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Show Me the Numbers

3 Feb

I’ve noticed how ever since I became an evaluator, I’m much more in tune to numbers. This isn’t to say that I never paid any attention to numbers before, but now, when I hear stories on the radio or I read articles in my local newspaper, I look more closely at what’s being reported regarding those numbers. What’s really being said? And more, I find myself asking, “What do these numbers really represent?” Here’s an example:

This morning, I was listening to a story on NPR about the voter turnout in this week’s Iowa caucus. Specifically, the story was about the turnout among younger voters (17-29 years of age) in Iowa and what, if anything, this turnout says about this voting bloc nationally.

Aside: You can find interesting data regarding the Iowa electorate (as well as other states) on the U.S. Census Department’s website. You can find specifics regarding the turnout of younger Iowa voters on the website of CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement).

But back to the NPR story… Renee Montagne interviewed Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, about these millennial voters. Phrases like, “record numbers” make my ears perk up. “What was the record?” I wonder. “What are we talking about?” In brief, Kawashima-Ginsberg stated, “The youth turnout was 11.2%.”

“11.2% of what?” I ask out loud in my car, to no one.

“On the Republican side, Ted Cruz received 27% of the votes, Mark Rubio 24%, and Donald Trump 19%.”

Again I ask, “27% of what?” No one answers.

Bernie Sanders, I’m told, won 84% of the Democratic vote, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 14%.

“Wow! 84%. That’s a lot! You do keep reporting how he’s winning the hearts of young folks.”

I pull out the note pad that I keep in the dashboard cubbie of my car and write down, “Young voters 84%, 14% // 11% = x” I put the note in my pocket, determined to figure out what these numbers mean. Later, I did.

The total number of young people, defined here as voters between the ages of 17-29, that participated in the Iowa caucus was 53,215. What’s that look like? I need a visual reference. I think of this demographic and I think of college. It’s a natural reference-point for me, a college grad. When I think of college and crowds, I think football. (Plus, the SuperBowl is but a few days away. Think football.) Thus, to give myself the visual that I need, I decide to compare these numbers to the capacities of various college football stadiums. Here’s what I found…

… 53, 215 people equals a sold-out crowd for a football game at Rutgers University’s High Point Solution Stadium.

RUFootballStadium

High Point Solutions Stadium, Rutgers University, East Rutherford, NJ

Okay, that’s a good-sized crowd. Granted, it’s not quite half of the capacity of the University of Michigan’s stadium, but let’s remember, it’s Iowa, a state who’s population makes up .97% of the United States as a whole. Michigan is up there at 3.11%. (All of this data comes from Census.gov.)

Of these 53,215 caucus-goers, 22,415 were Republicans and 30,800 were Democrats. Bernie Sanders won the support of 84% of those 30,800, or approximately 25,800 young people. I need a reference. What do 25,800 people look like? A sold-out crowd at my alma mater, James Madison University’s Bridgeforth Stadium. Go Dukes!

Bridgeforth Stadium

Bridgeforth Stadium, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Hillary Clinton’s 14%, or 4,312 youthful supporters from Tuesday night, could fit in at Sacred Heart University’s (Fairfield, CT) Campus Field.

Campus Field

Campus Field, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT

Ted Cruz and his 27% of young Republicans (5,828) fill up the Butler Bowl of the Butler University’s Bulldogs in Indianapolis, IN.

Butler Bowl

Butler Bowl, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN

Mark Rubio’s 5,155 (24%) supporters would fill the stands of the University of Rhode Island’s Rams Meade Stadium.

Meade Stadium

University of Rhode Island, Meade Stadium, Kingston, RI

And finally, Donald Trump’s 4,483 supporters, or 19% of the young Republican caucus-goers, would fit nicely in Bryant College’s (Rhode Island) Bulldog Stadium. Or perhaps, more apropos, they could stay approximately 3 to a room in the 1,250 “deluxe guest rooms and palatial suites” of the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.

