Military veteran Luke Parker is studying an Executive MBA at WBS to help him transition to a career in AI
In the heat of the pandemic, those in charge needed to keep a cool head. Where was the disease rampant? Which regions needed to be locked down. Where was safe to open up?
In 2020, Major Luke Parker was thrust into the sharp end of day-to-day policy, as he drew on his expertise with data to inform government of the spread of Covid-19. Liaising with Chris Whitty and Matt Hancock (then Chief Medical Officer and Health Secretary) was part of his day job. “It was an incredibly stressful time. The tempo of those days was crazy – from government briefings to crisis management to reacting to a fast-changing situation. But army training prepares you well.”
He’d joined the newly formed Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) which brought together experts from government, the armed forces and the health sector, as well as demographic specialists and even map makers and skilled forecasters from the Bank of England, to tackle one the greatest crises the UK has faced in recent times.
In charge of three teams responsible for monitoring and forecasting infection, Parker supplied the combined intelligence that fed the maps and graphs seen on the daily news briefings. By analysing a host of data from across the country, his team was able to spot infection flare-ups. These insights informed England’s Covid tier policy, which saw different levels of restrictions applied according to risk.
“I wasn’t a politician; I didn’t have to worry about public opinion. I was there to deliver unbiased recommendations based on the data,” he says. “One of my biggest takeaways is a better understanding of risk and ambiguity, and how to manage it.”
Years spent searching for bombs as part of explosive ordnance disposal teams had already left Parker familiar with danger, and comfortable in volatile situations. The ability to analyse data to spot patterns could save lives, he’d already learned.
Although leaving the army is a wrench, he has much to look forward to. He won a full scholarship from Warwick Business School to study for an Executive MBA through Heropreneurs, a charity that helps champion the transferable skills learned in the military and help veterans transition successfully into civilian life and business careers.
He is also about to become a father for the first time. At 32, this is probably the first time in his life he’s not had his immediate future tightly scheduled.
Beyond his degree, he aims to bring his experience with artificial intelligence (AI) and data to the private sector. “What I’m really looking forward to – and what you learn in the army – is getting people fired up. You have to be a great storyteller. First, you have to find their pain points and where they want to be. No one wants to talk about cleaning data pipelines, they want to know what AI can do for them. You have to harness that enthusiasm and bring them along with you.”
As the first in his family to go to university, he won an army scholarship at the age of 15 which helped him through a geography degree at the University of Leeds, where he first came across the use of geographic information systems (GIS).
Upon graduation, he beat thousands of applicants for a place to train as an officer at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which he describes as “Hogwarts with guns”.
In 2013, his first posting involved leading a team whose role included dealing with London’s unexploded World War II bombs as part of the Royal Engineers’ bomb disposal regiment.
“It’s quite common when digging foundations or dredging the Thames to find bombs from WW2, he explains. “Many are found in London every year.”
Later deployed in Pakistan, the life-and-death impact of his work became evident. His team was training the Pakistan army to find bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), planted by militant groups.
“It felt like the bad lands there. The Pakistani army was suffering huge amounts of casualties from IEDs. My job was to improve how they could find them to reduce their casualties and help them better clear the Federally Administered Tribal Area [which borders Afghanistan in the north west].”
With deployments in Norway and Jordan, Parker had left the coalface when he met his wife. Although he’d had no formal grounding in data science, he’d grown intrigued by what analytics could offer military intelligence. A master’s in geospatial intelligence at Cranfield University taught him how to use spatial analytics to build hypotheses based on real data.
The Covid data challenge
These skills he later used in the National Centre for Geospatial Intelligence. Here, analysts pore over reams of data from remote sensing platforms such as satellites and advanced radars to produce insights that support military operations, such as the conflict in Ukraine.
It was when he was working on military insights that news filtered through about a new and unknown virus. When a call went out for expertise, Parker jumped at the chance to apply to the JBC.
“My thesis for my master’s was all about spatial patterns of measles outbreaks in the UK,” he says. “A single cause – combating Covid-19 – began to break down communication barriers between public sector bodies. People from all over started collaborating – there was a real sense we were in this together.”
Data was everywhere, but no one knew at first what to do with it. “There was no single system for hospitals to talk to each other, work out who had ventilators or masks for instance. People think a government supercomputer has the answer to everything, but of course that’s not true.”
The Covid era saw scientists pitted against politicians, and clashes between local and national politics. Or as Parker puts it, “hard data meeting political will and public sentiment – but I was there to do a very specific job using my expertise in data and leadership, so I could be truthful and straight down the line.”
One of his most memorable personal achievements to date involves a response to a landmark 2020 climate report that revealed the armed forces were responsible for half of all government greenhouse gas emissions. Using his affinity with mapping and data, he spent evenings and weekends working out where and how much land was owned by the armed forces – and how it could be better planted to sequester more carbon. “That involves 225,000 hectares around the UK, and now (the military) are looking to implement this – I’m really proud.”
Parker’s grandfather used to work as a shoeshine and bathroom attendant. As the first in his family to go to university, Parker thinks his family would be proud.
An MBA, he says, will help fill in the gaps in his corporate knowledge after a 12-year-long military career. And he’ll need to readjust to values of citizen life.
“The army is a tribe, it’s your family. As a leader there, you’re a marriage guidance counsellor, financial adviser, legal advisor. It’s called ‘servant leadership’. You deal with welfare issues that any civilian boss wouldn’t touch on. So it will be a change.”
As well as the military’s famous punctuality – he’s five minutes early for any appointment – he hopes to bring some of that pastoral care to colleagues as student representative for those on his course.
Ultimately, he’ll aim to bring his insights in data science to the defence sector. Now is a time of uncertainty as companies scramble to understand the impact of AI and data upon their future.
“A lot of people think AI is the answer to everything, but they don’t understand the steps to get there,” he explains. “A lot of people will want you to produce data that aligns with their hypothesis. But to harness the real power of data, you must be open, and allow it to tell an open story rather than give it fixed questions.”
Read about Luke Parker's experience on the Executive MBA course.
Learn more about the Heropreneurs scheme.