Home Social Impact Heroes Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Andrew Bales of Substantial Is Helping...

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Andrew Bales of Substantial Is Helping To Change Our World

For me, leadership is about developing trust and creating space for people to experiment and grow. It’s a difficult balance to pull off. It takes time and requires close attention to the people around you. But the payoff is extraordinary. It allows people to step into their strengths, tackle the right challenges, and join together to create something meaningful.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Bales.

Andrew Bales is a software developer, writer, designer, and researcher with a passion for creating data stories that illuminate complex social issues. In recent years, Andrew has built an interactive app to showcase a major research library’s audio collection, provided civic insights with Cincinnati policing data, and explored racism in America with a project that won an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I got interested in software development while I was studying in a doctoral program for creative writing. I was increasingly drawn to the digital humanities, a field of study that brings technical tools to questions in the humanities. I worked with open city data to develop community tools, partnered with the university library to showcase an overlooked literary audio collection, and won an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a project I created with their newspaper archive.

Taking on projects of increasing complexity helped me gain new technical skills, but it also made me realize my passion for turning data into visually compelling stories. When I moved to Seattle, I joined Substantial, a digital innovation and build studio. So when I began investigating anti-trans legislation, that work was supported by Substantial and those methods I’d learned over the years to analyze data, design websites, and build interactive components.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Part of the research process I love is understanding the context for a dataset. Making Inflection Point, I was particularly drawn to the story of the coalition of conservative organizations that have worked in tandem on various social issues over the decades. Understanding their influence in American politics helped me draw the connection from 2021’s wave of anti-trans legislation back to the first “bathroom bills” of 2015, but also to the legal fights against abortion and same-sex marriage. That context hooked my interest and shaped my choices about how to visualize the data.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Learning by doing is a comedy of errors by design. Coming to software development from the humanities, I was consistently at the edge of my comfort zone — whether that was attending my first tech meetups, reaching out to accomplished software developers for advice on developing my own learning plan, or jumping into technical problems that I initially had little idea of how to solve. But my goal has always been to get better at making it productive when you fall. To become proficient at somersaulting.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Inflection Point calls attention to the rise of anti-trans legislation. It offers people the chance to learn about how we got to this point, why these bills are so destructive, and how to take action to support trans rights. It’s been a joy to work at Substantial, a company that puts time and resources towards projects like this that can make a social impact. I’ve been consistently impressed by how our teams center real human impact. Everyone I work with is dedicated to the idea that our process and output should be meaningful to people, not just fulfill requirements. You can feel it on teams at every layer — from ideation, design, client facilitation, and the product build. In that way, I think we’re having an impact through everything we touch.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Inflection Point puts the spotlight on specific bills that can cause a lot of heartache. It’s content that can be tough to sit with. But I’ve been heartened to engage with trans people and publications who support this work. Journalists have profiled children and adults who are targeted by these bills, and they’re the same people who would benefit from Inflection Point moving people to resist this legislative push. I hope this work is a meaningful part of the shift in public discourse about trans issues. It’s important to have facts, arguments, and resources to combat discrimination.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Most immediately, politicians in states where these laws are proposed should be vocal and clear about their opposition. Inflection Point has a ‘take action’ page dedicated to providing representative information and names of specific individuals who have signed on with a particularly toxic pledge from Promise to America’s Children.

On an individual level, I’d encourage people to take time to learn about trans identity and issues. It helps not only be a better ally, but to spot disingenuous political tactics that seek to undermine trans rights.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me, leadership is about developing trust and creating space for people to experiment and grow. It’s a difficult balance to pull off. It takes time and requires close attention to the people around you. But the payoff is extraordinary. It allows people to step into their strengths, tackle the right challenges, and join together to create something meaningful.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

– Follow your interests.

– Connect learning to a meaningful output.

– A diverse background is an asset, not a limitation.

– Don’t hesitate to ask “why?”.

– Be kind to yourself.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The projects I’ve created on various social issues are motivated by a desire to see real change. I don’t expect every data visualization, essay, or interactive archive to spark a mass movement, of course, but I’m optimistic about the power of information that’s presented creatively and honestly. You never know the extent to which your work will inspire change, but I’m driven to try. That’s why I focused on these bills impacting trans people. It’s a quickly evolving social and political landscape that has the potential for meaningful change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m a firm believer in “following your interests.” There’s often a pressure to isolate one single passion for your life and, after it’s identified, stick on that trajectory without allowing for reevaluation. In my experience, following your interest is a path filled with excitement, winding paths, and deeply moving experiences. It’s a creative process that leads to the passions we discover that fulfill us.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

My mom. I haven’t been able to see her for a couple of years now. That would be a real treat.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

twitter.com/agbales

linkedin.com/in/andrew-g-bales

https://twitter.com/substantial

instagram.com/substantial

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Andrew Bales of Substantial Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.