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Show Me A Story

27 Oct

(The following is from a spotlight talk that I gave at the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Health Sciences Libraries chapter of the Medical Library Association in New Haven, CT, October 25, 2016.)

nahsl_viz_01

nahsl_viz_02I was listening to economist and presentation expert, Jonathan Schwabish’s, PolicyViz Podcast last week. It was an episode from about a month ago; an interview with Andy Kirk, a data visualization specialist and the person behind the terrific website, Visualising Data. Andy is also the author of the new book, Visualizing Data: A Handbook for Data Driven Design, a must-have reference text for anyone seeking to produce effective visualizations. When asked why he wrote the book and the essence behind it, he replied,

Visualization is a game of decisions and to make good decisions you need to be aware of all of the options that you’ve got and then be aware of the influencing factors that shape what choices you can make. What skills have you got? How does that restrict or open up opportunities around chart types or interactivity? What are the formats that you happen to aspire towards and what does that impact in terms of the choices that you have to make for a given context?

I so appreciated this statement for a couple of reasons. First, looking at the act of creating visualizations as a decision-making process gets to the heart of why and how visuals either work or they don’t. In other words, good decision-making is key to good visuals, regardless of all the know-how one might have in terms of tools and/or design. You need to start and end with good decisions. Secondly, you need to have some skills and the more you develop your skills, the greater number of choices you’ll have available to you in the decision-making process. “Aspire.” It’s a grand word.

nahsl_viz_03My story of creating visuals started on a Friday afternoon when I was staring at a spreadsheet/report that I’m frequently asked for in my work. It’s a tracking form of our clinical research scholars, telling the number of grants they’ve applied for, the number and percentage of said applications are funded, the amount of money associated with each, the number of publications they’ve written, and other such metrics that tell the UMCCTS their return on investment, if you will, for these researchers. 

nahsl_viz_04As I was looking at it – and as it was a Friday afternoon and I was needing something fun to do to finish my work week – I wondered if I could draw a picture that told the same story that the numbers and information in this spreadsheet told. I like to draw, so I thought I’d give it a go. I wasn’t sure that my bosses would like it, but I figured it didn’t hurt to try.

So I did just that and ended up with this:nahsl_viz_05Surprisingly, my bosses loved it! And I was quickly asked to make some more, so I did. 

nahsl_viz_06I made one to show how all five UMass campuses are involved with the UMCCTS. I made one highlighting the team science and/or collaborative nature of our sponsored programs. I made one showing the outcomes of our pilot awards, one illustrating the work of the Center for Microbiome Research, and one highlighting the peaks achieved by our Conquering Diseases Program. I covered my office door with them, put them in our monthly newsletter, and eventually we made a page on our Center’s website so that they live online.

nahsl_viz_07Next, we had our annual research retreat and when it came time for me to produce and give a report on the evaluations from the day, I decided to expand my chart-making skills, and learned how to make stacked horizontal bar charts to present the information more clearly and concisely. (Thank you, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic.)

nahsl_viz_08Of course, the more charts I made, the more folks came to me with requests to make more. Each was an opportunity to learn something new, to try something different, to make choices and decisions – some good, some bad, some better. I made slides for a presentation that our Quality Assurance leader was giving to a group of clinical research administrators. 

nahsl_viz_09I made a tree map for the director of our Institutional Review Board. When I showed it to her she asked, “Where’s the pie?” So I made her a pie and she said, “You know, I like the tree better.” Yay! So did I.

nahsl_viz_10I also made her a 100% stacked bar chart to show average IRB approval times and in doing so, also finally made a color template of our UMCCTS colors. (Thank you, Stephanie Evergreen.)

 

nahsl_viz_11And then, taking Andy’s words to heart (before I even knew them) I read and learned and practiced and expanded my skill set, learning dot plots, split bar graphs, lollipop graphs, embedding labels, and creating both heat maps and bar graphs in R. (Thank you, Nathan Yau.) It’s fun and it’s appreciated and it’s become a big part of my job now.

nahsl_viz_12And so when people continue to ask me why I’m no longer a librarian or what an evaluator does, I reply, that I AM a librarian. I’m a librarian who does evaluation and now that I’ve added the drawing pictures aspect to my toolkit, my wife calls me an INFORMATION ARTIST! It’s the best job title that I’ve ever had, by far. 

