Last week, a court order forced the Boy Scouts of America to release internal documents describing over a thousand instances of alleged abuse over the last several decades. When combined with other reports, the number of individuals barred from the organization under suspicion of sexual abuse in the last 60 years totals over 5,000 nationwide. It’s an astounding number, and to put it fully into perspective, the Los Angeles Times generated an interactive map plotting the allegations nationwide. It’s a powerful reminder of how sometimes good data visualization is the only true way to understand the big picture.
The map is part of a greater database the Los Angeles Times has assembled in its ongoing coverage of the allegations. Users can see where instances of abuse were reported year by year, sort the list of the suspected abusers by name or Scout troop number, or search the entire database for a specific name. In one sense, you could see such a coldly data-driven view as a dehumanization of such an appalling issue. But using this approach, the graphic is able to depict at a glance just how systemic the problem was–not limited to any single troop, state, or time period in particular.
The Scouts had kept the files private for decades, acknowledging the mishandling of many individual reports of abuse but claiming that the data, as a whole, wasn’t useful for addressing the concern. But experts disagree, and the Times’s investigation of the documents revealed patterns of behavior that seemed to coincide with abuse. Had the data been given a close look at an earlier date, the organization would undoubtedly have been better equipped to instate policies that attempted to curb the predation.
The Times’s database is not only useful for helping readers grasp the broad nature of the abuse; it could also be used by individuals who themselves were victims in years’ past. According to the Times, legal experts say that the public release of the documents, many of which detail the Scouts’ unwillingness to refer incidents to authorities, could lead to new lawsuits; for those courageous enough to revisit that painful history, the straightforward, searchable database could be an invaluable resource.