Data for Good

Northwestern Mutual tech volunteers step up to give LSS a hand in data and analytics

Mark Zachar, Program Management Lead

Dec 9, 2021

Northwestern Mutual believes in doing well by doing good. The company is inherently a “tech for good” company, enriching the lives of our clients, people, and communities through tech products, trainings, and career opportunities. Northwestern Mutual had an opportunity earlier this year to do some of this work for a local nonprofit called Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan (LSS).

LSS is a non-profit organization that has 139 years of proven results – including 92% of their clients saying that the social service provider has improved the quality of their lives. LSS aims to empower healthy communities filled with people using their God-given gifts to serve others. The organization reached out to the United Way’s Tech United Council and their Tech for Good Marketplace with hopes of finding someone who can provide business and data analytics expertise.

When the call came to Northwestern Mutual, two teams stepped up to the challenge. The Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute and a group of experts called the Community of Analysts (COA) solicited the services of Sr. Data Scientist Mark Schieble, Lead Program Manager Michelle Fetherston, Data Analytics Consultant Kyle Bigelow, and Project Management Intern David Young to help with the project.

The NMDSI is a partnership among Northwestern Mutual, Marquette University, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where their mission is to enhance data science research, develop a pipeline of data science talent, and establish the Southeastern Wisconsin region as a tech hub. COA is a group of analytical professionals within Northwestern Mutual that are dedicated to democratizing data and building employees’ analytical skills across the enterprise.

The journey between Northwestern Mutual and LSS began in February 2021. At the time, the specifics of what was needed were not clear since this was a new opportunity for both organizations. Through several months of search and discovery, Northwestern Mutual and LSS worked together to frame out work on the organization’s data collection software, Tableau.

The team identified three primary objectives: optimize the visualization of the Tableau dashboard through effective data storytelling, improve the Tableau dashboard user experience, and leverage predictive analytics so LSS can acquire more funding to help people who are battling substance abuse and managing their mental health.

From June to September, the four Northwestern Mutual volunteers meticulously worked with LSS Director of Performance and Quality Improvement Amanda Krzykowski, IT Project Manager Mike Barlow, and Business Intelligence Analyst Michael Nowroozi to dive deeper into their data, address pain points, and assess the overall Tableau dashboard experience.

“I wanted to understand what their user experience was so we could identify ways to make the dashboards easier for people to find and use, as well as gathering input and feedback from users to inform them of future changes. Once I understood that, I came up with solutions that included periodic training sessions that could be recorded and repurposed for new hires, setting up office hours for people to ask questions, adding user testing to observe pain points, and a built-in feedback survey,” said Fetherston.

To help LSS tell better stories with their data, Schieble leveraged his experience as a data scientist and made some recommendations. “I noticed the same data was repeated in many different places or in separate charts. It would be more efficient if it was consolidated into one or two visuals for the dashboard. Also, instead of having time trends in one visual and the current month’s metrics in another, the dashboard visuals should use calculated measures / weighted averages over time,” said Schieble.

Bigelow gave LSS an introduction on using and developing Power Apps which provides a more rapid customized application development and delivery method to increase organizational efficiencies.

Project Hit Close to Home for One Volunteer

Born in Oshkosh and raised in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison student David Young wore the coordinator hat for this project. As a project management intern, Young currently assists with the data and analytic capabilities of the department through coordinating hackathons, supporting the COA group, and helping with various data-for-good outreach activities.

When he learned about LSS and what they do, he noticed the familiarity of the LSS acronym. After asking his parents about it for more context, Young discovered that LSS was the adoption agency his parents used to bring him home. His involvement in the data analytics consultative work with LSS took on a whole new meaning and Young’s fellow volunteers echoed that sentiment.

“Their actions are what set my life on a completely different course that has allowed so many unique opportunities I may not have had otherwise. Getting to work with and assist employees from LSS was fulfilling and a great way to pay it back to the organization,” said Young.

Of the 80 hours of volunteer time spent, the team knew that was just a drop in the bucket compared to Young’s lifelong benefit thanks to LSS.

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