Episode 9: Storytelling and data visualization, social determinants of health, an interview with Kimberly Herrington a data journalist and founder of Buffalo Business Intelligence
Episode 9 features Kimberly Herrington, a data journalist and founder of Buffalo Business Intelligence. Kim shares stories about how data she has analyzed has helped bring meaning to people’s work and how her analysis connected people who uncovered forgotten information. Tune in to hear how she utilizes all the skills she gained in her untraditional background to successfully help people to tell their stories using data.
(upbeat music) - This is Buffalo State Data Talk. The podcast where introduce
you to how data is used and explore careers that involve data. - Hello, and welcome back
to another episode of
Buffalo State Data Talk. I'm your host, Brian Barrey and we appreciate you
joining us for episode nine. Today, we'll be talking
to Kimberley Herrington, a data journalist at a
large healthcare insurer,
a creator of Buffalo Business Intelligence and Western New York wifiwarriors.com. Kim has recently been awarded the world title of 2020 Data
Literacy advocate of the year and was recognized as one
of the 20 emerging leaders
in 2020 for big data, data
science and analytics. Last month, Kim was named as one of the 60 data change
makers to know in 2021. Thanks for joining us today, Kim. - Hi Brian, it's an honor
to be here with you.
- So let's begin by
having you tell us about what kind of work a data journalists does? As a data journalist, what are your main job responsibilities? - Sure, well, as a data
journalist in life at work
but also outside in the community, I have a great marriage of the things that I absolutely love to do which is helping other people tell stories using their data and information.
- Since data journalists probably wasn't necessarily a thing when you were making a
decision for a career path, what did you plan to be
when you so-called grew up? - That's a good question.
So believe it or not, when I was a kid I actually really wanted to be a physician and I went my entire career path like getting ready to take the M-CAT. And I went to a SUNY
Oswego for my undergrad
and I was going for premed there. And I happened to take business
courses though as well. And I really learned
that the business side was actually very much more my speed. And along that way,
I also joined a student
run volunteer ambulance, which took me on another pathway into like student government activities to try to get raise more
money for our ambulance. And so there was a wide variety of things
that I experienced in college. And it's hard to believe that those things come
into what I'm doing now. You would never believe
that the improv troupe that you are having fun with in college
could actually have a major
impact later on your future. That ability to tell stories and be able to use that
narrative to do what I do now has been absolutely essential. Those business minor
courses that I picked up,
those are the ones that actually taught me to know what executives are looking for and really hone in on communication and understanding people's perceptions which helps me tell better data stories.
- That improv sounds like a lot of fun. So switching gears up a little bit. As a teacher, I often ask my students what skills or education they need to join a certain career path.
Can you tell me what you think are the most important hard skills and most important soft skills
when working in your field? - Sure, I think you
definitely have to have a strong understanding of the environment
in which you are hoping to have your data make an impact with it. If you want to be a data
scientist in the healthcare field then you're gonna wanna need to know a lot about the healthcare field.
So definitely getting that
larger knowledge base. So those 101 courses that you might be taking
students right now, I'm sorry. I know, but trust me, they're important to pay attention to.
You never know when you're
gonna use that 101 material and save all of your books. If I turn my camera to the side here you'd be able to see my wall of books between my husband and my own undergrad.
We've saved it all, we
saved all of our notes. I've gone back to them. - Yeah, I agree with that statement too. - Right? You never know when you're gonna need that kind of stuff.
And it helps make, you
know, brain pathways of being able to take two
seemingly unrelated things and put them together. Soft skills in particular
I would recommend is you have to be an excellent communicator.
You have to be very, very curious and you have to be good
at critical thinking. - Nice, so now I'd like to
talk about what a day or a week in the life of a data
journalist looks like. Is your schedule the same
every day or does it vary?
- It definitely varies every single day and but for me that's what
I like, I like variety. So what I do would have every week though is time blocked out, it's called SOS sessions,
story or strategy sessions.
Think of it like office hours, that if somebody wants to
drop in or ask me a question they know that they're
not going to bother me because this is that time
that's actually booked for them. Come to me and ask questions.
Anyone can come. They could have just met me, they could have never met me before and they can use that
time to ask me questions. That's my time to do that.
Then also, you know, I can get pulled into meetings with
everyone from, like I said someone working direct with customers all the way up to the
highest executive levels to talk about things.
I also do trainings for
things like data literacy. I mentioned earlier,
I'm very, very humbled to have won that Data Literacy
Advocate of the year award. When it was going up I was just hoping to
make the best in Buffalo
and then I won the whole thing and I was just absolutely shocked. - Yeah, it's just amazing. - It was crazy. Alberto Cairo who wrote "How
Charts Lie" won last year.
