Tied in Knots: Visualizing Occurrences of Sexual Assault in the Academy

Tied in Knots is an interactive visualization with the objective of providing insights and to spread awareness about sexual harassment (SH)  in academia. One of the challenges of this project was to provide analytics without minimizing the individual accounts of people who have reported incidents of SH. The typical methods for data visualization use some form of summary in order to simplify the dataset allowing the user to glean insights more quickly with less “clutter.”  When the data you are dealing with is the individual’s first-hand account of their traumatic experience the traditional methods of summary are not only incorrect and inappropriate — the traditional approaches are damaging and minimize the individual’s traumatic experience.

The challenge of keeping every data point as part of the visualization brought a necessity for high-performance rendering.  The original solution used D3 and SVG in order to create the text that followed the spline. Upon clicking the text each “knot” would unravel allowing the user to see the first-hand accounts of that particular person. The “knots” themselves are tied based on a set of criteria for the meta-data of each account.

The solution that gave the best performance was to employ a WebGL based rendering system using the library Pixi.js. To address the unraveling of the text a hybrid method was created. When the user clicks on one of the text images, an SVG is created with the text and the knot is unraveled. The overall solution gave a performance increase of over 1400% while meeting all of the design and platform criteria.

One of the key aspects of this project was defining a metaphor that both created interest and intrigue, but also allowed for a different type of understanding of the stories being shared. Knots proved to be an important choice that works on a number of different levels. First, the shape of knots can be parametric, and so they can be used to encode data in an unusual and curious new way. Second, they can be used rhetorically: “I have a knot in my stomach” is a very common colloquialism (used in at least one account) that expresses uncomfortable feelings similar to the ones experienced while reading the survey. Thanks to knots we can create a visual connection between testimonies and the feelings they transmit. Another connection lies in the homonym ‘not’, the adverb of negation. We recognize this connection because negations and negativity are countlessly present in the survey, with over half of respondents that used terms such as  “did not report”, “hadn’t been heard”, or decided to “not continue my Phd”. Once we found this metaphor, the project began to take shape.

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