SALSA Project: Flash mobs as a research method?

By Kira Oberschmidt

When you hear the words ‘flash mob’ you probably think of people suddenly starting to dance inside a mall. Or maybe an orchestra giving an impromptu concert in a market square? A few years ago such seemingly spontaneous social activities were very popular. And now the ‘flash mob’ has found its way into research.

In academia, a ‘flash mob’ of course doesn’t include dancing or music. Instead it means trying to involve many different participants in a short period of time. And not only the conduction of the research is fast-paced, the analysis and reporting should also be done quickly.

The relatively new method came on our path when we were planning a final study for the SALSA project, and we decided to give it a shot. Within the SALSA Health project, we evaluate a technology that stimulates exercise in rehabilitation through the use of games. The system can be adjusted to the range of motion of a patient, and individual exercise schemes can be added and saved. After a previous six month testing period at a physiotherapist’s, we were now interested in the potential of SALSA Health for the rehabilitation context.

So at the beginning of April, we set up a big tv screen and a Kinect sensor in the entry hall at Roessingh, Centre for Rehabilitation, Enschede. Patients and therapist could spontaneously stop by and try out the SALSA Health system. Then, they were asked to complete a short survey on their experience, and whether they would like to make use of SALSA Health in their treatment.

Both patients and healthcare professionals liked SALSA Health and saw its potential to enhance rehabilitation care. But what was equally important for us was the successful conduction of our first flash mob study. As expected, there were some teething problems, but also a lot of things that went well.

Based on our experience, we came up with some tips for anybody who wants to conduct similar flash mob studies:

  • Give people time. In Dutch we call it ‘kat uit de boom kijken’ (see which way the cat jumps). People might walk by and look four times, and hopefully the fifth time they will stop and ask what you are doing. So allow enough time for this in your study.
  • Create awareness. Of course, a researcher should be present at all times to explain what you are doing there. But you should also make use of materials like banners or flyers for those who want to learn about your research, but don’t want to commit to anything yet.
  • Involve insiders. The best way to get people to join is by having a peer (in our case another patient or a colleague) tell them about it. So stimulate participants to tell others! Maybe a therapist can email his colleagues, or a patient can bring her roommate along later.
  • Keep it short. Participation in the flash mob is meant to be short and spontaneous, so limit what you ask of people. This also allows you to involve those who have little time or walk by in between meetings.
  • Adjust the location to your target group. Find a place where your target group is sure to find you, but where they also feel comfortable to participate. Being seen by everybody is nice to draw attention to your research, but may also scare people off.

We will also be implementing these tips ourselves in the future, since this definitely wasn’t our last flash mob. Actually we are planning a new one right now, so keep an eye out! And if you are interested or have any questions, get in touch!

If interested, you can learn more about the flash mob method here:

Moons, P. (2021). Flash mob studies: a novel method to accelerate the research process.

Or read about an example of a flash mob study here:

van Nassau, S. C., Bond, M. J., Scheerman, I., Van Breeschoten, J., Kessels, R., Valkenburg-van Iersel, L. B., … & Roodhart, J. M. (2021). Trends in Use and Perceptions About Triplet Chemotherapy Plus Bevacizumab for Metastatic Colorectal Cancer. JAMA network open, 4(9), e2124766-e2124766.

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