Five Questions with Matt Simon
Matt Simon makes maps that explain public health.
Name: Matt Simon
Position: Research associate and GIS analyst, North Carolina Institute for Public Health
Time at the Gillings School: I started part-time in 2009.
What I do at UNC Gillings (and why I love it): Primarily, I offer technical assistance to health departments, hospitals and nonprofits that need help conducting community health assessments. A big part of these assessments is collecting data door-to-door, and my role is to use GIS mapping to determine where we should go to find a representative sample of the local population. I also work on mapping social determinants of health, which is my favorite part of my job. I’ve done that for the Carolinas HealthCare System, for Wake County and for several counties in western North Carolina. I create data visualizations that are accessible for the general public although they convey something complex. One example is an online Story Map I worked on for the John Rex Endowment that describe how conditions in Wake County, like the existence of food deserts and high housing costs, can affect families’ well-being.
I like this work because it’s challenging – there are nearly infinite ways to look at the same data, and it’s my job to draw out what’s most meaningful. I also enjoy the creativity of graphic design and the challenge of making something that’s both aesthetically pleasing and informative. There are so many data already publicly available. With just a little effort, I can put them in a format that informs people and impacts public health. Social determinants mapping in particular is getting more attention these days, and I want to help shed light on the fact that where you live affects your health.
My first job: was, as a high school sophomore, doing yard work for a neighbor in Asheville, N.C. I remember biking up his incredibly long driveway to a beautiful mansion and tackling all the chores on his list. I did that job with my high school best friend, who was my best man at my wedding and is still a big part of my life.
My second job was at a pizza restaurant. I always loved cooking and wanted to be a chef, so I started working in the kitchen as a senior in high school and stayed on full-time for a year after graduation. Then I came to UNC to get my undergraduate degree, and actually took a semester off to work full-time at 411 West on Franklin Street. That semester is what convinced me to get out of the restaurant business, actually – the hours are crazy and I kind of like getting to see my family.
Outside of work: I’m still a cook, but now I’m constantly trying to please four different palates at every meal! I’m an omnivore, but my wife is vegetarian and my two kids, who are three and five years old – well, I just want to get them to eat anything. My best “healthy” hit with them so far is rice and beans. If I were just cooking for myself, it’d be all about meat and potatoes. I’m talking pot roast, a good stew or maybe coq au vin…
Other than that, I just started playing soccer again. I played in high school and was on an intermural team for a while in college, and now I play with a great league in Orange County. I usually do all four seasons each year – it’s good for my mental health.
One thing on my bucket list: is to backpack the Sierras with my family. I did it as a graduate student, when I led a group of undergrads on a 42-day “Walking Classroom” trip on the John Muir Trail. My kids are still a little young for that trip, but we took a step in the right direction this year by getting them both sleeping bags for Christmas! (They’ve been sleeping in them ever since.)
I’m inspired by: my kids. Johnny is five years old and Rosie is three. Anything I do, I want it to benefit them. I’m also inspired by the outdoors. I don’t get enough time there, but I do bike to work. Starting and ending my day outside helps me feel connected. When we have the chance to explore the state’s natural areas, some of my favorite places to visit are Linville Gorge, the Blue Ridge Parkway around Asheville and the Wilson Creek Trail, which is especially magical. There are so many waterfalls and one campsite where you can slide down a perfect mossy incline into a bathing pool.
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