What I hope everyone takes away from this talk – or this post – is that when it comes to being an information professional, the sky is the limit for all that you can do. Find what you like, find what you do well, find what you want to do, learn what you want to learn, and grow with the profession. It makes for a great career.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Pt.1)

12 Jul

Well, truth be told, I’ve not had a summer vacation just yet. Still, things do seem to slow down a little bit at work during the summer months and I’ve taken advantage of the time to learn a few new things that will hopefully make me better in my job. I thought I’d share some of them, along with resources in case you wish to add some arrows to your quiver, too.

One of the biggest challenges that I face as an evaluator is being able to quickly (and often on the fly) answer questions about the different programs and projects of the UMCCTS. I struggle with rarely getting the same question twice – or at least my ability, yet, to hear the same question twice – and too often find myself scrambling to gather data from different sources, analyze it, and present it back to a particular stakeholder “by the end of the day.” Granted, I was certainly used to giving quick answers to questions from patrons when I worked in the library, but I had a couple of advantages there; (1) I’d worked for a number of years as a medical librarian, so I was pretty up to speed on the library’s resources and (2) the library was a nice, neat, set container of resources as opposed to any number of individuals and project leads and program directors and data gatherers spread across the campus. Praise be the library! It’s difficult to overstate the value of organization. But I digress…

My challenge now is to make my own library, to build my own collection of resources, and to keep them current so that those stressful “by the end of the day” requests are less so. Enter spreadsheets, pivot tables, and dashboards. I was hardly a novice Excel user when I started this work, but enough reading in the literature and best practices of evaluation led me to believe that I needed to expand my know-how about Excel in order to make things easier for myself. After my last scramble to fulfill a “just in time” request, I decided to get to it. I read two excellent books on data visualization that base most of their material on examples from Excel; Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s, Storytelling with Data, and Stephanie Evergreen’s, Effective Data Visualization. These are both great, hands-on books to get you going. I also came across Excel Campus, with one of the best series of video tutorials I’ve ever viewed. The 3-part series on building pivot tables and dashboards was just what I needed.

With these new skills, I’m able to take lengthy, unwieldy (to me) spreadsheets and turn them into several separate sheets with associated pivot tables for analysis and interactive dashboards that let me quickly see the who, what, when, and where of our different programs. It’s a work in progress, but I can tell already that it will be helpful for me and – hopefully – when I develop more tables based upon the questions of the Center’s staff, it will be helpful for them, too.

Next up, I wanted to learn how to create both an overlapping bar chart and a heat map. I was inspired to learn the former from a blog post that I read, coupled with the task I had of writing a report summarizing the evaluation results of our annual research retreat. You know, when you create a survey to evaluate an event (a class, a retreat, a workshop, etc.), you’re often stuck with a whole bunch of questions producing a whole bunch of bar graphs showing how much people appreciated this, that, or the other thing about the event. My survey for the retreat was no different, but I knew that there had to be a better way to present the findings – “better,” meaning a one-page document. Overlapping bar charts seemed perfect. As you can see, I was able to use this type of chart to combine the results of several questions into one visual, making things a lot easier to read and a lot shorter in format.

Feedback

Five charts become one with an overlapping/stacked bar chart.

Now the heat map. Why? Oh, I don’t know. It was last Friday and a quiet day. And they’re kind of cool looking, so … back to tackling R for analysis and visualizations. (My goal here is to be able to be comfortable with these tasks in Excel, R, and Tableau, thus I switch off between them, to hone some skills.) I’ve mentioned here before that I find Nathan Yau’s books and website, Flowing Data, to be essential to understanding and doing data visualization. To learn (better said, “follow the instructions”) to make a heat map, I used the example that he offers in his book, Visualize This, but he also makes this particular exercise available in his collection of online tutorials, so you can have at it, too, if you wish. As you can see, I did indeed follow the instructions and made a nice little heat map of NBA players’ stats.

NBA HeatmapI also wanted to try making a heat map in Excel (easier said than done, though you can find resources online). I downloaded the data from my Jawbone fitness band that I’ve been wearing since December and made a nice map of my daily step count. Nothing fancy, but it worked just fine as a learning exercise.

Step Count Heat Map

I still plan to tackle making heat maps in Tableau, as well as other dashboards and charts that will be useful. The tool kit is never full and the summer isn’t even half over yet.

Enjoy! 

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