It’s the last episode of 2023! Thanks for listening and I’ll see you in 2024!
Gulrez is a father of three beautiful kids and works as a Data Science Leader in his day job. He has almost two decades of experience under his belt and has a knack for turning boring numbers into captivating stories. When he’s not busy working, you can find him passing on his skills to the next generation in the hopes of creating a world of data literate children. A strong believer in the power of data literacy, Gulrez is on a mission to improve the way people make sense of data. He’s known for delivering corporate workshops that are equal parts informative and entertaining.
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I’m your host, Jon Schwabish. If, like me, you’re interested in helping a new generation become familiar with data and data visualization, this is the episode for you. I talk with author and dad, Gulrez Khan, about his new book, Drawing Data with Kids, where he walks kids through a story and also how to work with and visualize data. It’s a really interesting approach to thinking about how we can engage children in working with data and visualizing their data.
So we talk about the book itself. We talk about lots of other ways around thinking about educating kids when it comes to data. So I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s episode of the show. So we’ll get right to it. Here’s my conversation with Gulrez Khan about his new book, Drawing Data with Kids. Hey, Gulrez, good to see you in person rather than just, you know, trading emails.
Thanks for coming on the show. How are you? Thank you, Jon. It’s good to finally be able to talk to you. Thanks for all the feedback and all those conversations offline.
Yeah, no, I’m happy to help. I’m excited to have one more book in the, I don’t know, fairly small literature, I guess, on data viz for kids, right? Like there’s not a ton out there. There’s some stuff on data for kids and like counting and that sort of thing, but not really data visualization.
So this is exciting. So I want to get to the book and I want to talk about your process and, you know, your goals with it and everything. But I want to start with your background. So what does your day look like and how did you end up deciding this is the book, you know, I want to write to start?
Yeah, so I can talk about myself. I’m father of three beautiful kids and that’s how I start all my intros because we have got all our titles, work, job and whatnot. But you spend a little bunch of time working from home and very fortunate. Like I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of learned people.
I’ve been in the U.S. for last 17 years, originally from India, and I spent like kind of born and brought up in Microsoft, so around 10 to 15, around 14 years in Microsoft. And then right now, last four years, I’ve been in the area working as a data science leader at PayPal.
So that’s been my journey. But again, as I said, like very fortunate to have worked with many people like from all over the world and feel fortunate to speaking to a person, learned person like you. Well, thanks. So what brought you then to thinking about a project? I’m sure at the beginning it was sort of a project, but ultimately to a book about data visualization for kids, which sounds very much different than a day-to-day job of working at PayPal. So how did that come about? Yeah. So that is like we all have our different intersections, right? So if I have a title of a data science leader, I have a title of a dad. And then like those things, like if you think of my daily routine, right? So I live and breathe data in all my day job, right?
And then like at the end of the day, like I come and I sit with my kids, my wife, like she takes care of all those things. We are homeschooling our kids right now. And when I come, we read stories and other things. So it’s very hard for you to not bring data home if you are so passionate about data, right? So I’ve been reading their books and I thought, and I was telling my wife that, hey, I think there is a gap. I see like we have got all these different types of books out there in our shelf.
We don’t have a television at home. So we spend a lot of time with books and all that stuff. And I was talking about this data visualization thing. Maybe we should have some kind of a data literacy for kids. And my wife said like, she’s also a software engineer, now a full-time mom.
She said, yes, like there is a gap. So that’s where like the first step, right? So that’s where lots of our dreams gets lost, right? So you talk to the first person. My wife said, yes, there is this thing.
And then there is always the saying, right? So if you are looking for a book and you don’t find it, write that book. So that’s where like I thought maybe I’ll start with that. And again, like it was not to write a book, right? I’ve been doing these activities with my kids, like just spending time with them. We were just, we used to do this thing over the weekend, just drawing some random things. And they treat me so nicely.
They say, okay, and I’m not teaching them, right? So they’ll bring all the crayons and then papers, and then they say, now draw something. And I said, okay, like I’m treated well.
