How To Turn Fetal-Monitoring Data Into Flowers

What to expect when you’re expecting–in the Big Data era with Philips’s data visualization team.

Can data change the world?


Yes, but only if real people can read and use it. With connected lighting, health (and baby) monitoring devices, and other consumer products, Philips is in a unique position to collect and analyze data. Lots and lots of data.

Thanks to its new data visualization team, the information that’s coming in is becoming more useful for patients.

Philips’s chief design officer, Sean Carney, recently spoke with Fast Company about some real-world examples of how Philips is using data to improve lives–including a data-into-flowers prototype in Dutch hospitals, which demonstrates how data help calm the delivery room experience for expectant moms.

“That’s a big hurdle that you’ve got to cross is how you present data in a meaningful way, in a relevant way that the patient can understand. It’s one of the key things we’ve been working on this year,” says Carney. “Big data is fine but then if you see big data it’s pretty scary. It’s crude. It’s rough. It comes in unformatted ways. This is all bits and bytes and 1s and 0s.”

As a result, Carney says, one of his big initiatives this year was to build a dedicated data visualization team within his Digital Accelerator Lab. “We set up a team up to basically receive data–and it can be from TVs or an MRI or monitoring devices in a hospital NICU,” he says. “[That team can then] interpret it and visualize it in a way that is easy to access for the clinician, for the nurse, or even for the patient.”

He gives the example of an ongoing data visualization project in the Netherlands that began earlier this year, looking at how to use data visualization to create more positive feelings during pregnancy and delivery. “We ran a project here in the Netherlands where we looked at pregnancy and delivery. At the first scan with the ultrasound, we sign you up on an iPhone app. Then you track your pregnancy throughout all your visits,” he says.

When expectant mothers enter the delivery ward, the app connects with all of the monitoring devices in the delivery room. The data is then migrated through the app to a projector–and turned into a visual that women and their partners can use to see how far labor has progressed, the intensity of each contraction, how close they are together, and use this as a focusing tool for when contractions come. “We’re using data visualization to make this into something a lot more human,” Carney says. “You can choose, for instance, a flower, a tree growing, then as the labor progresses and the contractions get bigger and deeper then more leaves grow. And as the dilation starts, the flower starts blossoming. You can build a picture on it.”


Carney points out that it is far more interesting than the raw data beeps and lines you’d typically see from a monitor ticker tape “with the bleeps and the running readouts that mean nothing to the patient.” Now, he says, “you’re seeing the labor progress on the wall with the nice graphic visual. That really has a positive effect on the psychology of the woman giving birth and helps calm them down.”

There is not yet quantitative evidence of the effectiveness of these tools. Conducted in close collaboration with the family centered mother and childcare center at the Máxima Medical Center in Veldhoven, the Netherlands, the concept is still in a testing phase. To date, it has been installed in three delivery rooms, collaborating with two midwifery practices and being tested with 60 women who will use it, and their experiences will be compared to those of 60 other women not using the tech.

“It comes back to connectivity–understanding real users–understanding the context of use and then starting to leverage the technology,” says Carney. “That’s what gives you something that really truly helps people.”

Should Philips see the results they are hoping for, the miracle of birth could become even more miraculous.

About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies.