Puzzling out an IoT Escape Room

Testing open facilitation & leadership with our community’s help

Mar 16, 2018 · 9 min read
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A detail from our event poster


The story of our first ever IoT Escape Room workshop began over a year ago as part of an internal project to drive public demand for better online privacy and security. In an effort to reach over 1000 people with grassroots, community-based teaching and learning about online safety, we asked what might happen if we mashed up the Internet of Things (IoT) and an escape room. An escape room is a fun, social, collaborative experience for a small group of people. The group is “locked” inside of a room with a particular theme and story (like the captain’s cabin on a pirate ship) and they must find and solve puzzles (like, “Where is the treasure?”) to escape before time runs out (in about 45–60 minutes). In reality, anyone can leave at any time — no one is really locked inside the room. Instead, it’s like a playing field for problem-solving.

In looking at what it would take to create such a room, we thought we ought to test the idea before we committed more resources to it. We pitched the idea as part of the (MPA), a small set of 2017 Global Sprint projects meant to help project leads and volunteer contributors make playful, game-like experiences that taught about online privacy and security.

That got a few contributions including a cool music-based puzzle, but it didn’t take off like some other MPA projects, including the . While the project attracted some contributions, it failed to make the case that we were ready to run face-to-face IoT Escape Room workshops.

However, we weren’t ready to give up on the idea. We were convinced that if we could develop the right workshop model, we could lower or maybe even remove many of the barriers to engagement with the project. We hypothesized that we could develop a community workshop that would help people get comfortable with

  • The Internet.
  • Gigabit-speed internet networks.
  • Online privacy and safety.
  • The Internet of Things.
  • Design and prototyping.

If we could do that, we further imagined, then we could spend the rest of the time in the workshop helping people create their own IoT Escape Rooms to re-use as teaching tools in their communities, libraries, schools, and workspaces.

Towards that end, we began developing an agenda for a 2-day workshop that would cover those concepts and bring together a set of facilitators and community members who could sprint together to create a prototype escape room or gallery walk or demo of online privacy and security puzzles. We aimed for prototype, over product, if that makes sense: to show people what they could learn, make, and teach rather then somehow rush a professional-looking escape room.

All of that happened during the spring or 2017. Ever since, we’ve been working with colleagues and community members from our comms team, our grants and awards team, our Open IoT team, our design community, our open data community, and our open leadership team to develop the most effective workshop agenda we could imagine, including that we used to introduce human-centered design during the workshop. If we hadn’t tested the deck at different Mozilla events throughout the year, it never would have worked as well as it did at the workshop.

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A technology card from our design deck

In early March, 2018, we finally made it to Chattanooga, Tennessee, North America’s first Gig City (a city with a gigabit-speed Internet network), and joined parents, students, librarians, teachers, retirees, scientists and technologists in prototyping an IoT escape room for the Chattanooga Public Library to share with its community.

It took a year to get there — and, truthfully, it probably needed to. Open collaboration takes time, and the value of a project comes from the trust, candor, and community-building built up during the time organizers, contributors, and users spend together.


The workshop was a success. We brought together 9 facilitators (including 5 staff) and 15 participants who created a gallery walk of escape room prototypes for 30 visitors.

Early feedback from participants indicates that we have some very specific, achievable improvements to make, and that we also delivered a very effective, engaging, and safe experience overall. According to our post survey

  • 100% of respondents said the workshop helped them better understand IoT.
  • About 86% of respondents said the workshop helped them better understand privacy and security issues related to IoT devices.
  • 100% of respondents said the workshop felt safe or very safe.
  • About 43% said they would run the workshop again for their communities.
  • About 86% said they would run at least one of the workshop’s activities again for their communities.

Most respondents wanted even more time for the workshop so we could:

  • Make sure that every prototype we made — and that every part of our escape room story — prompted visitors to ask a question about privacy and security on connected devices.
  • Make sure that workshop participants had more time to learn how to build prototypes alongside our facilitators.

As a organizer especially concerned with open facilitation and opportunities for open leadership during and after the event, here are my takeaways, as well. These are my top 5 facilitation puzzles solved at the IoT Escape Room workshop:

Right place, right partners, right participants: We could not have run this workshop and brought this IoT and prototyping content to community members without the support of the . The (a.k.a. the 4th floor) was also the perfect space for the event, and library itself was a stellar partner. From signage to supplies to support and staff participation in the workshop, we couldn’t have asked for more. The host for an event like this is the opportunity- and trust-broker between organizers and the local community. It’s essential to get this relationship right and deliver on your end as an organizer. We would not have had such a diverse group of participants or visitors without the library’s help. It was as if the library had helped bring together everyone we wanted to design the workshop for from the start.