So we would do those activities. And they still remember like, hey, you know what we’d create, we drew this flower and then these mountains and all that stuff. So we used to do those things. And then like one fine day, I said, okay, enough of flowers and mountains.
What about some pie charts? And then they liked it. So that’s where like, we kept on doing those activities. And I started sharing that with my office colleagues or on my social media post. And people seem to like that. And they said, hey, why don’t you conduct some kind of a workshop like our kids would be learning as well. So I did a workshop as well. And then like the book is kind of compilation of those activities, which I was doing with my kids. And the other part is like, I didn’t want to write the book in the format of a curriculum, right? If you look into some kind of books, you would see, okay, that, hey, what is data, right?
This is how they would start. This is what is data, what are the different types of graphs, right? And then all those different technical things, right? That’s boring, right? So when you think from the kid’s perspective, you get that engagement when you tell stories to them, right? That’s where like, right now in the book, what we have is like, it’s kind of a realistic fiction, things that I was doing with my kids, I’ve compiled that in kind of a story format. Then within that story, I’m introducing some kind of graphs, right? And then like, that’s where I have a section which we call as timeout, right? So that’s where like, you can read more about that particular graph. And then at the end of the chapter, every chapter, there are some exercises that they can take home and do those things.
So again, like it’s not in a curriculum format, you have fun, right? So it is like, as a gift from one dad to another parent that, hey, read these books, and then like, have fun, right? So have fun, and in fun, they will learn about certain aspects.
And that’s how like, they will remember. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I love that it’s a narrative for those who are watching the episode on YouTube, I’ve got a picture, I’ve got the book right here, Drawing Data with Kids, it’s a picture of Gourez and his daughter with, you know, all sorts of pens and paper and color on the front. You know, when you think about, as you mentioned kids, I think, you know, the story is so important to kids. When you think about kids, at least the ages that you’re thinking about here, like, how do you think about that, right? Because you know, a six year old is very different than a 12 year old, very different than a 17 year old, but they all are going to need, their generation is going to need data, right?
What are you thinking about when it comes to the different ages? That’s a really good question. And that’s where I was kind of struggling as well. Because I’ve got an 11 year old, who was my like, target person who I was teaching. But then along with her, I’ve got a six year old and a three year old. And they would also come with me and then kind of listen to what I’m trying to teach. So that’s my target audience is like around seven years to 13, 14 years age. But John, like what I’ve seen is like, you have a product and then when it reaches the audience, you see something else, right? So when I see the reviews that people wrote on Amazon, or people who reached out to me later on, they say that you have written this book for kids. But even as adults, as beginners, we are learning from this.
So it’s not limited to an age, right? So here you would see the unintended audience in mothers, or like fathers who are new to this data world, but want to learn or like just get introduced. Because if you see like there are a lot of people, you must have seen like every time you put a graph in front of them, or a math equation, they just want to close that chapter and move to the next one, right?
They just want to flip that page. But with this approach, like what I’m seeing is, it is making them less intimidated with those graphs, or those data, those numbers, because it’s in the form of snakes and ladders, right? The games that they have played, and they have got good memories of their childhood. Now you use this in the form of creating segmentation, or scatter plots, and see, okay, which segment you want to be if you want to win, right? If you can translate that to your day job or something else, you can like, learn a lot of things. Yeah. I’m curious to that point. So the book kind of goes through, I guess they’re separate chapters that sort of lead you in this story that get you to a chart. So you get to the scatter plot, you get to the line chart, the bar chart, what have you.
And you as the reader are kind of prompted to draw to make your own graph in the book. And I’m curious, so I have kind of two questions here. So the first question is, what was your thinking, your inspiration behind that? And the sort of broader question was, I’m curious whether you thought about other ways to enable people to do that. Because I don’t know, like, I’m sure there’s lots of people, I hesitate to write in books.
I like to have my, right? Like when I take notes, even in books, I feel bad about it. But like, you know, creating a book where you could, you know, cut something out or punch something else, like not easy to do from like a practical publication standard. But I’m curious what your thinking was about maybe like trying some of these other things where you actually get people to do things, which you have in this book. But, you know, we had unlimited time and resources and abilities, like we would probably produce something that’d be great. But so what was your thinking about that part of the book project? Yeah. So I think that’s a good question. And I think you also mentioned, like, if you had unlimited time, you could experiment with other things as well. So right now, like, for me, this is more about creating memories with your kids, just having fun, right?