Bulldog Stadium

Put into these contexts, the numbers make so much more sense to me. Sure, 25,800 people (that 84% Bernie came home with) is a lot of people, but in perspective, my alma mater isn’t exactly a gigantic school. It’s a good-sized school, mind you, but it’s hardly representative of the number of people who might vote in a general election, even if they could all agree on anything, in mass, besides cheering for the Dukes.

Additionally, these stories say an awful lot about how numbers and statistics get used in our reporting. “The American People,” a phrase that every single politician, pollster, and news junkie talking head over-uses means … what A percentage of a percentage of a percentage of a percentage of people is generally a number way smaller than an image that “The American People” conjures up. It’s also, more than likely, a smaller sample size of ideas and beliefs, morals and behaviors, arguments and agreements, and problems and solutions than the 323,000,000 people in the United States hold in total. 

Yes, the political season in America is just getting rolling and it’s a great time to pay attention to the numbers reported, seek out sites for trustworthy statistics, do some math yourself, and hone up on your data fluency skills. (That last bit is a nod to a terrific book, Data Fluency, from the smart folks at Juice Analytics. Check it out.)

 

A Picture CAN Tell a Dozen Tables’ Worth of Data

10 Dec

[The following was originally written for the UMCCTS December Newsletter.]

When it comes to summarizing and sharing information with an audience, one important thing to remember is the audience itself. It’s a pretty simple concept, yet too often forgotten or dismissed when we’re preparing a talk, an article, a policy statement, patient education materials, and the myriad of other containers into which we fit our message.

Most recently, I’ve been working to pull together sections for the Final Progress Report for our initial Clinical and Translational Science Award. This is not my first time writing such a report and as has been the case in the past, we follow a template that goes something like:

Overall Objectives and Goals > Aims > Accomplishments Associated with Each Aim > Milestones Reached for the Same > Challenges Faced > Future Plans

These reports are lengthy and dry, filled with lots of bullet points and tables and numbers. I’m not privy to how these reports are read at NIH, but I imagine that the format fits how they are reviewed and makes it easier for funders to see a bigger picture across similar awards. Funders and reviewers are the audience, thus we present our information to them in the way they’re accustomed – the way that they understand.

Taking a break from all of the writing, I decided to turn one of the bigger tables of information I’ve received into something for a different audience. Sarah Rulnick, MPH, Project Manager for the Conquering Diseases Project, recently compiled some information regarding the work of the Biorepository and Volunteer Database. These are both integral pieces in the UMCCTS efforts to support clinical trials. I read through the narrative portions of Sarah’s summary and took in the full-page table giving yearly counts of things such as the number of patients consented for the biorepository, MiCARD searches performed, outreach events organized, and the like.

I started to think about a way that I could summarize this information for both people who have already enrolled in the Volunteer Database and those who might potentially do so, if they only understood a bit more about the importance of participation. It’s an audience that Sarah and her colleagues are charged to reach. I pulled out the data points that I thought best addressed this goal. I also brainstormed what came to my mind when I thought about conquering something. What I ultimately came up with is this:

Conquering Diseases

Coincidentally, right in the middle of writing this newsletter piece, I watched a 20-minute “Coffee Break” webinar from the American Evaluation Association. I hadn’t connected the webinar with this piece, but they certainly appear to be related. The webinar was entitled, “How to Develop Visual Summaries and Inforgraphics from Your Evaluation Findings,” and presented by Elissa Schloesser, a graphic designer and visual communicator based in Minneapolis. She, too, talked about knowing your audience and she offered an excellent example of how she prepared two very different materials for two groups; both from the same report. I felt I was on track with my message here.

Elissa has some other nice examples on her My Visual Voice. If you’re thinking of communicating some of your work visually, they might inspire you.

Illustrated Podcasting

2 Sep

My podcasting workshop last night wasn’t quite all that it was advertised to be, but I definitely learned a lot and feel pretty prepared to tackle the task. I was hoping to leave the class with a finished and distributed episode (per the course description). I like classes and workshops that promise such. It wasn’t to be, but for the $17.50 fee, plus the bonus of catching up with my friend, fellow librarian, blogger, beer connoisseur, and baseball lover, Dan, before, it was more than worth it. I sketched my notes, per usual, and share them here. And soon, catch the podcast I’m going to create!

