'We The People of Recovery Road'

‘We The People of Recovery Road’

Contributing authors and designers: Niyah Gonzalez, Jennifer Heintz, Suma Hussien, Priyanka Ketkar, Evan McEldowney, Uttkarsh Narayan, Mike Wagenheim, and Brilee Weaver.

The opioid epidemic in the United States is currently worse than it has ever been. Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country, with nearly 2,000 people dying from overdose in 2016 alone. The epidemic can easily be observed at what is commonly called Boston’s “Methadone Mile” — what we prefer to call “Recovery Road.” This refuge and haven for those with substance use disorder, at the edge of Boston’s South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester neighborhoods, is a walking distance from Northeastern University.

We The People of Recovery Road is an interactive collection of opioid users’ personal stories that seeks to destigmatize addiction. The documentary paints sufferers as relatable subjects primarily through audio narration, sketched animations, and 360 video; its primary goal is to solicit empathy from the user, and perhaps prompt the response: “This could be me.”

Research and story development

In order to properly execute our mission to destigmatize substance use disorder (and, more specifically, opioid use disorder), we spent a large portion of our semester researching the current state of the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts and across the United States. Also crucial to the future of our project was understanding the current state of media coverage that explores this issue; we wanted to be sure that we were presenting the stories of those affected by opioid use disorder in a new and more intimate way than the stories already present the larger media landscape, both nationally and locally.

Our preliminary research and interviews with care providers — or others in the field of medicine, specifically those who study the psychology behind substance use disorder, who work directly with those who have the disorder — helped to better inform us as to the proper vernacular to use in covering this issue; as to how to navigate through information requests and obtain permission to film in medical facilities; as to the inner workings of Recovery Road and the resources there for those with substance abuse disorder.

Our initial approach for finding those willing to share their personal experience with substance use disorder was to use those connections we had made with medical professionals who work directly with the disorder. Eventually, when coordinating with those professionals did not yield the expected results, we decided to draft our own mock stories, informed by our research. We crafted six stories of substance use disorder before narrowing down to one, which we fleshed out and used to inform the timeline or path for the experience. The mock story and stand-in character acted as placeholders until we found a source with substance use disorder who was willing to share his/her personal experience with us.

We hoped that our mock character would break the stereotypical mold of someone addicted to opioids, something the subjects featured in the final project will do; we have several subjects in mind, including an athlete who first became addicted through opioids after an injury, and an expectant mother. Although we experienced great difficulty in finding these subjects in the given time period, we are certain that with more time to connect and build strong relationships with people, we will be able to feature these characters in the final project.  

We did find a subject in recovery from his substance use disorder who was willing to share his personal experience with us. One of our team members began attending narcotics anonymous meetings for the sake of additional research and, there, formed a great rapport with the subject, who agreed to a video interview.

We also interviewed medical practitioners to continue to inform our work and add a different perspective. This perspective is particularly important to include because these professionals have in-depth knowledge about what goes on in the brain, how one becomes addicted to a substance, and so on. This knowledge is crucial in destigmatizing opioid addiction, as a disorder and not a moral failing.

We were able to connect with two expert sources: Jessica Moreno, an assistant clinical professor at Northeastern University who  practices as a clinical pharmacist for the Addictions Consult Team at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Doctor Richard Saitz,  a professor at Boston University Medical School who specializes in addiction medicine.

It was important to have a balance between expert interviews and interviews with those who have substance use disorder because it allowed us to include both the science behind the disorder as well as evoke some kind of empathy and bring a more humane perspective to the general conversation around addiction. 

Visual design

In creating empathetic visuals, we felt that it was best to avoid stereotypes and biases that may be formed solely from a person’s appearance. Therefore, the only way personas are “seen” are through sketched, chalk textured portraits and animations of their experience. Our initial prototype has a combination of sketched and vector based elements, but we are going to continue unifying the visual style by going forward with a more chalk textured user interface (UI) throughout the experience.

User experience

When the user first arrives at the experience, they see a landing screen that prompts them to click “begin.” The user is immediately taken to an animated video outlining the opioid epidemic in the United States and along Recovery Road. Afterwards, they pick from one of three distinct personas, signified by a sketched portrait, first name, and an audio snippet on hover; the user can get a sense of who each person along Recovery Road is at a glance and can follow whichever seems most interesting to them.