Don’t think about teaching, like if you go in and I’m homeschooling the kids. So the moment you go into the teaching mode, you have lost your audience, right? So that’s where like, for me, this is like just having fun with the kids. You are like sitting in a garden or like and people just email me that, hey, you know what? This weekend, I was sitting there and my son brought this book to me. And then we read the stories and then we created these graphs. And like people are not just putting those things on the book, in the book, like they have got separate papers as well that they are using. So if you look at the first chapter, like it is like there is a snore graph, right?
So snore graph, it’s kind of a fun thing. And but again, like to tell you another incident that happened or a story, right? So the other day, my 11-year-old, like she was reading a book about birds of North America. And she was reading that book, sitting on the sofa, and I was just finishing my call. And I stepped out and then she called me. She calls me Abu. So she says, Abu, come here.
I said, OK. And then I peeked into the book. And she was looking into a graph, which was the sound of the birds, like the pitch graph, right? So you have different pitch for the birds, like how loud they are and all that stuff. And based on that, scientists like they identify the species of the bird.
And she was looking at it. And she was spending time looking at that graph. And she says, you know what? This looks like the snore graph from your book. And like that was like a pat on my back that I said, OK, well, what happened with this, John, is she is not intimidated to look at a complex graph that she would see in her daily routine going forward, right? So even if the book doesn’t work for me, like no one buys, but this thing which happened, right? Removing that intimidation about the graphs or data, I think that’s what I want to achieve with this book. And that’s like what’s happening, right?
So there is this snore graph thing. Similar to that in the exercises, there is this roar graph, right?
How it sounds like animals make. There is a meow meow graph and things on those, right? And people are sending me those pictures, which they are creating with their kids and saying that they, hey, we are having so much fun because if you talk to the kids like six year, seven year, my three year old, you talk about, oh, what kind of sound elephant makes or cat makes, dog makes, they do that, they enjoy it. But now you translate that into a graph and you’re still having fun. And they are learning without even realizing that they’ve been taught this. Yeah, yeah. So the way that you’ve tried to create this kind of entrance into data for kids is through things that they’re familiar with, which I think a lot of elementary school teachers would agree with. And I’m curious when you think about your day-to-day job or your wife’s day-to-day job and helping adults who are professionals get more familiar, more comfortable with data, do you think it works in the same way that it needs to be familiar in a non-work setting? Or do you think the way to get people engaged is it needs to be sort of like work dependent, where people are just be like, look, I’m an adult, I don’t have time for this.
Like, I’m not going to be making, you know, I’m not going to be drawing things of my commute. Like, how do you feel about just the way you are with the kids, lowering the barrier to data literacy for adults? Yeah, so I think it helps on that. Like, I’m trying to think of different examples, right?
So you talked about drawing my commute, right? So there are a lot of data artists these days, like you’ve got Georgie Allupi and then Stephanie Pusevic, and a lot of those are drawing data projects, right? So which we are, as adults, we are learning and we are loving those projects. also some kind of a coloring books like for adults, which are coming out, which helps them like meditate or things on those lines, right? So it’s, it doesn’t have to be complicated. And again, like talking about the kind of courses or the tutorials that we get, like for example, I’ve been a data science leader, my entry to data science. Started with a few examples, like if you think of clustering, right? So I still remember when I was learning this thing clustering, you see the example, which is commonly used as for the data set of the Iris flower, right?
And the different types of species of that flower, right? So that is the setosa and all those other things.
I cannot pronounce those things. I cannot like write the spelling of those things. So when I was learning this thing, like it was for me not coming from a Western world or like not too much in the botany. Firstly, I need to understand the domain, but Hey, what is this thing? And then I was talking to another, my neighbor from Google and he mentioned like when he was in the college, he did his master’s here from the US. But then one fine day his professor realized like there are a lot of people from subcontinent and they are familiar with cricket, right? So cricket is a game like baseball and it’s like a religion over there. So instead of using these data sets, he brought the data set of cricket. And now like the audience was interested.
