Digital Scholarship@Leiden

Learn about data management concepts in this online Data Horror Escape Room Data Horror Week 2020

Learn about data management concepts in this online Data Horror Escape Room

Our new digital escape room introduces some basic data management concepts and offers a fun way to educate and to prompt discussions with researchers.

Guest co-authors: Lena Karvovskaya and Elisa Rodenburg, VU Amsterdam, with Joanne Yeomans, Leiden University Libraries.

The Data Horror Escape Room was a collaboration between Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Lena Karvovskaya and Elisa Rodenburg), Leiden University Libraries (Joanne Yeomans), and Eindhoven University of Technology (Anne Aarts and Bart Aben).


Engaging researchers with research data management (RDM) can sometimes be difficult. Researchers already have lots of administration to take care of, and learning about data management protocols and good practice can seem like an onerous task to add to the list. Furthermore, the benefits of good data management are not always very obvious to researchers in the early stages of their project and potential problems that might have been avoided may only become visible much later, for example when wanting to combine data sets or re-use previously collected data. It is therefore important to try to introduce good RDM practices to researchers at an early stage of their research, or to catch the attention of experienced researchers who may benefit from changing their habits.

We wanted to see if we could find a way of getting researchers to start thinking about RDM outside the more-formal environments of a traditional training session or meeting. Game-based learning can help both to increase a person's knowledge, and to reinforce existing knowledge, and because games are fun, they can offer a good way to start engagement and further discussion, breaking down barriers that people sometimes perceive in those more formal settings.

In order to be able to introduce some data management concepts in a light-hearted way, members of the data management support teams at VU Amsterdam, TU Eindhoven, and Leiden University Libraries, Centre for Digital Scholarship, developed together a Data Horror Escape Room that introduces and tests basic knowledge of RDM concepts.

What is an Escape Room?

An escape room is a game where a team of players has to solve a set of puzzles to “escape” the room in which they are “locked”. There is usually a theme and a story that brings the puzzles together. Digital escape rooms, as well as physical escape rooms, are often used in educational settings where they can be used individually, but are often most successful when used by a team.

What’s inside the Data Horror Escape Room?

Our Data Horror Escape Room is set in a Professor's office. It contains a number of puzzles, connected to items in the office, which can each be solved by looking for clues inside the room itself. Only for one puzzle do participants need to leave the room, and this they can do by using a link from a clue in the room.

The escape room we created consists of six tasks related to the following data management topics:

  • FAIR data
  • personal data
  • data archiving
  • data transfer
  • persistent identifiers
  • metadata.

The website leads participants through a story about a Professor who needs help with their data management. By learning about the topics above, and by solving the associated puzzles, progress is made towards enabling the participant to complete the game and escape the office.

As the room was to be launched during the 2020 Data Horror Week, a Halloween-related theme was developed, with implications that the Professor’s research was somehow connected to encounters with ghosts and vampires.


Data Horror Week has been developed by Dutch universities during the last couple of years as an opportunity to raise awareness of good data management practices. It uses the occasion and imagery of Halloween, and the idea of avoiding a data management horror story, to draw attention to good practices.

During the week in which Halloween falls there is a social media campaign using the hashtag #DataHorrorWeek, sometimes complemented by live events.

The overriding idea is to create a safe space for people to acknowledge things that went wrong and to share their story so that they, and others, can learn from it. VU Amsterdam has collected and made available a new set of these stories for Data Horror Week 2020.

Data Horror stories 2020

How the escape room educates and prompts discussion

The clues to be able to complete the puzzles in the Data Horror Escape Room can be gathered by watching a video, reading documents found in the room, or using common sense or processes of elimination to work out the answers. People with only basic knowledge of data management should therefore be able to complete everything, but because of the fun element to solving the puzzles, we believe that those more experienced with data management will also enjoy trying to complete it.

Discussing the puzzles after completing the game can provide prompts for particular common data management challenges. For example, the following questions could be raised:

  • Have you investigated what data archives exist in your discipline and had a look at what they contain?
  • Do you collect any personal data?
  • Do you have an ORCID id?
  • How can you safely move data from one location to another? This might be especially relevant at this time when many people are working remote from their university office or lab.

We have also introduced into the story some small talking points that can be picked up for discussion later if people are observant enough. These include, among others,

  • Is it safe to store documents in a filing cabinet?
  • Do you throw away data that you no longer need or use?
  • Do you give any consideration to the security of data on all your equipment, such as cameras or mobile phones?
  • Do you make, and write down, a plan for when and how you will collect your data?
  • What training do you think you might need to be able to improve your data management?

Using the data horror escape room

The room is being used by the developing teams in two basic ways:

  • as a self-directed learning environment, embedded and connected to further help and information,
  • during a virtual, live event, whereby the playing of the game is followed by discussion.

The three university developing teams aim to collect and share feedback from participants and to discuss their own experiences using the rooms during Data Horror Week, with each other and later with the international community of data management supporters.

The room is ready to use by anyone freely online, or as a team game as part of a training session, or awareness-raising event. A person can only really ‘solve’ the escape room once, after which the answers are known, but by offering the room under an open CC-BY-SA licence, anyone can adapt or re-invent the puzzles to refresh the room for their own purposes.

During the two test sessions, two groups of relatively knowledgeable colleagues completed the game in forty minutes. We estimate that for researchers with less knowledge it could be completed within approximately an hour. The live event is therefore scheduled to last for one and a half hours, allowing half an hour for discussion of the puzzles.

The technical side of things

The escape room was built in Google Sites which allowed the three teams to build the site together collaboratively from different locations and with a low software threshold. The puzzles themselves are mainly built using Google Forms and the site was fleshed out using free-to-use images created by the team or sourced from the database of free images, Unsplash.

Credit for the original concept should be given to Lieke Mulder and Merel Talbi who created an escape room “Nacht in het Museum” (Night in the Museum) in May 2020. We based the Data Horror Escape Room on the basic format of their room and were inspired by some of their puzzles.

Once the room was completely built and tested, it was cloned for the two different purposes: one for use by anyone at anytime, the other for use in a live, team event. The former is the simple version of the room with the latter having additional features whereby team names can be captured and timestamps are created upon completion so that those teams completing the game fastest can be identified as the “winners”.

It would be great if anyone who uses the room, or has any feedback, sends a tweet about it with the hashtag #DataHorrorWeek or tags us: @CDSLeiden @TUeindhoven @VU_RDM_Support

We are hoping that others will also find the Data Horror Escape Room useful and fun, or be inspired to create their own!