Q&A with Adrienne Leonard

Adrienne Leonard on making the smartest solution-focused aviation and travel data

Adrienne Leonard, PhD, is our Lead Data Scientist at Cirium. Adrienne joined the company in 2016, and now leads a global team of pioneering analysts and data scientists to design and build innovative market-leading solutions to customer problems.  She has played a pivotal role in creating the datasets now offered under the four Cirium data solutions portfolios and continues to drive quality and new product innovations.

In recognition of International Women’s Day 2020, and to celebrate that one of the world’s leading female data scientists is at the helm of the Cirium team, we interviewed Adrienne about her impressive career successes. Adrienne also shares her views on the power of world-class travel data to solve business challenges, and her vision for the Cirium analytics portfolio in 2020.

What excited you about the role and inspired you to join Cirium?

The industry is fascinating, and Cirium has such a diverse portfolio of data that we’re able to tackle a wide range of problems for a variety of customers. There’s really no shortage of interesting data science projects to get stuck into. And the people at Cirium are fantastic – smart, engaged, incredibly knowledgeable. It’s wonderful to work with such motivated folks across all our different business functions.

What were your key ambitions and milestones for Cirium data science in 2019?

One key focus for this year has been working with our brilliant engineering teams to bring Cirium’s data assets together to allow us to create new and unique data insights, and building a platform of high-tech tooling that allows us to innovate and prototype solutions in an efficient, sophisticated way. We look set to deliver one new significant innovation through this new analytics platform this year, which is a huge achievement, and will result in an enhancement to our Fleets Analyzer product. We have also helped to deliver enhancements to our Tracked Utilisation product that extends our portfolio of aircraft utilisation data to cover even more aircraft, and we’re just wrapping up R&D on a project to identify the operational bases of aircrafts to surface in our Fleets Analyzer product. We have also just launched our Cirium ideas site, which provides a space for folks across the industry to explore our data and analytics capabilities.

What is the biggest challenge in the travel and aviation industry that you seek to solve with big data?

I see a lot of opportunity in the operations space, helping airlines, airports and ground service organisations use data to plan and deliver services in real time – for example, linking together data about flight status, runway and gate usage, weather patterns, and live delay and cancellation trends to predict in real-time when, and by how much, incoming flights will be delayed. This can help airlines, airports, and ground crews understand the factors that feed into the propagation of delays, and to take steps to mitigate the impact of those delays to both their operating efficiency and their passengers.

What is the most vital approach to maintaining and improving the quality of data?

Collaboration between teams across the business, constant monitoring of data quality metrics, and having the right subject matter experts looking at our data and identifying opportunities to expand or improve on it. We work very closely with our product, technology, and data research teams to identify where the quality of our data can be improved, and we also have automated tools keeping a watchful robotic eye on our data processing algorithms and delivery pipelines.

What key skills does a lead data scientist need to manage a portfolio of this scale?

Curiosity, and good communication skills. I will never have the depth of subject matter knowledge that the aviation experts in the business have, so how I bring value to projects is through asking the right questions so that I can understand the customer problems we’re trying to solve, the value of these solutions to the industry, and the available data and technology we have at our disposal.

Why are the three most important questions that people must ask when looking to invest in new data solutions?

I think you always need to start by articulating what business problem you are looking to solve. I often see folks going straight to brainstorming a solution without having a complete understanding of the problem they’re looking to solve. Sometimes the solution isn’t what you expect it to be, so understanding the underlying business problem is key. Then you should look to what data is available, and how complete, accurate, and timely that data is. And finally – how easily can that data or solution be consumed or ingested into your workflows? A solution is most valuable when it’s easy to use.

How skilled do you think that most travel industry professionals are at understanding, reading and deploying data to full advantage?

I see a spectrum of data literacy and sophistication across the industry. Most businesses understand the value of their data, but some don’t have the infrastructure and architecture in place to fully take advantage of their data assets. This is an industry that is data rich, and this is great from an analytics perspective, but can be challenging to companies that don’t have the personnel, technology, and expertise to get the most out of their data – raw data sometimes needs a lot of work and technical ‘heavy lifting’ before it becomes really meaningful.

How do you and your team make data ‘human’?

At its heart, the aviation industry is about people – billions of air journeys worldwide every year moving people to visit family and friends, to new job opportunities, to explore the world on vacation. I’m based in our London Heathrow office, which overlooks Heathrow’s northern runway – so I get to see many of these journeys happening in real time. And there are hundreds of thousands of people employed to build, maintain, and design the next generation of high-tech aircraft to get us there. It’s a very relatable industry, and I find it’s quite easy to see the human face of our data every day – helped by being surrounded by people in Cirium who have been in the industry, and been passionate about the industry, for decades.

You have a PhD in astronomy from the University of Cambridge. How has this expertise informed your approach to understanding the data universe?

As an astronomer, my job was to look at very large, very noisy data sets and to design methods and algorithms to extract meaning and insight out of that data. My job as a data scientist is largely the same – except that the data is different, and the questions we’re trying to answer are different. The parts I enjoyed most out of my astronomy career were finding a meaty question, getting stuck into our data, and designing a sophisticated solution to answer that question – and that’s very much true of my role at Cirium, too!

What’s next? What’s the priority focus for innovations in 2020?

We will continue to work closely with our engineering teams on expanding our data platform to build out more advanced analytics capabilities to drive the next generation of Cirium innovations. We’re looking at new tools such as graph databases, which can help to provide more efficient ways of accessing, querying, and visualising our interconnected data – all of which will allow us to surface better insights faster. We’ll also be working to tackling some exciting projects around airline operations and continuing to work on a number of experiments focused on enhancing our utilisation data to provide important insights to our clients across Aerospace and Air Finance.

Adrienne Leonard is a keynote speaker at the Cirium LIVE event in Dublin on 19th March.

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For further information about how Cirium’s smart data and analytics solutions help businesses transform the travel experience, contact us here.

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