They knew the domain, they knew their superstars, right? So with this, if you lower the barrier, you make it fun, right? The other day I looked into a graph someone created with this baby shark video or like, you know, like how popular that rhyme is, right? And then like with that, like it was so fun, right? And it was kind of a Sankey diagram, which says, okay, from a baby shark, like the number of times they repeat the word baby and then shark. And now you open your mind, but if you start, you have those jargons and this is the unfamiliar territory, you shut your mind, right? So that’s where like, I think simplifying it makes it more easy and welcoming. Yeah. So I think that helps. Yeah, it, it, it is interesting that, um, that we sort of maybe as human beings, we lose that, that, I don’t know that, that part of our ability to stay open to, to learning these new things.
But I like this idea of simplifying it to keep it interesting for people to learn. I’m curious about, you mentioned your, people are sending you photos. Um, I’m curious to hear more about those, those other experiences that you are either hearing about from readers or I’m sure, you know, your kids, friends, you know, either using the book or, or exploring data.
So, so can you tell us a few of those stories? Yeah. So the other thing like, which I, like, as I was talking about that Iris flower, right now, when I think of those things, I, and I work here in the corporate world, we think of, uh, we localize our products based on different markets, right? So if I have got this product, uh, over here in us, I would localize it.
And maybe like if I’m creating ads, right. If I create an ad for a coffee or like, let’s say Starbucks, for example, the ad that I would show in the U S would look different from what I would show in India. You have a different stars, different celebrities, and the way I’ll talk to the audience will be different. But when I look into the books, right, you’ve got lots of book in your bookshelf. Uh, I can see right now, but, uh, this is like same book that a person in us is reading and same a person in India or Pakistan or some other country they would be reading. Now, what I’ve always missed is, uh, I’ve always, uh, like when I read about, uh, certain topics, technical stuff, it has always been like, uh, some like Tom, Dick and Harry, like they are the main characters. And, uh, when I read these books with my kids, I see this is missing, right?
They are not able to identify themselves in those books. If you are not able to identify, you’re less attractive. Yeah. Your question was like, what are the things that I’m hearing from my like, uh, readers? So the other things that I’m reading is like, there are people who are finding it more, uh, relatable, right? So for example, the character we hear is different than you, what you would see in your usual life and the stories like, uh, it’s, uh, you’ve got, uh, uh, different things, right?
So parathas, right? So for example, paratha, I could have called it as a pancake, but again, I wanted to call it as this because that’s where like, uh, I see that those things missing, right? So the name Pariza, right? So it’s a different name that you wouldn’t see. So one reader, like she reached out and she messaged that, Hey, I love the book in the story. My daughter and me, we were reading and we were able to identify ourselves. Like there was like, uh, uh, it’s like, uh, the sketches and other things you have got a hijab, which the character is wearing. And then she’s able to identify with her daughter that, Hey, you know what, this is how we are. And then, so they are able to see themselves as they see the representation. So I think that has also helped. So that’s another thing which, uh, uh, came out. Yeah. It’s interesting to think about.
I mean, I love this idea of being able of people being able to see themselves, not just represented in the book, as you mentioned, uh, I’m guessing this is the drawing is, is your daughter in the book wearing a hijab. And so not just seeing themselves in the book, but also seeing themselves in the data. And I wonder when it comes to kids, how do you help them see themselves in the data? You mentioned, you mentioned the very beginning, like the sounds different animals make, which I think is a, you know, is a great one. Right. So, but how do you then sort of create these exercises or these examples where kids see themselves in the data, right. They see their age or their friends or their experiences.
Um, yeah, so yeah, I’ll just, I’ll just leave it. I’ll leave that question there. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So when you look into those exercises, right. So the data that I’ve used is from the board games, for example, you’re playing Scrabble. We are using the scores of the games and what came out right now, if I go and I show her, like if I have to introduce a data to my 11 year old and I say, Hey Pariza, come on, let’s look into this sales graph or something. Right. He’s not interested, but now like we just finished a nail biting game of Scrabble. She lost to her seven year old brother.