The user is then taken to another animated video that includes background story for the persona they have selected. (For the prototype phase, the backstory is video and not animation). Once they have viewed the video, the user is presented with the map of Recovery Road, with several places of interest highlighted for them to explore. At this point, the user experience (UX) becomes much more free form and the user can pick where and in what order they want to explore locations.

Clicking on a location brings the user into a 360 video where they can drag around and click on various hotspots to learn more information about certain locations. Audio from the persona plays over the video, creating an intimate experience — as if you were standing right there next to them, or even in their shoes.

Once the user makes it through all the locations, they are prompted to either follow another story, view resources, or share their experience on social media. Following another story brings the user back to the beginning where they can choose one of the other two personas; viewing resources brings the user to a curated resource page where opioid users, friends, and family can find helpful links and facts; sharing on social media brings them to an environment where they can take a webcam selfie and post to a grid with other substance use disorder allies.

The UX is divided into three distinct sections: the personal stories, supplemental hotspot information and resources, and social media proliferation. The personal stories spark empathy in the user; the supplemental hotspot information and the resource page are meant to provide different points of view of the epidemic, from law enforcement, medical specialists, and other treatment center facilitators so that the user can compare and contrast the perspectives of those with substance use disorder and those of the specialists; the social media proliferation page allows for a conversation to dismantle substance use disorder stigmas.

Technical implementation

The site was developed using HTML, CSS, and Javascript, with integrations of 360 video, audio, and the Vimeo API. We used a Javascript animation and application framework called Biggie, based off of Bigwheel. The framework allowed us to have a one page application that loaded new information by injecting parts of the DOM into sections of the page.

We pulled data from a JSON file that mirrored the hierarchies of the pages and was connected through mustache files, that then was converted into HTML. We also integrated 360 videos through the KRPano 360 library but had trouble getting hotspots working because of problems with Google’s VR Viewer.

We have a very good base to put in more information and we are looking to build out more the functionality to better integrate the experience.

Looking ahead

We decided to use 360 video for this project because we felt that the interactivity offered by 360 video gave us the best landscape for users to witness a persons experience on Recovery Road. With the prompt to “click and drag to explore,” users have full control to explore the surrounding environment which may feature treatment centers and facilities, crowded street corners, law enforcement and outreach workers working these streets, etc.

In this phase of the project, we currently have 360 video featuring the intersections of Massachusetts Avenue and Albany Street, as well as Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. We did spend a lot of time trying to get access to film in facilities such as BHCHP (Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program) and PAATHS (Providing Access to Addictions Treatment, Hope and Support), but patient confidentiality rules unfortunately limited our access to film these facilities.

Because our current subject did not have any connection to Recovery Road, the audio landscapes within the 360 video featured other audiobits. For example, the Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard 360 video featured a soundbite from our interview with a police officer from Boston Public Health Commission’s Police Department, who patrols the area of Recovery Road five days per week.

The more focused headphone experience will definitely be a new focus for the next phase of our project.  In order to recreate what our subject’s day-to-day experience is or was like on Recovery Road, a “step into my shoes” type of experience, the 360 videos will feature layers of detailed audio soundscapes. One layer would feature ambient sounds of that particular 360 shot. Another layer would feature the subject’s first-person description of particular memories coinciding with the shot location. In order to solicit the most empathy from users, the audio soundscapes present in these 360 videos will serve to add additional layers of understanding of what it was like for a person to spend a majority of their time on Recovery Road.

We may also include a UI feature that allows the user to choose whether they would like to experience Recovery Road in broad daylight, dusk, or nighttime, as different time periods throughout the day will provide different information on what it is like along Recovery Road. 

We intend to simplify our visual design, with less variety in the visual modalities present in our current prototype. For example, in this phase of the project, the backstory video, expert videos, and closing video were “talking head” video shots. Because of time constraints, we did not have time to animate the information provided these videos. We hope to to continue unifying the visual style by going forward with more chalk-textured portraits and animations of the subjects’ experiences.


We The People of Recovery Road was developed in ARTE5601-02 Special Topics: StoryLab, Spring 2017, a studio course organized around a single project with an emphasis on creativity and experimentation in the use of interactive media, data visualization, and new forms of narrative presentation. StoryLab is a collaboration between the School of Journalism and the Department of Art + Design in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University.

Course instructor: David Tamés (Assistant Teaching Professor, Department of Art + Design). Guest Critics: Dina Kraft (Program Coordinator, Media Innovation, School of Journalism), Ann McDonald (Associate Professor of Design, Department of Art + Design), Kent Millard (User Experience Designer, Mathworks).