PodcastClass_1

PodcastClass_2

PodcastClass_3

PodcastClass_4

For those keeping track of my office supplies, these sketchnotes are drawn in a FieldNotes brand ruled memo book, carried in my “never go anywhere without it” handmade “Everyday Carry” cover, with a refillable Pentel EngerGel pen that I’ve managed to hang on to for several years now. I hope that I never lose it, as both Rosanne Cash and Amy Dickinson have used it to pen a few words to me. It’s a treasure.

Listen Up!

17 Jul

podcastI need to offer up a HUGE thanks to my friend and colleague, Kate Thornhill, Research and Instruction Librarian for Digital Scholarship at Lesley University’s Moriarty Library in Cambridge, MA, for recently turning me onto the terrific podcast, Lost in the Stacks. From WREK, the student-run radio station at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, the show is hosted by Charlie Bennett and Ameet Doshi, along with Anthony Nguyen, Fred Rascoe, Lizzy Rolando, and Wendy Hagenmaier. All librarians at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, they bring an hour-long program offering really interesting interviews with librarians focusing on all sorts of cool themes. But it doesn’t end there. In between the interviews and/or segments, they play some pretty groovy tunes, an eclectic mix of great songs. I just LOVE it!

I imagine that Kate sent me the info on this show because one of their most recent programs, Once a Librarian, Always a Librarian, offered up interviews with Elizabeth Keathley, Chief Officer and Digital Asset Manager at Atlanta Metadata Authority and author of Digital Asset Management, and Nisa Asokan, Editor at WebMD and Co-Owner, Manager of the music production company, Tight Bros Network. Being one who easily falls into the “Once a Librarian, Always a Librarian” career category, I appreciated so much the thoughts, ideas, and insights shared in this episode.

The first segment begins, “One thing you might notice about the job titles for both of our guests is that they do not have the word ‘librarian’ in them, however, both have degrees in library science.” I could offer you a nice summary of what Elizabeth and Nisa had to say about their jobs, their work, their titles, and their salaries, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you to seek it out and listen. It’s a wonderfully optimistic – and very true – view of a profession that opens so many doors to so many fascinating careers, if one wants them.

With other episodes in their archive like Beach Libraries, The DC Punk Archive, and Avoiding Dead Air, you can bet that Lost in the Stacks is going to easily find its place on my Friday afternoon playlist from now on. Thanks, Kate! And thanks to those bringing us this show.

The Choices We Make

4 Jun

My blog post for this week is sitting over there on the NAHSL blog. I hope you’ll click on the link below and visit. My thanks, again, to NAHSL for offering financial support to help me attend the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association this year.

The Choices We Make

Choose Wisely

Choose Wisely

A Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing

28 May

[Alternate Title: The Sheep that Wags the Wolf’s Tail]

Photo Credit:  petsadviser.com

Photo Credit: petsadviser.com

A few years back, I made a deal with a friend to run the Chicago Marathon. I’d run several marathons previously, but none in a number of years. I was nowhere near the shape I wanted to be in when I made the deal and as both my friend and I were trying to be healthy, it was a win-win situation. At least it seemed that way. I trained in the winter, indoors on the treadmill. Once spring came, I moved outside. Week after week, I slogged through, never feeling like I was gaining any stamina, losing any weight, or getting any healthier. As summer came along and I started to stretch out my miles, I found myself getting pretty sick after running. I couldn’t eat anything without having serious digestive troubles. It got to the point that after running I’d stick with a smoothie and not much else. Even that didn’t always go well. I’d never had this experience in past training and kept chalking it up to being out of shape.

Then, one Friday evening I went for a 12 mile run – struggling through it as my gut rebelled against me. I finally finished, stopped by the 7-11 for a Gatorade, and drove home. After showering, I had a smoothie and settled in to watch the Red Sox. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor of my bathroom and next after that in an ambulance to the emergency room. I’d never been in an ambulance before – and that’s about the only positive I can think of regarding the experience.