And now like she’s pulling her hair and said, why did this happen? Right. And now like she is like, she has got her skin in the game. And now like I say, okay, come on in. Let’s see like what happened. And now she’s interested and she’s saying, Oh no, this is the round when I, my score was lower, but then like she was seeing the data in just different rounds. Let’s add that and make it as a cumulative score. And you create a line graph and quickly she’s able to see, okay, the dip happened. And this is where it’s like she lost. Right. Right. So this is like, make the data more relatable compared to like what we see in our regular graphs that we try to teach to everyone. Right. So, so that’s where like, I think they will see it more relatable and the game of snakes and ladder, right?
So again, like these exercises are something that since I was doing with my kids, so it’s, it’s those things that came out, right? Yeah. So I think we need to make it more relatable and whatever they are seeing in their day job, not day job, like in their day, you bring that in the form of data and don’t teach them. Yeah. Right. It’s like when they learn algebra, they don’t know that they’re learning algebra. Right. You say you have three apples.
How many more do you need to add to get to 12 apples? They don’t know they’re doing algebra, but they’re right. Yeah. Right. Right. Tell me about the process of actually writing the book and, and illustrating the book, because for those, again, I’ll hold it up for those who, who, who don’t have it, it is, it is illustrated. So it’s not, you know, again, if you’re, if you’re watching this, you can, you can sort of see like the book is, is illustrated, has, I think it has like two different fonts in it, but it’s, but it is illustrated. It’s not just like a straight, a straight book. So tell me about that, that process of, of writing it and then having it illustrated or illustrating it yourself. Yeah. So writing the book, like I had this idea, like it has to be in the farm stories.
And again, like I drew a lot of inspiration from the, there is a book called Life of Fred. So this is like, if you have not seen it, I’ve called it out in the acknowledgement section. So in that book, like Eric, like I’m forgetting, I’m not able to pronounce his last name, but that has been a very popular book. And this is like, they have a similar format of like teaching, introducing maths to kids, right. So in the form of stories and, but again, like they didn’t have something for data. So that was a lot, that gave me a lot of inspiration. And the other things that I have over there is it’s more about a realistic fiction, like you will see the different chapters, like for example, the game of snakes and ladders, which I’m talking about, like the other day I was just going to my home office, closing the door and it was the weekend and my kids, they ran and they pulled me and they said, Hey, today is weekend.
You have to play with us. Don’t go anywhere.
And I said, okay. And I asked them, what game do you want to play? And they say snakes and ladders. I said, okay, let’s do snakes and ladders. But back of my mind, I was always thinking, okay, I want to write a chapter and my kids are here.
So what can I do? So that’s where like things happen. Okay, let’s play this thing. And my son was getting upset that he’s being bitten by too many snakes. So maybe let’s make that in a form of story and then use that data. So those are the chapters that we have.
And again, like these are fun chapters. Some of the reviews that I’ve got, they mentioned that people are enjoying this also as a storybook, right? So they are just reading the stories as well. So, so that’s that. And again, like I did some research with the other parents and like people like you who provided good feedback of what might, what may not work. And there were a lot of other chapters as well, which I had in the book, which I cut based on the feedback that I have. And that is another, so this is going to be a series now. So, so this is like, there is another one coming up.
So those are the things. And now like when I thought of a book, like again, like it’s going to be a kid’s book, right? So if it’s going to be a kid’s book, how can you make it more fun, right? Here I’ve not used lots of colors, again, like as a data visualization practitioner, like we try to limit the use of colors as well. So here I’ve created those illustrations. This is like from mid-journey and other tools that I’ve used. And, and that helped me like since I was writing, even before, like when I talk about one thing, which I didn’t mention, right.
This is a book, something which I self-published. Now, when I was thinking about writing a book and I reached out to three publishers and one of them said, yes. And, but again, like if I look into the ROI, that wasn’t that much, right. So, and now, and I also, I didn’t want to curb the creativity perspective, like the portion of the book, like, as I mentioned about the localization and the different intersection that I was bringing in the book. So, so that’s where like a lot of things came on my plate that, Hey, I need to do it and I need to make it successful. So that’s where like, I did most of the stuff and like, it’s, it’s doing much better, like than way better than what I expected. Yeah. The book has gone to markets, which I have not went myself.