So I'm just like, I'm like, are you sure? So, you know, it was just
really, really an honor especially because I am only here because of the people that I found
in my network in LinkedIn. I'm only here because
of people like Mikko Yak
Jordan Morrow, and Val Logan,
who is a Buff State alumni. She owns the data lodge and
talks all about data literacy. This woman brought data literacy to the largest data company
that like knows data. - I think she was a part
of the speaker series too
and her presentation was great. So when you have meetings what type of things do you talk about? - So in meetings we
talk about a few things. They can be conversations,
they can be consultations.
I can be validating what someone has done. I can be revitalizing them to like kind of breathe new life into what they're working on and I can be there kind
of just to inspire them.
So it depends on what the
person has come to me for as to what the meetings will entail. When someone's coming
to me with a dashboard or a data visualization and they're looking for support,
I will go into it and
I'll typically, you know, ask them to give me an overview of the what, the so what, and
the now what for that visual. So that's all through BI
brains, storytelling classes identifying the what, as in
what's the greater context
of what you're trying
to do to accomplish here and what are the key findings. You know, the so what, why
do those things matter. And the now what, now that someone has
looked at this visual,
what do you want them to do? And is that clear in this visual? Because again, to have
actionable information you have to show the user
what actions they could take after viewing this information, right?
- So when you report on what you're doing what are the things that
other people are interested in when hearing about your work? - Ooh, that's a good question. So for when I'm reporting on it,
usually I keep track of
just the number of people that I help and if they found
a value within it and whatnot, showing them where they
started in a journey versus where they ended, they like seeing the transition, right?
Everyone loves a good
before and after photo. You'd be surprised how far changing the font styles
of a visual and using color in particular one of my
favorite things to do, trying to limit it to three colors,
you know, there's always exceptions but where possible I try
to use just three colors but my cheat is that
I use shades of black, my favorite color of any colors
by hex code d4d4d4 for life. It is the thinnest of thin grays.
So it's very, it's like
barely they're gray. And so if you're looking at a picture it's kind of just like a
visual speed bump for the eye but your eye doesn't
take so much time on it. So if you're trying to like
make borders around things
it's just like fades to the background. Whereas if somebody has these
big, heavy, black borders if you think about your eyes only having so much energy to take
an ink to weight ratio, so you wanna give your
biggest blackest numbers
just the data. So what you're trying to bring
people's eyes attention to get the heaviest ink versus things that are context information that can be like those shades of gray
and you can lighten or darken
those based on importance because your eye will go to
the heaviest boldest thing. And that's where you want
to draw that attention to. - Yeah, that's really good. So what keeps you motivated
to keep doing this every day?
- Again, my mission is to help people. And hearing the stories of
how things have changed. Probably my favorite story of how data has helped some people was I was working at a healthcare organization
and was doing, you know, data analysis. And it had to do with the
people that took phone calls for healthcare services. Now, when these admissions people were first getting the phone calls,
they were dealing with people at their lowest of the low moment, right? To get them scheduled for help. And so day after day,
these phone operators are just getting beaten
and it's tough, right?
Because people are swearing
at you and they are upset. And it's just so difficult to just get through the day and they're doing it all year long. So around the end of the year
I had talked to that scheduling supervisor and I said, can I like
get you in a report of how your people have helped? And they said, sure, that
would be nice, I think. So I took it a step further
and I made each person
individualized bookmarks that said, how many calls that person
has handled any year and then of those people
that they have spoken to the percentage of them
that actually made it to their first appointment
and then the percentage of people that actually made it through
completion of the program. They had never seen that before. They had never gotten the numbers to say of all the people that you've
made those appointments
for what happened to them afterwards. They never got to see the end result. That was my favorite way
to show data has an impact because there were tears
at that presentation. - Yeah, I can imagine
that had a huge impact.
- Just them having the information to know that through their phone, they were changing lives. What they were doing was
important, feeling validated. That really motivates me.
So, you know, I might not necessarily know what the end outcome is going to be from some of this stuff but I do just trust that has an impact. I think this would be a good time
to actually talk a little
bit about how community can have a larger ripple effect specifically with Buff
State how that has happened. Would that be okay to
share that story here? - Yeah, definitely.
So from an earlier
conversation that we had both of us agreed that the data
community plays a big role. So how does your work
impact our local community? - So through Buffalo Business Intelligence that was the group I started back in 2017
when I was nine months pregnant with my first daughter. I started this group because I was upset cause I couldn't learn Tableau on my own. And I couldn't find anyone
to teach me Tableau.