After a night in the ER, tests that revealed nothing much, trips to my doc and a couple of specialists, the vascular surgeon told me that he suspected I had celiac artery compression syndrome (or median arcuate ligament syndrome). He also said, as I described my symptoms related to running with him, that he’d never heard of it being associated with exercise.

Being the medical librarian that I am, I set about searching PubMed (now that I knew some terms to search) to learn about what was going on inside of me. Mostly, I was looking for something that would link my training with this syndrome. Lo and behold, I found one. One. That was it. One case study about one individual – an elite runner who’d suffered something similar to what I was experiencing. Granted, I was hardly “elite” in my running, but the symptoms and situations described for this runner were just what kept happening to me.

I promptly sent a copy of the article to my surgeon and then, a couple of weeks later when I was wheeled into the operating room for an arteriogram to confirm his diagnosis, he said to everyone in the room, “If you have any questions, ask Sally. She’s read more about this than you have.” (Though fortunately not more than my surgeon!)

This is a long, round-about story to demonstrate a point – when it comes to evidence, a case study that resonates with you, the individual, is worth as much as any randomized control trial.

Evidence-based practice is THE term in medicine today. As noted by Stewart Donaldson, Christina Christie, and Melvin Mark in the introduction to their book, “What Counts as Credible Evidence in Applied Research and Evaluation Practice?” we live in an evidence-based society. Evidence-based medicine, evidence-based mental health, evidence-based management, evidence-based decision making, evidence-based education, evidence-based coaching, evidence-based policy, evidence-based sex education, evidence-based fill-in-any-blank are just some of the examples they list from a quick Google search of “evidence-based practice”. For those of us who have taught any course related to evidence-based practice, we know all about the EBM Pyramid and the hierarchy of quality when it comes to evidence. At the top of the pyramid sits the randomized control trial and systematic reviews. Further down, the anecdotal case study. In other words, something happening to one or two people – like me and that other runner – simply doesn’t qualify as enough evidence to state that there is any connection between exercise and celiac artery compression syndrome.

Except when it is enough. As it is/was for the two of us (and no doubt a few others).

I found myself thinking often of my personal case history and the evidence-based pyramid during a number of sessions that I attended during last week’s annual meeting of the Medical Library Association. Why? Well, mostly because I attended a lot of talks on the new roles that librarians and other professionals working within libraries, i.e. PhDs in bioinformatics, are assuming today. People are doing an awful lot of interesting things related to specialized services. I count myself in that lot. I may well be an evaluator now, but I personally think it’s simply an extension of the specialized work that I was doing in the library. But the thing that I kept noticing – and a point I raised in one of the sessions – was when, if ever, will we get past case studies related to these services? When, if ever, will we be able to say as a profession that the successful new roles and services that some libraries are offering today are roles and services that can be adopted broadly? When, if ever, will we have enough evidence that demonstrates the success is based more on the service and the role, and less upon the individual delivering it?

Watching Twitter throughout the meeting, I noticed one person tweet a picture of a slide from Bart Ragon’s (University of Virginia) presentation, “Where is My Data Scientist?” (Disclaimer: I was in a different session at the time, thus am taking Bart’s slide out of context.) The slide read, “Unless you are Kristi Holmes or Michele Tennant – Most librarians lack any of these skills.” For those less familiar with MLA, for many years, Kristi (formerly at Washington University, St. Louis, now the Library Director of Galter Health Science Library, Northwestern University) and Michele (University of Florida) were known as the two PhD biochemistry people in our midst. They were anomalies; scientists working in medical libraries. Today we have more – Jackie Wirz at Oregon Health Sciences University, Meng Li and Yibu Chen at the University of Southern California, and Tobin Magle at the University of Colorado Denver to name a few – but they still remain oddities.

When I asked the panel of Kristi, Tobin, Jackie, Meng, and Jerry Perry (former director of UC-Denver’s medical library, soon to be the same at the University of Arizona’s health sciences library) this question about case studies versus a broader body of evidence, Jackie admitted that sometimes she does wonder if people call on her because they think “Jackie can help” or if they think the bigger, “the library can help.” I don’t mean to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive, but how much are our trends towards specialized services redefining the health sciences/medical library profession, as a whole, and how much are they simply taking advantage of particular individuals and the strengths, expertise, etc. they bring to a particular library?