So it’s, it’s, it’s been wonderful. That’s great. That’s great. My last, I guess my last question is, and it’s great to hear that there’s, there’s going to be more. So this is, so this is great. And you’ve mentioned this, you’ve talked a little bit about this with, with sort of play and not necessarily having kids realize that they’re learning or being taught, but I’m curious what you would suggest, I guess, to teachers and educators and even parents about kind of teaching data viz to kids or using the book, you know, in a classroom or something like that, like what I can guess what your recommendation is going to be. But what, but what would you say to a teacher that’s like, Oh, I picked up this book, maybe I use it with my kid, you know, my own kid.
It looks great. How would I implement this into the classroom? And you know, a class of 20, 25 kids, something like that. Yeah. When I was talking about these different intersections, right. So if someone else would have written this book, it would be in a different form.
Like here I bring different intersections. We don’t have television at home and my wife, like she’s very mindful of the screen time to the kids. Right. So even with the teaching, that’s why I would like this thing came out like in the form of without screen time. Right. So right now, what I’ve seen in my circle and outside we want our kids to be computer literate, right? So everyone is sending their kids to coding classes and whatnot. Right. But again, that would be having them sit in front of computers and whatnot. We ourselves, like we spend so much time in front of these machines, right? Now for our kids, like as they grew up, they will be spending time in front of devices, but with this book, the idea is like, let’s have some fun, right?
The moment you, you can do these, all these things in front of computer. And then you can do like, I see there is this book that you recently wrote and I see in your background about Excel. So you can do all these things in Excel or these different tools with Python and whatnot. Right. But again, the idea is to have fun as a family or in class, right? The way you do it without digital footprints, I think it will be more fun. And then don’t tell them like one thing that didn’t work for me. Right. So people ask me that, Hey, what didn’t work for you when you were teaching? What didn’t work for me is I was doing these exercises and then with them.
And then I said, okay, go and do this project. And my daughter said, no, I don’t want to do it myself. She was having fun because I was there working with her. Right. So for teaching, for anything, right? So you need to be there present and then participating. Like, again, it goes back to those weekend activities, which I was talking about. That my kids, they bring those crayons, everything, and they enjoy. that dad is there and he’s drawing.
He’s not teaching anything. You’re having fun. So don’t get rid of that element. Like, don’t go from the perspective that you want to teach, but have fun as a family and then like do these things together. Yeah, that’s great.
Well, congrats on the book. Very excited.
I’ve got my copy. I have my kids reading it. My kids are, uh, as you might expect, they’re a little bit older than your kids and, uh, they had a dad who was deep into database. So they’re, uh, so like my son helped me with my Excel book. So that’s like, you know, getting to the next, yeah, to the next phase.
Um, but congrats on the book. I’m excited about the sequels coming out and I’ll put the notes to, to the book on the, on the show notes page. Where can listeners find you, especially if they want to send you pictures of using the book with their kids? Yeah. So they can connect me on LinkedIn. So, uh, they can find like, there are not many, too many Gulrez Khan on LinkedIn that I come with kind of a unique name. Right. So they can find me. Uh, and, uh, I would love to see like, uh, if they have got any pictures or any other feedback. But, uh, again, my last message would be to have fun with kids.
Don’t try to teach them, just have fun. And then they will learn with you. That’s great. Thanks Gulrez. Really appreciate you coming on the show and, uh, good luck with, uh, having fun with the next few books.
Thank you so much, John. Thanks for tuning into this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed that conversation.
I hope you’ll check out Gulrez’s book. I also hope you’ll check out the project that I did with my colleagues at the Urban Institute Data for Kids, where we provide lots of data sources and materials, including Excel files, PowerPoint files, Google slides, and notes for instructors and teachers on helping kids learn to be better data users and data consumers, and of course, data visualizers. So until next time, this has been the policy of this podcast.
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