I even like contacted a consulting agency to like find someone that I could pay out of my own pocket to teach me Tableau. And they couldn't find anyone. And I called Tableau
to start a Tableau user group in Buffalo and they said, no, you don't have enough licenses
in Buffalo, no thanks. And I was like, okay,
like, all right, fine. But it was so early in Buffalo too
that everyone was kind of
between Power BI and Tableau. So I'm like, if there's
not enough just Tableau then what if we just did a group for all types of data
visualization experts. So that's when I started
Buffalo Business Intelligence
and it brought together users of Tableau or Power BI or Dundas or
any of these other, Sisense, whatever kind of tools that you're using because ultimately each program is just like a blank canvas
where you make different dashboards, different visuals that you're making on it and you're all gonna face the same relative problems that stage. So I started that group
and we started coming
together as a community to talk about the skills that
we were looking to learn, we talked about the
tools we wanted to learn, we talked about the problems or the barriers that we all encountered.
And we talked about like, what would make a good
future like group meetings. And so through having these sessions, this is actually how I
met Joaquin Carbonara and him and Melissa Brinson
actually came to one of these activities. And I remember coming up to them as they were going through
like the barriers exercise and Joaquin was looking at Melissa and they're just like, this is awesome.
We need more of this in Buffalo. We need a lot more of this
type of activity in Buffalo, we've got to do something. And not long after that
building a better Buffalo what started at Buff State.
And they brought me on to help out with those activities as well and so I got to know more of
the people around Buff State and I was introduced to Dr. Wende Mix of your geography department.
Now you'd think why would
someone in healthcare care anything about geospatial
information or geography. But I saw it with the
advent of telemedicine as something that was
going to be revolutionary because we're moving from
medicine happening in facilities
to medicine being administered at home. And I'm also a huge proponent for social determinants of health, which are the factors by which
we live, work, age and play. And so North Carolina had
come up with this index of
and this creation of like a story map of how to calculate this
social determiners of health because it's so many
different factors, right? It's housing, it's food security. There's so many different factors.
So I thought it was really
cool what they did over there. And so I just on a whim
sent this link to Wende and I said Dr. Mix, like, this
is cool, this is my dream. I would love to see something
like this in Buffalo but I don't think it'll happen for years.
There is a reason I called
Dr. Mix my just got it because within a week she
had it built for Buffalo. - That's amazing. - I didn't know that she was
the former census worker. I had no idea that she had
a history of the census
and she knew that subject matter. And also that she was
teaching her students all this stuff with Python
and being able to use maps. So she was learning those things. It's just a matter of
getting the right question
to use her skills. So it was that connection, there was the community connection that actually got her to
do all of this, right? And so from that, you know,
like as she's building this
and we're working back and forth and we're figuring out like
how to best optimize this. I saw through my LinkedIn network Jane Sarasohn Kahn who writes
this health populi blog. She had been posting
about how internet access
should be considered a
social determinant of health. That makes sense right now, right? It's the way that we connect to be able to get access
to so many things. It's that front door to so many things.
And this is before the pandemic. So this is the summer before the pandemic that this is happening that we are making this visual, we're talking about social
determiners of health.
And we're looking at this stuff. And again, this is outside of work. This is on my free time cause
this is what I love to do is to dive into this stuff. And so Dr. Mix, I show her
this piece about broadband
and I asked her to add it
into a layer of our analysis. and she does. Now there's two tracks. This story has ripples in
two different directions. The direction I'm gonna
take on the one hand
is a community workshop that we had. So we had on the one direction we took the social determinants of health and educating people about
them and their importance. And we took that to a behavioral health,
community health workers from
all different organizations and we taught them all about
social determinants health. And we taught them how to use this app to have conversations with patients that comes from a stance of
like give us your zip code,
and then you're looking at the zip code and you see, oh I see people in your area are experiencing crowded housing. Are you experiencing crowded housing? Rather than like trying to say,
do you live in a house with X, Y, Z people like that's invasive, right? No one wants to answer
that health question. But if you tell them, you know, your peers in your area
are having this issue,
are you having it too? It gives you a little bit
more way to like open up. So we were able to teach a class of people all about this app that we had designed with Dr. Mix before that for their own use
on March 6th was that
presentation of the 2020. So that was the last time I got to present to a large group of people in person. - I think there was the week before everything shut down, right?
- It was, it was indeed. From that, I knew the
18.6% of Western New York didn't have access to the internet. When we first launched the maps there was a reporter Nate
Benson who found interest
in Dr. Mix's internet broadband
layer of the original map. And he and her work together and then built out a
completely separate dashboard all about internet access
in Western New York. And now that Nate had
those stats and figures
he was able to then do some more digging and do more investigative
journalism for the news on his side and dive in and start talking to legislators and talking to more people.
