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Interview: How AI and Data Analytics Are Driving a More Tech-savvy Military

February 17, 2021
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· 3 min read

As host of the DataRobot More Intelligent Tomorrow podcast, I’m constantly impressed and delighted by the fascinating people that I have a chance to talk to.

Recently, I had a long conversation with Ashley Russell, who has the stately title of Strategic Performance Management Coordinator for the U.S. Army, where she reports to the Undersecretary of the Army on mission-critical data analytics.

Ashley’s career path is really something. Driven by China’s status as a rising superpower, she learned Chinese so she could speak directly with the Chinese people. After working on her  dissertation (“I realized I didn’t want to write a thesis that was going to sit on the shelf. I wanted to do stuff.”), she earned a fellowship with the National Security Education Program administered by the Department of Defense.

That fellowship came with a one-year service agreement in the national security arena. She parlayed that into a GS-7 position at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC), where she worked on integrating Walter Reed with the National Naval Medical Center to form the tri-service Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).

Taking on a Hot Mess

With her training and skill in hand, Ashley quickly ascended the military ladder to her current role. She earned a Lean Six Sigma certification and soon became known, in her words, as “someone who was willing to take on a hot mess” by fearlessly diving into critical situations and resolving them.

She uses data and analytics to clean up those messes, whether it’s creating a dashboard that displays patient flows through the military hospital or finding ways to implement predictive maintenance. “The things we want to do are huge,” she says. “Our strategic objectives are huge. We have hundreds of commanders who need good data right now. And we can do this.”

This might sound surprising, but Ashley says that the military is packed with brainiacs. “The Army is full of nerds,” she says. “They look like a regular infantry guy or a logistics officer, but they are pretty nerdy people. There is a whole section of the Army that is focused on research and development and experimentation.”

Research creates opportunities for the innovative use of data. “We have a thousand flowers blooming right now, and leaders who are really trying to build their analytics skills,” Ashley told me. “My job is to make sure that we open up these pockets of excellence.”

That presents some real challenges, she says. It can be difficult to execute a great AI use case and find leaders willing to champion it across the broader organization of the Army.

DataRobot Offers Soft Skills

For about a year now, Ashley has had an ally in the pursuit of her AI goals: DataRobot. “You guys are my soft skills – you’re my customer-facing data scientists,” she says. “DataRobot is really helping me think through the requirements for what really gets used. And if we can put better models in our leaders’ hands, nothing can stop us.”

By working with DataRobot, Ashley has learned how to prepare data for accurate AI modeling. “The raw ingredients are rarely model-ready,” she says. “Working with DataRobot, it’s been helpful to walk people through the process. It’s not just modeling. It’s not just data modeling. There’s so much in between.”

To help increase her team’s AI chops, Ashley has sent many of them to DataRobot University, which offers participants different learning paths and AI courses.

The U.S. Army is a huge organization, with thousands of challenges that can be addressed by AI modeling. Ashley cites examples such as finding the right sensors for equipping soldiers and determining which data sent by those sensors would be useful.

“If we can tell a heart rate, or if we can tell somebody who’s dehydrated, or if we can get ahead of some of the actual soldier challenges that we have, in terms of individual readiness using sensor data, how amazing would that be?” she says. “If that commander 100 miles away can say, ’Captain, you got a half-dehydrated crew, and they’re going to pass out soon.’”

Whether it’s in the military or civilian life, that’s the power of data.

To hear more about Ashley’s work in the military, check out Datarobot.com/podcast or http://datarobot.buzzsprout.com/. You can also listen everywhere you already enjoy podcasts, including Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google.

PODCAST
Ashley Russell: Building Your Own AI Army

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DataRobot

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