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AZ Tech Beat | June 18, 2019

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Cronkite journalists develop “Highly Potent” app to tell history of heroin

Cronkite journalists develop “Highly Potent” app to tell history of heroin
Thomas Hawthorne

This past Tuesday, more than 30 broadcast stations across Arizona simultaneously aired “Hooked: Tracking Heroin’s Hold on Arizona,” a 30-minute film produced by journalism students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, documenting the rise of heroin use in the state amongst 20-year-olds.

While the film took main stage as the focus of the collaborative project by Cronkite and the Arizona Broadcast Association, a related iOS app, called “Highly Potent,” was also created at the school’s Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab. Through creative illustrations, text and interactive features, the app takes the user from opium’s beginnings in 3400 B.C. to heroin’s modern use in the medium of a six-chapter graphic novel.

C.R. Alder Wright was the chemist who synthesized and created heroin

C.R. Alder Wright was the chemist who synthesized and created heroin

“I’ve wanted to do a project like this for awhile,” said Retha Hill, the Executive Director of the Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab. “I thought this would be a really good opportunity to utilize the graphic novel style of storytelling.”

According to Hill, the idea for this style of journalism was inspired by the CIA: Operation Ajax the Interactive Graphic Novel app. Utilizing both illustration and hands-on features, this approach gives the viewer an unorthodox and entertaining way to digest news.

“We wanted something to that would have longevity. The documentary will be accurate for the next couple of years,” Hill said.

Civil War soldiers were treated with the opium derivative morphine.

Civil War soldiers were treated with the opium derivative morphine.

Pulling together 12 students from different educational and cultural backgrounds, the app was completed in the length of the 2014 fall semester alongside the release of the documentary, Hill said.

Steven Totten, a 24-year-old graduate student at Cronkite and one of the app’s two illustrators said working on the app gave him the opportunity to fully immerse himself in multi-media. His illustrations, alongside a student from the ASU Herberger Institute who did most of the backgrounds for each chapter, compliment the written content, animation and music featured throughout the app.

“It’s very collaborative, and working on something like this is you have a vague idea of how the end result is going to expand but it’s kind of a mystery as well,” Totten said.

The project was built with Adobe Edge Animate and PhoneGap, software used in making cross platform mobile applications.

The dutch started smoking opium mixed with tobacco, which made the practice of using opium more widespread

The dutch started smoking opium mixed with tobacco, which made the practice of using opium more widespread

“The first part of the job was to design the storyline and how to incorporate the history of heroin. The second part was to code around,” said Linxiao Li, a 24-year-old graduate from the master’s program at Cronkite and one of the designers and developers of the app.

According to Li, who had previous experience in building websites, the most difficult part of the app’s construction was coding.

“It wasn’t something done chronologically so the biggest challenge to me was handling this amount of data for the first time,” Li said.

Hill hopes for the app to be used by educators to show the history of heroin in an interactive and entertaining format. A spanish-speaking version is planned to be released in the coming weeks.

“Our main goal for this app was to have it as an educational tool,” Totten said. “We’re so hoping that can come to fruition and that educators can use its educational value and because of the medium it’s in it will have more of an attraction to a younger audience.

Read more coverage about what’s going on at ASU at AZTB.