Meet the DataFam 05: Dennis Kao
Get to know the social work professor, bassist, and maker of marvelous maps.
Now you can access all of the previous (and future!) installments of Meet the DataFam and — if this is your first one — learn a little more about how it works here.
⏪ The Background
Thanks to this fantastic Observable Notebook template for analyzing your Twitter archive, I know EXACTLY when I first interacted with Dennis on Twitter. On March 19, 2021, he posted an image of the viz Asian Hate in the U.S., which visualized the 3,795 incidents of anti-Asian harrassment, assault, and other acts of hate during March 2020-February 2021 (the approximate length of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time).
In the year and nine months since I retweeted his viz, I’ve enjoyed many more of Dennis’s 136 visualizations on Tableau Public, he joined the Healthcare TUG as a co-lead with Mark Connolly, Lindsay Betzendahl, and I, and we became Tableau Ambassadors at the same time.
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🍭 The Viz: The Changing Geography of Candy Land
Damn, it’s hard to pick just one favorite from Dennis’s Tableau Public portfolio! But since, according to my own rules, I had to, I chose The Changing Geography of Candy Land, a viz Dennis created for a #GamesNightViz and #IronQuest collaboration on nostalgic games last summer.
When I was an elementary school-aged child, my paternal grandmother Concetta and I played Candy Land or Monopoly nearly every time I slept over when Poppy, my grandfather Donald, was ready to make his evening transition from having taken me to the Baltimore County Public Library on Harford Road in Parkville, then chatting with me about books for at least an hour after dinner, to watching “his shows”. (It was a well-earned break.)
Since Candy Land gives me the nostalgic warm-and-fuzzies and I love maps (especially of fictitious places), this is the one.
Dennis compares the geographical locations included in twelve iterations of the board game, spanning from the 1941 Milton Bradley version to the 2021 Hasbro variant. He even has images of the game from each iteration in the tooltips!
Where are you from originally?
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California!
My family started off in Echo Park (just a few miles from Dodger Stadium). Then when I was in the 3rd grade, we moved out to the suburbs, specifically Hacienda Heights, also known as the third Chinatown. That’s where I spent the bulk of my childhood and adolescence. When my wife and I got married, we settled in Torrance, a city about 15 miles south of downtown LA.
Going back a bit more, my parents are both from Taiwan.
So, that makes me a second-generation Taiwanese American Angeleno who’s…
Where do you live now?
…currently living in Ottawa, Ontario. We relocated here about 4 years ago, when I joined the social work faculty at Carleton University. We thought it would be a good opportunity for our kids to experience living outside the U.S.
Side note: When we first got here, everyone we encountered asked whether we were fleeing the U.S. due to the Trump presidency, but that was merely a coincidence…
Nicole’s note: It was a fair question on their part.
Where would you live if you could live anywhere (assuming money, family, work location, etc. are not a concern)?
I’ve always had this fantasy of traveling, living, and working all around the world… living out of a suitcase (see “Working Jazz/Blues Musician” discussion below), but of course, money, family, work location, etc.
But here are a few places that immediately come to mind:
NN: I nearly spit out my coffee at “Middle-earth”!
Ireland… for the music. About 4 years ago, I applied for a faculty job at the University College Dublin, but got rejected. Maybe I needed more justification than I love Sharon Shannon and the Chieftains.🤣
NN: I had no clue who Sharon Shannon and the Chieftains were, so I did some interneting. Sharon Shannon is an accordion and fiddle player. The Chieftains, an Irish folk band. This was a fun — and unexpected — rabbit hole.
South Korea, Japan, Italy, India, any other country in Central or South America, any country along the Mediterranean… for the food.
San Francisco or Berkeley… just because I absolutely love the Bay Area… I spent four years there as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley.
Did you start your career in a data-related role or in another field? If another field, which one?
A better question might be: Am I in a data-related role or field right now?
As a researcher, my scholarship focuses on understanding health equity issues, e.g. challenges among racial/ethnic and/or aging minority communities in accessing health care services. For about 12 years, I’ve collected and/or analyzed quantitative and qualitative data as part of my research. I also utilize GIS mapping and spatial analysis as tools to look at some of these issues spatially, working with census data and the like. So, I’m working with data all the time, but it’s just one aspect of my work.
Only in the past two years, I’ve really tried to engage more in the data visualization space. And I’ve gained a greater appreciation for data visualization and storytelling and the values they add to my research and teaching. So, I now constantly think about dataviz and how it fits into my work.
I’m not sure if that makes me a data person. But at least I can pretend to be one on Twitter. 😄
If you had to choose a different career path, what would it be? Why?
