How Data Analytics Saved My Life
PERSONAL

How Data Analytics Saved My Life

Guest written by Jeff Silverman

How Data Analytics Saved My Life
Lieutenant Jeff Silverman during his Iraqi tour.

This is not another one of those typical Data Analytics use cases. I will not tell you about how I saved my company 5% and $300,000 in OPEX (although, high-five if you did). My “use case” with data analytics is far more personal…

May 10th, 2005 was supposed to be the day I died. 

A catastrophic Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was waiting for me, an IED with a yield of artillery shells expertly disguised in light concrete to appear as part of a curb on an Iraqi highway. Yet, somehow, the preordained roadside explosive missed its mark and this is the story of why.

As an intelligence officer in month five of a yearlong tour in Iraq, my typical job description would be “behind the lines”. However, as I was Intel for an Infantry unit, my command and my Soldiers had expectations that my insights would be wrought from experience, first-hand knowledge of our little piece of Iraq, the Sunni Triangle, also known as the Triangle of Death (how is that for nickname?!?)

So, as per my ritual, I prepared for a weekly patrol outside the wire and relative safety of our base, as safe as it could be when the mortars were not dropping in to say hello. In retrospect, once a week on patrol was a light burden compared to my Infantry brethren that ventured into harm’s way daily, regardless, it was pretty nerve-wracking for me!

What did I do during my other six days per week inside the base?

How Data Analytics Saved My Life
Silverman used data collected from a number of sources to map the occurrence of insurgent incidents and predict potential dangers for future missions.

I constantly analyzed the information gathered by my Soldiers, piecing together the mosaic that my commander deemed essentially, where the danger was and who were the perpetrators. Data was everywhere and I collected whatever data I could, systematically from military databases, anecdotally from returning patrols…I was voracious for anything to tell me where insurgents would strike next such as reports from covert sources on insurgent cell locations, patterns of attacks that I displayed geographically, information from local Iraqi police, and much more to help me paint that picture. My commander, much like a chief executive, wanted to know the bottom line, but instead of revenue and margins, he measured our success in making sure his Soldiers returned back home to their families.

In 2005, prior to the famous Iraqi Surge, the violence in Iskandariyah, Iraq was at its highest in the history of the Iraqi War. IED’s were a constant concern, and we tracked the patterns of their locations, timing, and consistency closely to determine insights on how to best avoid or perhaps stop their emplacement. Every day, I would plot on our information systems the geolocations of the previous day’s attacks and observations of suspicious activity. The more I analyzed our data, the more insightful I became as I became immersed in the soap opera of events occurring in my corner of the Middle East. As my insights grew, so did the popularity of my patrol briefings for my Soldiers embarking on a dangerous mission.

How Data Analytics Saved My Life

My team and I did our best in preparing our patrols by applying our analytics to determine the danger spots, including where a triggerman would be based on line of sight, or what were the right times to use certain routes. Just as a corporate FP&A analyst creates board decks, we took our graphs, dashboards and charts and made them accessible to our Soldiers. We compiled it all into our giant patrol map, peppered with obstacle overlays created for each patrol route. In business terms, our analysis was packaged for our executive team yet made accessible to all of our operations members.

As part of our analysis cycle, feedback was essential and I would debrief returning patrols. I intended to get as many specifics I could of enemy activity, not just what road an attack occurred, but what side of the road? What color was the bag that hid the bomb? Every detail was cataloged in our databases and when appropriate, referenced during our later patrol briefings.

How Data Analytics Saved My Life

On May 10th, 2005, my weekly patrol was due.

I usually alternated between the subordinate units and on this day I was with the Mississippi National Guard. My Mississippi friends, Guardsmen mostly in their 40’s, were skeptical of the young Intelligence Lieutenant advising them. As we reviewed my notes, I knew they needed a jolt to make them pay closer attention and so I grabbed for their attention.

“RIGHT THERE IS WHERE IT WILL HAPPEN!” I bellowed, pointing to the red box drawn on Route Jackson. “ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE ROAD, JUST LIKE THE LAST TWO TIMES!” Admittedly, I amped up the theatrics, mainly to demonstrate that they needed listen to me. My analysis provided that this hotspot was a prime candidate for violence, yet I was truly only working from pattern recognition, without an actionable intelligence source to back up my premonition. Still, those analytics were all I could provide – and it worked, I had their attention.

How Data Analytics Saved My Life
Silverman at the Hateen Residential Complex in Iraq.

I could also tell that my “certainty” helped allay their nerves. As we rolled out, the platoon sergeant said to me, in a Mississippi twang, “don’t worry sir, we’ll be careful there on Jackson today!”

Three hours later on patrol, we turned onto Route Jackson, a few miles north of the Hateen Residential Complex, the hotbed of activity in Iskandariyah, and right near the point of impact I had predicted. As the patrol leader Humvee, we assumed the middle of the formation, while the platoon sergeant took the lead in his Humvee. As we started to venture into my foretold danger zone, the lead vehicle swerved from the right side of the divided highway, through the dirt divider and onto the other lane daring oncoming traffic to avoid us. All the other vehicles, as by training, followed the lead vehicle into the mad dash to the other incoming lanes.

As this occurred, all fear of insurgent attack left me, as I frantically radioed the platoon sergeant on my comms, screaming and asking at the same time why he was trying to kill us by running into oncoming traffic, also realizing that he may have been too literal in his understanding of my warning. In mid-sentence, a giant explosion occurred on the north side lane, the lane we had just left. The curb had exploded its hidden ordinance, yet due to our distance and less-than-optimal angle, the shrapnel did not breach our armored vehicle. My kamikaze platoon sergeant, who put his faith in my analytics saved our lives by listening to the analysis and thus moving to the “lesser” danger of traffic.

As we pulled around to secure the blast site, the platoon sergeant piped back on the radio, “Good call, sir!”

Data Analytics saved my life. What can it do for you?


Jeff Silverman is a business and data analytics expert and aids commercial and government clients in developing analytic solutions. Jeff is also a field grade officer in the US Army Reserves where he still uses analytics to save lives.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn

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