One of the bits of advice that Kristi Holmes offered during this session was, “Build the best library for your institution, thus what works here may not work there.” It’s hard to argue that this isn’t good advice, yet at the same time I can’t help but wonder about how well it sums up our future as a profession. It’s becoming more and more specialized, more and more individualized, and the parts aren’t easily interchangeable anymore. This can be either good or bad for us. Thinking to what Mae Jemison said in her McGovern Lecture (I wrote about this for the NAHSL blog and will share the link when it’s published), innovation is not inherently good or bad; progressive or regressive. It’s the choices that we make around our innovations, our new ideas, our new roles, and our new services that ultimately make the difference.

I’m a librarian with the title of “Evaluator” sitting in an office in the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Jackie Wirz is a PhD biochemist and molecular biologist with the title “Biomedical Research Specialist” and an office in the OHSU library. What do we have in common? What do we do that can be teased out, taught to others, and adopted by other libraries, centers, or institutions? To me, that’s a BIG question and something worth continuing to try and answer/address as our profession continues to redefine itself for the future (and now).

Turning the Tables

27 Mar

Earlier today, a very nice first year medical student came by my office and apologetically asked me if I could tell her where the offices of our Institutional Review Board people are. I don’t work in the library anymore, you might recall, and now my office sits in a maze of other offices on the 7th (top) floor of the ambulatory care center of our medical complex and medical school. It’s not a place that anyone wanders past. Mine is not an office that someone might simply pop in for a visit. It’s out of the way. And as I said to my former colleagues in the Library and my friends on Facebook, I admittedly miss such interruptions. Not all of the time, mind you, but one of the greatest joys that I knew as a librarian was simply answering someone’s question and / or helping them in some way that made their day better. The student was SO grateful when I got up and walked her around the corner to the IRB folks. She thanked me several times. It was a flashback to those days of yore … oh, 3 months ago or so.

For ten years, I spent the better part of my working days answering people’s questions. Either answering them directly, looking for the answer for them, or helping them learn how to find the answer for themselves. All day long, the overwhelming majority of sentences spoken to me ended in question marks. Librarians answer questions.

Evaluators, on the other hand, ask them. This is what I’m quickly learning. We are the ones who need the answers, thus we’re the ones who ask the questions. How well did “X” intervention work? How much time was saved by implementing “Y” into the process? What does “Z” do for you that no other letter of the alphabet ever did for you before?

But I’ve also learned that there’s a speed bump; the researchers and clinicians and other users of the resources and services that I’m evaluating … well … they typically aren’t librarians. In other words, I don’t think that they like answering questions as much as any librarian does.

“It’s a simple survey,” I claim.

“It won’t take more than 5 minutes of your time.”

“The results will help us help YOU!”

“I’d be ever so grateful,” said Babe the Pig. (If you miss the reference, check out the movie.)

And still, getting people to answer questions is way harder than I ever imagined. I’m actually very good at talking to people, and usually pretty good at getting people to talk to me. It was one of the skills and characteristics that I honed as a librarian / informationist that I figured would be easily transferable to my new role. Not so much. At least not yet.

It could be the method – the dreaded survey. People don’t like them. Heck, I don’t like them. But in some cases it is the most appropriate and most efficient method for getting the data (answers) you need for the evaluation. I read and studied and asked about writing good questions. I worked with seasoned researchers to put my survey together. I piloted it with different groups and made all of the necessary tweaks based on the feedback I received. I picked my target audience carefully. And once I felt confident about the whole thing, I let it loose.

And then … I waited.

And waited.

And sent out a couple of reminders.

And broadened my audience.

And worked some different angles to reach people.

And waited some more.

I’m still waiting; waiting for the responses to grow to some level that will afford me some information needed to present my findings to a couple of different groups. It’s coming along, but golly it’s slow. And such a cumbersome process. Ask me a question and I’ll happily answer for you, straightaway. But waiting for others to answer me … well, the tables have turned, my friends.

A turning table playing a different tune!

A turning table playing a different tune!

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