Marine Biologist/Park Ranger/Zookeeper: My undergraduate degree was in biology, molecular and cell biology to be specific, [I am] a pre-medical school “drop-out.” I was still interested in biology, but I didn’t really know what to do. All I knew was that I didn’t want to work in a lab and work with test tubes and petri dishes — which of course, ended up being my first job after graduation, working as a biotech lab technician. But my logic was as follows:
I loved sharks as a kid ➡️ Marine Biologist
I love camping and hiking ➡️ Park Ranger
I always thought snakes were cool ➡️ Zookeeper
Working jazz/blues musician: Being a musician was always a dream of mine. Not a rock star… but a working musician. But of course, life happens… But as an adult, I rediscovered my love for playing music. I started to take courses at a local community college and was a part of a few different bands and groups, including a blues band that was starting to get some good corporate gigs (e.g., the reception of the ADC Awards Show) and a jazz quartet I led that was starting to get wedding and other gigs. I also started to get some studio work. And I just got a weeklong gig as the bassist for a pit orchestra at a local theater. So, at one point, I had a decision to make: 1) go back to school to get my PhD; or 2) pursue music full-time.
Architect: What’s cooler than an architect?
Food critic: No explanation needed. See above discussion about places I would like to live.
What do you like most about Tableau?
I love how easy (relatively) it is to add interactivity to your visualization. And I’m a big fan of parameters.
What do you find the most challenging about Tableau?
Having started using GIS, it took me a while to get adjusted to how to bring in, join, and work with spatial files in Tableau. To this day, I still find it a bit tricky to connect to multiple spatial files. I often use QGIS to manage and prepare spatial files.
NN: I used QGIS for the first time during last month’s #30DayMapChallenge. It’s a super powerful and helpful tool! Also, shameless plug: Sarah Battersby of Tableau Research will be joining the Tampa TUG (I am a co-lead) on January 12 to help us all be like Dennis and work with QGIS, spatial analysis, and Tableau!
If you couldn’t use Tableau, how would you do data visualization?
To be honest, if it weren’t for Tableau, I probably wouldn’t be doing or even thinking about data visualization as much as I do now. Of course, I would still be making maps (e.g. using tools, such as QGIS), but the maps I used to make were very basic. I didn’t really think about the aesthetics. Learning Tableau and engaging with the #DataFam — which were my gateway to the data visualization space–really helped me to discover a more artistic side that I didn’t know I had.
The maps I make for research articles can still be a bit dry, but I’ve also noticed a difference in those maps:
What is your favorite chart type? Why?
Definitely a map. Wait…is a map a chart type? I just think maps are so cool. But if you’re being technical, then the bar chart. I like its simplicity.
NN: Maps are a chart type, IMO.
Which community challenges do you regularly participate in? Why would you recommend them to new members of the DataFam?
I’ve personally participated in a lot of community challenges these past two years, mainly because I really wanted to work on my Tableau and data visualization skills. I may have tried all of them at some point. Because of my work, I’ve gravitated more towards #VizforSocialGood, #ProjectHealthViz, and #DiversityinData. But it’s so cool that there’s such a variety of community challenges — something for everyone.
My first was the #30DayMapChallenge back in November 2020 and it remains one of my favorites. It’s absolutely crazy, trying to create one map a day. But if you’re into maps, there’s no better month to practice and hone your skills. And be prepared to be blown away and inspired by the hundreds of amazing maps. It also represented the first time I started to engage with the #DataFam on Twitter and the first time I learned about Tableau. And I think that’s the key takeaway: You will definitely improve your skills by participating in a community challenge, but if it helps you to get more engaged with the #Datafam, you will gain so much more.
The community project I would recommend the most is probably #TheFeedbackLoop, an initiative led by Michelle Frayman and Nicole Klassen which provides a safe space for fellow #DataFam members — with varying levels of data viz skills and experience — to share and provide feedback on each other’s visualizations. Not only will you get good feedback, but you will also learn through the process of reviewing other people’s work and providing feedback.
What hill would you die on?
November 15th is way too early to start playing Christmas songs.
Have you received any certifications, honors, or accolades you’d like to share or feel especially proud of?
OMG, so many accolades…how do I choose? 🤣
I’m particularly proud of my 2022 Vizzie Award for “Biggest Growth.” It came about 1.5 years after I discovered and started learning Tableau. Receiving that recognition really validated the work I put in to learning and ramping up my skills — especially at this stage in my life and career. I feel that I’ve learned and gained so much during that time, but I’m so honored and humbled that it was also recognized by the #Datafam. It was also the impetus that drove me to want to give back to the #Datafam.
But right now, I’m probably most proud when I hear from someone who’s been impacted by my work in some way. I’m absolutely thrilled (and honored) when I hear that someone has been inspired by one of my vizzes… or is encouraged to learn and/or try QGIS… or that I’ve somehow demystified the data viz journey 🙏.
Citations for the maps shown:
Kao, D., Torres, L.R., Mauldin, R., Guerrero, E.G., & Bordnick, P.S. (2014). Spatial Accessibility of Drug Treatment Facilities and the Effects on Locus of Control, Drug Abuse, and Service Use among Heroin-Injecting Mexican American Men. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25(3), 598–607.
Liu, M., Kao, D., Gu, X., Holland W., Cherry-Peppers, G. (2022). Oral Health Service Access in Racial/Ethnic Minority Neighborhoods: A Geospatial Analysis in Washington, DC, USA. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,19(9): 4988.
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