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Away from loved ones. Worries about benefits. Childcare challenges. There’s only one national survey covering the concerns of military families, and that survey now yields deeper insights, thanks to Booz Allen data scientist Paul Yacci and his team.
Last year Booz Allen was beginning its third year of offering consulting and practical support to Blue Star Families (BSF), a nonprofit that helps couples, parents and kids cope with the challenges of the military lifestyle. When planning the year’s goals, our leaders thought of Blue Star’s one-of-a-kind survey which had been conducted since 2009.
Each year BSF creates the survey and an expert team from Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military families helps them analyze the results. Within the survey are free-form comments that Blue Star Families knew contained additional insights they hadn’t unlocked.
“Booz Allen asked, ‘Is there a data set from your annual survey you haven’t had time to explore?,’” says Laura Schmiegel, a military family member and specialist who manages the firm’s philanthropy and employee engagement for military and veteran issues. “BSF said, ‘How about long-form data?’ We enthusiastically accepted.”
“First, we did initial exploration of the 8 years of data,” says team leader Paul Yacci. “Then we applied LDA, a topic modeling algorithm that extracts trends from free text.” Amanda Beierl, an expert in military issues, labeled the topics that LDA extracted to identify meaningful topics. “Artificial intelligence allowed us to distill the ideas contained in a respondent’s answer, without having to read every topic. This allowed us to look quickly across trends,” Paul said.
The qualitative data amplified the qualitative answers. For example, while the quantitative analysis showed 66 percent of respondents would recommend military service, the qualitative data showed that these participants were likely to have more than five immediate family members in the military.
Talking with BSF as the project progressed, Paul discovered the data had never been analyzed geospatially, so he added that to the project. “Summarizing the survey results by geographic region allowed us to see if concern over an issue is different in New York and Texas, for example.”
Laura explains the benefit: “If military families in a state say that child care is their biggest challenge, BSF can share that with area leaders. DoD could increase its capacity in that area, or the local government could encourage more child care businesses to open.”
Paul and BSF presented the results in January to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit that seeks promising ideas to solve pressing problems. In March, he also spoke at the Defense Community Leadership Academy (DCLA), a grassroots training program designed by BSF and the Association of Defense Communities and sponsored by Booz Allen.
Now Booz Allen is looking ahead to the tenth year anniversary of the survey, envisioning deeper data work such as a trend analysis across the decade. “I’ve worked on a lot of projects for social good. It’s rewarding to uncover the findings and get them to people who can make a real impact,” Paul says. “Military families go through so much to serve their country—it’s great to give them a voice.”