool for public and health policy makers to use and test ideas before implementation.
"They will be able to see the impact of a new program or initiative and how it might affect what's happening in the street," says Hoffer.
Hoffer's interest in drug culture dates to the late 1990s. While he earned his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Colorado, he worked in HIV prevention with street-based drug injectors and witnessed the impact of heroin use. He then obtained a grant to do an ethnographic study on heroin dealers in Denver.
After gaining the drug users' trust, he was able to move inside the culture to understand how it worked.
His book, "Junkie Business: the Evolution and Operation of a Heroin Dealing Network," (Thompson-Wadsworth Press, 2006), chronicles his experience.
Hoffer joined the College of Arts and Sciences faculty in 2008. He came to the university from the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine where he was on the faculty and had earned his MPE degree in psychiatric epidemiology.
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