And eventually, you know, he makes this breaking discovery that was actually just
announced in December of 2020 that in the Southern tier, there was over 100 miles of dark fiber
that were laid back in
the Obama administration. Dark fiber is internet access like broadband wires that
have not been connected to what's called the last mile AKA from the road to your house.
- Wait, so it was just sitting there? It wasn't doing anything? It wasn't connected to any houses? - That's correct. - That's amazing.
- It was lost in paperwork
because, you know, it was a public works project and they just had changed
the title holders. I checked in with Nate
two or three weeks ago and I asked him for an update
and he still following up on it. So this is still in development but the point is there's hundreds of miles at least 800 miles of dark fiber that is connected in the Southern tier
and it's just not hooked up to homes. And if I lived in the Southern tier and I found out that I was
living along one of those routes I would be mad as heck. - Yeah, I hope they get
connected up down there.
- I hope so too. It's just absolutely
crazy to think about that. The point is we might not have
ever uncovered that discovery if it wasn't for starting
a community of people that wanna talk about data.
- Yeah, right. So I'd like to transition our discussion into interesting problems or
topics that you've worked on. What do you think the most
interesting problems are in your field?
- That's a great question. I think that we have spent so much time in tunnel vision to look at things like machine learning and
AI and learning to code and learning about the best
ways to build XYZ product
that we have not spent
enough time talking to people about how to seek, solicit and
speak data and information. So when you are seeking information, when you're in any company, how do you look for existing information?
Like where do you find existing reports. Really paying attention to
how we're teaching people where to seek out information. The next thing is soliciting information. So say you've looked at those
existing resources, right?
Of where people say that
information is stored and you realize the question that you have is not in that repository. Where do you go to ask
to get new information? So how do you solicit
a report being built?
Talking with people about what do you hope to get
out of this question? And like, why are you bothering to ask this question in the first place? What are you trying to achieve
with this piece of information and letting the report developer know that cause they can't mind read. So you have to like communicate to them what the piece of information is for,
how it will be used, what timeframe of information
that you're looking for. Those kinds of questions are easy, but not easy questions when it comes to actually
writing them down.
And then when it comes to speak data, speak data is all about knowing how to communicate
effectively with information. If everyone can tell a
good data story, right? So your uncle can tell
a good story, right?
Data literacy is our ability to tell whether or not that story is true. You could have a report developer that can give you a report back, but your ability to say whether or not
that that appears valid, you know, if it's using a single source of truth like where they're
using their sources from and how it works, and being able to have those conversations
around that information. So if somebody like gives you
the answer to the universe, you know, on a piece of paper, but you don't know how to act on it you can't make those grand changes.
Don't put it off to the side. Like I've seen it, I can't tell you how
many times I've seen that of people building things. And somebody says, okay, great
and they get the report
and they don't use it. And the way that you can
tell if they're using it is there's insights
reports for Power BI things so you can see how frequently
people are using the reports. The trick there is asking them
when you're building the report how frequently do you
anticipate using this report? So that way, if they're
like, oh, every day and then you look back and
they've only opened it twice maybe you shouldn't just
give them a call and be like,
hey, how's that report
working out for you? Is there any changes we can make to it? Usually if you design it well and you designed it to be actionable and by that, I mean
so say I look at a
finished data visualization and I've had that conversation with the person is going
to use it to say, okay, once you find out X number what are you gonna do
if it's not where it's supposed to be? They go, oh, I'm going
to email this department. So what you can do is on that visual is actually program a button
to email X department. So on that same visual, you
don't have to go anywhere.
Here's the, the what, the
so what, the now what, the what is sales are declining, so what? If they continue to
decline, we will shut down. Now what? You should call marketing. Like here's the number.
- So is there anything in particular you'd like to talk about or an issue that you'd like to raise that we haven't already touched on yet? - The other thing that I would
recommend for everyone is
if you are just excited about information but you don't know where to start and SQL might scare you, it might not, you might be awesome at it, come to our Buffalo Business
Our next one is going to be the first Wednesday of December, 2021. It's gonna be all virtual. To find the dates for this you can look on eventbright.com
and just type in Buffalo
Business Intelligence or you can follow me on LinkedIn, but come check those out
make those events for free, because I am just like you, someone who has student loan debt
that has been trying to learn this field that had just has a passion
for helping other people and just wants to learn more things. And doesn't wanna pay $300 for a course where I can get the same information
from just talking to a peer. - Well, great, thanks. Kim thank you so much
for joining us today. And to all of our listeners if you haven't already checked
out our previous podcasts
they're available wherever
you listen to podcasts. For more information
about starting your career as a data scientist go to dataanalytics.buffalostate.edu. Don't forget to subscribe so
that you get notifications
each time we release a new episode of Buffalo State Data Talk.
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