I don’t know what the question is, but the answer is a spreadsheet.– Glen Lipka
I love collecting weird data and making charts out of it. In the last year, there has been a ton of interesting data. Decisions are made often with lots of bad bias. One area my family struggles with are decisions about whether we should or shouldn’t engage in certain activities in an era of social distancing.
Should we go to an escape room? What about flying in a plane to visit Nana? Is tennis a high risk activity? All of these questions and more have led to uncomfortable arguments in the house. So the other night, we constructed a little Covid framework in a spreadsheet to understand how we think about risk and importance. The final chart allows us to compare different activities against Risk and Importance.
We iterated for a while but ended up breaking risk down into three categories. Ventilation, Density, and Stupid People. We came up with a 4 point scale.
- 0 = No Risk
- 1 = Low
- 2 = Medium
- 3 = High
We allowed a .5 modifier when we thought it was somewhere in between. For ventilation, we wanted to differentiate between indoor and outdoor seating. If there was sunlight or wind, it has been reported that Covid is less likely to transmit. For Density, we were trying to say that more people increased risk. And lastly stupid people was a tough one. We wanted to isolate if people at that activity or place would be following strict protocols or not. An indoor rally with lots of people without masks would be the highest risk.
We realized relatively quickly that we all had very different ideas about how important certain activities were. We started with categories and eventually scrapped it in favor of an individual 0-9 rating that we would average across the family. Interestingly, each family member weighed importance very differently. Some focused on the well being of individuals. Some were more selfish. This was a really contentious argument over how one should rate importance.
We debated as a family why we rated the way we did. Sometimes we adjusted the numbers, but they quickly settled in. When we looked at the chart (above) we thought that it was a good visualization.
How to Decide
There are some no-brainers. Anything bottom-right is high importance and low risk. You should do those. Things in the top-left were low importance and high risk. Seems like a bad idea in general. The lower-left was probably fine since it was low risk. The tricky part was the top-right. High risk, but high importance. These are items that you want to be careful about and talk as a family.
There will certainly be other items in the center. Those are hard as well. We color coded the items based on if it was being done by only one member of the house and used the size of the bubble to indicate frequency (bigger = more frequent). We talked some about how each of us contributed to risk individually.
The basic framework is to put in new lines as new activities appear. We see where it lands in the chart and talk about the relative importance of an item by looking at nearby circles. This helps contextualize the risk and compare apples and oranges without breaking your brain.
We also added an ROI column which helped us see which items has the best risk-importance ratio. We will continue to iterate on the chart, but I think it has helped us have a discussion we had been avoiding. It also helped us see we were saying yes to some and not others even though the risk-reward was the same.
Compared to Other People
I think our family is more risk averse than other families. When I play tennis, I am the only one on the court using the USTA “Don’t touch other players tennis balls” rule. We might be setting our bar too conservatively. Does it matter? Should we compare ourselves to others? These are difficult times, but I know in my heart that a good spreadsheet helps.