Microsoft researcher translates defense intelligence to business intelligence

On June 7, 2010, Christopher White attended a kickoff meeting in suburban Washington D.C. for a project to rapidly develop and deploy big data analytics and visualization tools to aid the war effort in Afghanistan.

“In Chris’s mind, he was going to come to D.C. for two weeks during the summer, work on this program he literally didn’t know anything about, and that’s it,” says Randy Garrett, who was the program manager for Project Nexus 7 at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way.”

White, an expert in training computers to extract information from troves of digitally processed information, had just finished his first year as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. His advisor was a DARPA contractor, which gave White a sought-after opportunity to transfer computer science research into real-world applications. The process just happened much quicker than he anticipated.

A mere three months after the kickoff meeting, White was on a plane to Afghanistan to brief the top U.S. military commander along with the general’s senior staff and one of the most senior intelligence officers in the world on the tools he was developing.

“He was able to show things about Afghanistan that no one had ever seen before,” says Garrett, who is now senior vice president of technology at IronNet Cybersecurity.

Connecting past to present
White is hesitant to discuss his time in Afghanistan. Much of it remains classified, he says, and is only tangentially related to the research he is doing now on Microsoft’s business intelligence platform, Power BI.

But nudged, he leans back from a laptop running a demonstration of Power BI’s new brand and campaign management solution template for Twitter released Monday, and, reluctantly, agrees to provide a few details that connect his past to the present.

“The challenge of the work in Afghanistan was like the big data problem in general – there are a lot of data coming in from different places: from the air, from people wearing sensors, from vehicles, from the news. And the challenge was making that data useful to the warfighter in context,” says White, now a principal researcher within Microsoft’s research organization.

Those contexts range from an Army general wanting to understand how the war is impacting countrywide economic development to whether a soldier on patrol is likely to encounter a roadside bomb in a specific quadrant of a city.

While the contexts vary across space and time, the data used to understand them are similar, White says. He and his collaborators built tools to exploit the myriad flows of data in ways that provide decision makers a sense of what is going on – from their point of view.

White is now helping teams do the same for business intelligence through Power BI. Whether an executive is projecting quarterly earnings or a store manager wants to know how yesterday’s news will effect foot traffic today, they can use similar tools to assess data and make decisions.

“Those tools include interfaces to data, artificial intelligence services that transform data, and infrastructures that can serve data,” White says.

DARPA style management
By 2012, White was a program manager at DARPA back in suburban D.C. There he created and ran the agency’s big data program, XDATA, to develop computational techniques and software tools for processing and analyzing large, imperfect and incomplete datasets for defense activities.

He also created the Open Catalog for dissemination of publicly funded fundamental research including papers, source code, software and data.

The second program he developed, Memex, was a suite of tools to help local law enforcement agencies extract and visualize information about illicit activities such as human trafficking, drug smuggling and arms shipments from the deepest, darkest corners of the internet.

“You can start to put together a mosaic of the activities and see where the money flows and where other goods flow,” says Norman Whitaker, a former deputy office director at DARPA who is currently a distinguished scientist and managing director of Special Projects for Microsoft Research NExT.

The Memex work was featured in national media ranging from 60 Minutes and the Wall Street Journal to a TEDx talk that White gave at Oklahoma State University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering before earning his master’s degree and PhD from Johns Hopkins University.

The leadership qualities White exhibited in making Memex successful caught Whitaker’s attention, and he helped recruit his former DARPA colleague to join Microsoft’s research organization, which was pivoting to focus more resources on projects with the potential for profound impact on the company, its products and customers.

The project focus within Whitaker’s Microsoft research organization is similar to how DARPA operates – where program managers oversee budgets, negotiate contracts and talk to customers in addition to their technical expertise in highly advanced fields.

Democratization of technology
For White, Microsoft’s global reach appeals to his interest in translating advanced computer science research into applications that don’t require a PhD to understand and use.

He joined Whitaker’s special projects team in early 2015 and set out to identify the applications best suited for his expertise – where he could have the greatest impact.

The team elected to focus on bringing artificial intelligence to users through Power BI, helping businesses make sense of their own business data, much of it private and closely guarded.

“Every business has its own data,” White says. “We want to give them tools so they can do things with their own data that they just couldn’t do before.”

The team has already released seven interfaces that help users visualize and interact with their data. The interfaces can be used individually to solve particular business problems, or used in combination to solve other business problems. The solutions templates are designed for users who want a plug-and-play option.

The transition from DARPA to Microsoft, White says, has required a different way to think about and approach solving big data problems.

At DARPA, he explains, the data processing and visualization tools he built were narrowly focused and precise like a laser cutter. Now, at Microsoft, he is building tableware – knives and forks. “Although they may not be as sharp,” he says, “everyone can use them and they allow everyone to eat.”

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John Roach writes about Microsoft research and innovation. Follow him on Twitter.