A self-proclaimed “data nerd” with the desire to do good, Brennan brings his expertise in cyber security and love of data science to DataKind to tackle important matters like mental health issues in the U.S. He led the Thresholds DataCorps project to help improve mental health care in Illinois by identifying high-risk individuals and using predictive analysis to better determine needs, fill care gaps, and provide early intervention for those suffering from mental illness. Thanks to his team’s amazing work, Thresholds will be able to help more people with mental illnesses reclaim their lives.
What’s your day job?
By day, I’m a Security Analyst at Bloomberg LP, specializing in cybersecurity for the company. I became interested in cybersecurity at an early age while learning about it from my uncle and mentor. In college, I really enjoyed the courses I took in security, and relished in the idea of being able to defend myself. However, I also enjoy hacking and have fun working with the massive amounts of data collected in today’s digital world. At times, it almost feels like I have this Jekyll and Hyde personality, due to this mixed love of data science and cyber security.
Tell us about your work with DataKind.
I worked with DataKind and three other volunteer data scientists on a six-month project for a Chicago-based nonprofit company named Thresholds. Thresholds provides healthcare for individuals with mental illnesses in Illinois. There is a real need to address mental illness, but it’s difficult to identify and properly treat those in need. We explored the potential of using predictive analytics to help Thresholds identify high risk groups and anticipate patient needs in order to better treat and help more individuals. One of the challenges in healthcare is that data is often siloed across different agencies and medical centers. For the project, we were able to get data from Medicaid and the Cook County Jail, which was extremely helpful. Adding to the data that Thresholds had, we were able to create a data warehouse for them, along with automated reports and a dashboard that staff can use to help identify high risk individuals, tailor individual care, and anticipate future needs. It was a really exciting project to work on, and it is incredible to see the impact that the project is having. Thresholds is currently rolling out the automated reports we helped develop agency-wide, and they also have plans to expand the use of the data warehouse we created. The team was thrilled to be honored at Thresholds’ recent conference where we received the 2016 Thresholds Hero Award for our work on the project.
What inspires you to donate your skills to give back?
It’s a combination of things. Previously, I had volunteered and helped put together an event for the Special Olympics. My work on that project gave me a warm fuzzy feeling you get from doing something good and it made me realize I wanted to volunteer in even more meaningful ways. Since then, I have strived to help make a positive impact on people’s lives and change the world for the better. Working with DataKind gave me the opportunity to use my skills to give back and help people with mental illness, an issue that I feel needs more attention. It also let me fulfill the data nerd in me, and was just a lot of fun to work on.
What is one of the most surprising things you've learned or seen in working with data?
The amount of unstructured data available out there. It’s incredible to see how much data we’re just sitting on and the potential there is for it all. It just needs to be structured and massaged to get it into a usable format. Once this happens, there are all these “aha” moments and you can better see all the possibilities of what the data can be used for.
What blogs or articles do you love reading to stay up to date on all the data news?
I go to r-bloggers.com for the latest posts about R statistical programming language. fivethirtyeight.com has awesome data science stories with great visualizations, related to Politics, Economics, Science, Life, Sports and datasciencecentral.com is a great place to go for news as it’s an aggregator of all other data science blogs. For podcasts, I like the Data Skeptic (dataskeptic.com). I also like to attend Data Driven NYC meetups www.meetup.com/DataDrivenNYC
What advice do you have for someone just getting started with data science?
Learn as much as you can about the data. If you don’t know what the data is – get an expert. You’ve got the data and algorithms, but you need the social sector aspect or perspective to really identify, ask and answer what the problem is. This is where new data scientists struggle. They need to look at impact and usage on a deeper and more personal level.
When you’re not busy using data science to change the world, what do you like to do in your free time? What is a fact no one would know about you?
I’m a water polo player and compete and travel with my team to tournaments all over the country. I also participate in triathlons and enjoy swimming. One fun fact that not many people know is that I actually swam against Michael Phelps – when he and I were both 12 at a Junior Olympics regional swim competition.