Fri 11th December 2015 / 1:00pm to 4:15pm / Whitespace, Norloch House, 36 King's Stables Road, Edinburgh EH1 2EU

It's just another way of looking at data

If the thing we're trying to describe with data moves, maybe we should make the data move, too

Friction. There's a friction in Flowopoly. It's an unsettling tension between—on the one hand—all the "faff" associated with putting on a Flowopoly Event (the tables, the boards, the labels, the cards, the easels, the whiteboards, the magnets, the red hotels, pretty much everything about it, in fact) and—on the other hand—this irksome sense I have that actually Flowopoly isn't something "special" at all. It isn't an "event". It isn't even a "gimmick". No. Flowopoly is actually just another way of looking at data.

This idea began colonizing my subconscious about three months ago. I remember experiencing a moment of silent epiphany in mid-August during a meeting about stroke pathways, a moment when I realised that—well, wouldn't it be kinda cool and attention-grabbing to walk into a meeting about data with a Winsor and Newton portfolio case full of pre-prepared boards in one arm and an opalescent yellow plastic box full of pre-printed patient cards in the other, and then to suddenly challenge all of the dull expectations of that meeting by spreading out all of the boards and cards on the meeting room table and then involving the meeting-goers (and there might only be two or three of them) in the surprise Flowopoly replay that ensued. Everybody would have a role. Everybody would—out of the blue—be involved. Everybody would suddenly be trying to puzzle stuff out. I was definitely drawn to the "flamboyance" of that idea. It also felt very "guerrilla". And my shallow self was very much seduced by the whole coup de théâtre-ness of it.

So silent was the epiphany that I didn't even write it down properly in my notebook. My lightbulb moment was seemingly completely overshadowed by the observation that we didn't have any outpatient data.

But—for all of its melodrama—it also felt like it was somehow a functional idea. The main thing about a Flowopoly replay—its defining feature, if you will—is that it introduces motion into the mix. It's dynamic data display instead of static data display. Data analysts hardly ever present data in a dynamic way. There's hardly ever any energy or beat or momentum to the way we normally present data: there's no "this happened, then that happened, then—next—this other thing happened." For more years than I care to remember I've longed to be able to present data in a dynamic way, almost as if it were a movie. And my silent light bulb moment in that stroke pathway meeting was—finally—providing me with a route map to that destination.

Flowopoly is Nude Descending a Staircase. It's about taking a medium that's traditionally associated with representing still images and subverting that medium so that it depicts movement instead. Which means that it's nicely appropriate that it should be patient flow that we use as our subject for this experiment. How can we possibly see movement—let alone understand it—if the way we display it is static?

So this is what I was stumbling across when I had the idea in that stroke pathway meeting: I'm interested in creating a step change in people's expectations. Let's face it, the prospect of a meeting about data doesn't quicken anyone's blood. But if—abruptly and without warning—people are participating, moving about, being bombarded by colour, puzzling stuff out, then that's a new and different way of engaging with the System 2 Thinking Problem. And when you strip it down to its bare essentials, of course, Flowopoly is just a different set of queries that you execute on a database. It's not necessarily more work or more faff; it's just different work and different faff.

[20 November 2015]