Activities and methods: Sometimes we include “greatest hits” activities in our agendas. Sometimes we test something new. We had to do both at this event, learning how to best facilitate and pace a community IoT hack jam on day 2 as we went. We knew that we needed frequent check-in meetings to keep different teams talking with one another about their work. If we didn’t do that, then the escape room story would fall apart. I know that we, as facilitators, have work to do to improve our day 2 scaffolding for participants, but we were able to follow our participants’ lead to turn our check-ins into specific kinds of helpful meetings involving tech demos, storyboarding, and to-do lists that kept people moving head together. I’ve started thinking of our greatest hits as activities — exercises with particular, tested structures and proven outcomes. A lot of our day 1 agenda items were activities. I’ve started to think of the exercises we do to discover how best to move forward as a group as methods — processes we follow to discover and respond to needs at a workshop that can be different, but needed, every time.

Flexible grouping: I know we needed more time and more opportunities for participants to learn new technologies from our facilitators. I would like to revisit the way we structured day 2 and our grouping at future events. I am still happy with the way we differentiated and grouped participants during work time on day 2. We recruited facilitators with a variety of experiences and expertise so we could invite participants to work on parts of the project that felt comfortable to them. We had:

  • A documentation group putting together resources for recreating the workshop, its prototypes, and its activities.
  • A storytelling group working on the narrative frame or container for all of the puzzles.
  • A paper prototyping group working on non-technical puzzles.
  • A device prototyping group working on technical puzzles.

The big idea was to differentiate by comfort level. People were free to move between groups, but in practice, it was tough to join the device prototyping group once people in that group got deep into their projects. I’d like to find a way to preserve flexible, participant-driven grouping and pathways during work time at the next event that allow more access to the technology for everyone who is interested.

Prototyping with fewer, more accessible technologies: I loved the variety of technology we had available for participants to use at this event, but I worry that the amount of choice and the piles of stuff on our device table might have been overwhelming for those wondering how to start. We put together a large collection of options including paper circuitry supplies, arduinos, voice assistants, sensors, LEDs, electronic keys, LCD screens, and wires galore. Our tech facilitators assembled the list of supplies together before the event, and I think it was valuable for them to share ideas and build a shared vision of what might be possible together.

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An IoT Escape Room paper circuitry hand-scanner prototype

In the future, though, I would like to test different platforms, maybe 1 at a time, at each IoT Escape Room workshop. I would also like to build in time for everyone to learn something about that technology before choosing a group to contribute to later in day 2. I wonder if paper prototyping with a twist — like — is the way to go here.

Show & tell: Our colleague from Mozilla’s suggested that we use one of our check-ins to a kind of tech-inspiration round table. We gathered everyone, and our tech facilitators and community technologists each shared 1 piece of technology from the table and an idea of how it could be used in an IoT escape room puzzle. For example, our electronic keys could be paired to model 2-factor authentication to better protect email and social media accounts.

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An IoT Escape Room 2-factor authentication prototype with electronic keys

Then we watched a series of our colleague shared on YouTube to show off a few more technologies we could use. I think this combination of showing and telling was very important for inspiring participants to imagine and build both paper and device prototypes later in the day. Creating videos, running this kind of show-and-tell, and having some devices set up (like a light-sensor acting as a fake fingerprint sensor) are all ways we can suggest what’s possible to prototype at future events.

What’s next?

We hope that our facilitators, participants, and visitors all remain interested in bringing this workshop or some of its activities home to their local communities. Our goal for the workshop was to produce a fun, social, collaborative xperience that would empower participants to teach their colleagues, families, or students about privacy and security on connected devices.

To that end, we’ve assembled and shared all of our plans and materials in both a Google Drive folder and GitHub repo. These resources are for everyone.

Are you interested in an event like this? Would you like to try one of its activities or print one of its resources? Then these are for you, too:

In the README file of either resource, you’ll find more ways to contribute like sharing your ideas for puzzles with us, localizing or translating the repo into other languages, or running the workshop yourself and letting us know how it goes. If we can be of any help to you in doing any of those things, please reach out to one of our project leads, or . You might even adapt part of the workshop for your community and ask for help from volunteers around the world as part of .

In the meantime, we’ll be improving the workshop model in response to participant feedback, updating those resources listed above, and imagining new ways that we can all work together to help people develop as and committed to and a more open web and society for all.

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