Herointown: Personalizing data on the drug epidemic in New Jersey


A long-form project driven by Stephen Stirling, and published by NJ Advance Media on 15 December 2015, uses quantitative and qualitative data to reveal the scope of New Jersey's heroin problem. Termed 'Herointown', the project uses data to metaphorically imagine what a city would be like if was made up of the state's heroin users.

The demographics of 'Herointown' are derived from public health statistics on the state's heroin users, and crowdsourced stories from people affected by the drug.

By using the familiar concept of a New Jersey city, Stirling ensures that the audiences relates to the data that he is presenting, humanizing the stories of the imagined city's diverse inhabitants.

For example, Stirling compares the population of 'Herointown' to other cities in the state, revealing that it would be the fourth most populous at 128,000 residents.

According to the project's site, this number was derived by "pitting annual treatment data against federal estimates of the untreated substance abuse population. A linear regression analysis was used to plot the trend in user populations over time. The estimates were provided to experts in the field of addiction research, who concluded even the highest estimates were likely low due to the uncertainty of how many thousands of New Jersey residents seek treatment in other states. To remain conservative, a figure of 128,000 was settled on, the most robustly researched figure that fell below the regression line".


Complimenting the metaphor are several visualizations that represent the qualitative and quantitative data collected on the states' users.

Qualitative data was crowdsourced through an open call for stories from people affected by heroin use across the state. About 500 responses from more than 200 New Jersey towns were received, and readers can explore these through an interactive in their unedited form.


Image: A screenshot from the project's 'Their own words' visualization.

In addition to these stories, public health data are also visualized through a number of interactive graphs and figures.

Explore the full project here.