“Sarah and I both share the ideology that data's everywhere, data’s not just about being in the corporate world,” says Allen Hillery, Tableau Social Ambassador and co-founder of Be Data Lit, an educational resource for data literacy advocates. “It’s also about using it out in our everyday lives. And there are a lot of people who do not have the support and privileges that we’ve had in our career.”

“I was working in technical education for Tableau and I was on the education services team,” says Sarah Nell-Rodriquez, Principal Success Manager, Healthcare and Life Sciences, at Salesforce. “I was helping to ideate and create classes, but also teaching, and volunteered at some local Seattle places. One of them focused on high school graduates. A lot of them couldn't afford further education. I used to teach them Tableau sometimes and I wondered, if traditional education isn't an option, where do people get the skills needed to move forward? How can they get the skills they need in order to thrive and get a job that helps them to be stable and secure and solvent? And data’s that place.”

The career promise of data

As data colleagues who discovered each other through the Data Visualization Society Slack channel, which quickly progressed to 1:1 Zoom meetings, Nell-Rodriquez and Hillery found common ground in their conversations about why everyone should be data literate. Data literacy was not only for recent high school graduates but for those who wished to further their careers, or for those returning to the workforce after extended absences. 

It was through this shared belief in the power of data that Be Data Lit was formed. The name is a play on both data literacy and the current trend among Millennials and Gen Z to call something lit when it’s cool, intense, or awesome. “You can be data literate but add a positive spin on it, too,” Nell-Rodriquez says, “I thought, let’s bring some joy to this and celebrate the successes of people who have really progressed in this space and been successful despite the odds.”

Be Data Lit began as a website of resources for understanding and teaching data literacy, a resource community page of other data literacy organizations, a blog, and a newsletter. 

More recently, Hillery and Nell-Rodriquez added a LinkedIn page and a Be Data Lit podcast, which is available in audio and video formats (“Sarah had to get me in front of the camera,” Hillery notes), and features interviews with data literacy advocates like Jacob Martinez of Digital NEST and Nicola Osinaike of Audit Data Hub. The rapid deepening of content and resources is one reason that Hillery and Nell-Rodriquez were recently named 2021 Data Literacy Advocates of the Year.

“Jacob is someone who’s trying to do the work that we’re doing, but he’s further ahead,” Hillery says. “He actually has a workforce development program that’s helping people in Southern California. He’s targeting Latino communities to give them more job skills and to see more opportunities because of data.”

Nell-Rodriquez notes that their guests also include career extension professionals. “Nicola Osinaike started out as an engineer, but her career path has been into internal audit. In that space, she saw a lot of auditors who needed to be more familiar with data. And having been an auditor for a year or two in one of my corporate jobs, I saw it too. So that’s another dynamic we’re exploring.” 

Bridging the data literacy gap

“Our lives have changed so much in the past, not only 60 years, but especially in the past 20 years,” Nell-Rodriquez continues. “And one of the things that we talk about with data literacy is, the velocity of change has increased and grown exponentially, but our ability as humans to adapt to it has not. And it's that distance between those two things that create a data literacy gap. Historically, if you went to college, you could get these skills and by the time you graduated, they were still relevant and you could go out there into your given path and have a job in that area.”

The rate of change in data fields has changed this equation, however. “By the time you graduate from college, your skills are already two years out of date, because technology is changing that quickly,” Nell-Rodriquez continues. “And today only 48 percent of colleges are providing the relevant skills for data literacy. In fact, 60 percent of recruiters say that recent college graduates don’t even have the skills needed to get data-related jobs when they apply for them.

“So how are we investing in ourselves and in each other so that we can continue moving forward? I believe this ability to thrive is part of having a meaningful life. But you need to know how to navigate that world.”

Hillery notes that this gap is reflected in our working lives as professionals. “As data leaders, we’re often trying to work with business partners in marketing and sales, but they don’t have a formal data background. And they’re led to believe that they're not data folks or they're not data people. And the business context to the data that we're analyzing is so crucial, but it's not positioned that way. What makes it harder is that there just aren’t very many formal, accredited data literacy programs out there.”

“Not to mention that only 22 percent of employers are providing this kind of education on the job,” Nell-Rodriquez adds. “It’s an end-to-end pipeline issue, as far as talent goes.”

The search for advocates continues

All told, Hillery and Nell-Rodriquez spend four to five hours a week on Be Data Lit, which has quickly grown in popularity since its launch. “We get requests on a regular basis, not only to talk, but also people who want to be interviewed on our podcast,” Nell-Rodriquez notes. “We’re currently talking with a not-for-profit about potentially putting some of this under an umbrella for a not-for-profit that shares our mission in this space. That way, all these things that come through us could contribute to their greater need, financially.”

The need for more data education is what drives both Hillery and Nell-Rodriquez forward. “We need more people to see the value of education,” she says. “Education does not diminish who you are. It makes you stronger. It makes your workforce stronger. It makes your team stronger. It makes your community stronger. And if we can create more advocates out there who are talking about this and the value of education and the actual outcomes that investing in people can create, then hopefully then, we start to create broader circles of data literacy advocates, too.”

For more information about Be Data Lit, visit bedatalit.com