Lessons Learned “Off the Grid”

Living “off the grid” (albeit temporarily) is an extraordinarily more charming and interesting experience than you might imagine.

Yes, I am totally serious.

Consider Exhibit A: The “Nubble.”

The Nubble, Bustins Island, Maine
The Nubble, Bustins Island, Maine

The Nubble is a tiny little cottage built on a rock (okay, technically an island) right off the southeast side of Bustins Island, in Casco Bay, Maine. This cottage is postcard perfect. Its octagon shape is reminiscent of a lighthouse and it’s as captivating on the inside as it is on the outside. It has its own little windmill to generate power and a small gas tank for the stove and fridge (yes, a gas powered fridge).

Bathing is done with sun showers, which are essentially big plastic bags of water that you leave in the sun all day. When the water is hot you hang the bag up, open the attached nozzle and take a shower-hence the name–sun shower.

The only way to get to the Nubble is in a canoe or rowboat. And just as an FYI, if you’re ever in a position to accept an invitation to have dinner at the Nubble, I would strongly advise you to stop drinking wine early in the evening if you wish to paddle back home (without event) after dinner.

But here is the thing that I love most about being off the grid; it causes me to notice and consider things that I never would’ve otherwise…a fridge powered by gas, a shower that harnesses the sun’s energy, a little windmill that generates power and of course, paddling my way to a dinner party.

Living off the grid, even if only for a few days, reminds me that it is my vision (and I am paraphrasing the famous statistician Tukey here) to cause people to notice: “what they never expected to see” in their healthcare data.

To that end, I always work within the following framework when I am creating reports and data displays — and I encourage you to as well.

1. Connect. What is the message that needs to be conveyed and given that message, will my display of healthcare data connect with the audience?

How much or how little information do they need and what knowledge of relevant concepts, jargon, and symbols are they familiar with?

For example, communicating patient satisfaction results to a hospital quality improvement team tasked with improving those results may require detailed information about the type and acuity of patients being cared for along with hospital staffing levels and worked hours per patient day, whereas the information that will most likely connect with prospective patients is simply a measure of how satisfied past patients have been with the care they’ve received: unsatisfied, satisfied, very satisfied.

2. Guide and Hold Attention. Does my data display draw and guide the viewer into the display and hold them by helping them to notice what’s important in the data?

The most powerful visual display of data will draw attention and signal the most important information. This may be done through grouping important data or highlighting it by making it visually different.

This can also be accomplished by choosing the correct encoding of data in a graph. For example, a line graph to show trends over time or a bar graph to show differences in data values.

3. Promote Comprehension and Memory. Am I communicating the healthcare data effectively with visual displays that are easily understood “at a glance” and recalled “without effort?”

A message is best understood if its form is compatible with its meaning. And so I test that my data displays directly contain the information needed to inform a decision without requiring the viewer to transform the display mentally or compute new relationships in the data.

And finally, there are limits to our short-term memory and to how much information we can process. In light of this, I am always cognizant of how much information is the right amount and I use techniques like chunking to help viewers of my reports to remember important data (think telephone numbers, social security numbers).

I like living “on the grid” a lot. But I appreciate and embrace the brief moments that I am off of it in a place like Bustins Island, Maine or the Nubble and I can consider life through a different lens.

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