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Air Force's data overhaul makes analytics a priority

With its data locked in legacy systems that didn't communicate with one another, in 2017 the Air Force started to overhaul of its BI stack to enable data-driven decision-making.

Data analytics is helping the United States Air Force remain ready.

The last year has demonstrated the importance of analytics across all realms, enabling organizations from national governments to local healthcare institutions down to the smallest businesses to remain prepared for sudden changes resulting from the pandemic.

Perhaps nowhere is ensuring readiness more critical than in the military, where preparedness can mean the difference between life and death in an instant.

In 2017, however, the Air Force, like many organizations, was not employing analytics to the fullest possible extent.

In fact, it was struggling.

At the time, the Air Force had plenty of data, but it was locked in aging systems that were expensive to maintain, difficult to enhance, and didn't speak to each other and therefore created data silos.

In an effort to prepare as well as possible for any scenario, the Air Force undertook a significant data analytics initiative, ultimately transitioning to a self-service analytics model to enable data-driven decision-making from the highest ranks of the department down to the individual airmen in the field.

"Today, the Department of the Air Force is two military services, Air Force and Space Force, working together to drive data insight to inform decision-making," said Eileen Vidrine, chief data officer for the Department of the Air Force, during a presentation on April 7 at Wrangle Summit, the virtual user conference hosted by data preparation vendor Trifacta.

"It has been a journey by the individuals leading our department to bring new, enhanced capability," she continued.

The Air Force's data transformation began with the assistance of former airmen who had developed data skills in their civilian lives and returned to active duty.

They helped the Air Force implement data platforms that fostered sharing, and in 2019, once those were in place, the Air Force unveiled its VAULT -- Visible, Accessible, Understandable, Linked and Trusted -- Data Platform consisting of a network of cloud-based analytics tools designed to improve readiness and promote mission success.

We're really about driving data innovation and empowering our department to harness data for competitive military advantage.
Eileen VidrineChief data officer, Department of the Air Force

Among the tools adopted and now used by the Air Force are Kylo and Hue for data ingestion, AWS for data storage, Trifacta and Informatica for data management and data preparation, Databricks and Apache Spark for data manipulation and experimentation, and Tableau for data visualization.

Security, meanwhile, is of course a concern for the Air Force given the sensitivity of the data involved, and as with any organization seeking a competitive advantage, through its analytics capabilities the Air Force is able to put parameters around who has access to any given data set.

"When I look at where we've come in our department, we're really about driving data innovation and empowering our department to harness data for competitive military advantage," Vidrine said. "It's using and sharing data as a catalyst for innovation and driving capabilities, providing our airmen and guardians the capability, in a self-service environment, to leverage data to drive insights." 

That includes everyone in the Air Force, not only those stationed at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., making big-picture policy decisions but also airmen stationed throughout the world making decisions in the moment.

Applications for analytics in the Air Force -- among others -- include strategic decisions in the field, training methods, staffing and supply chain management.

Vidrine compared the Air Force's missions to the nucleus of an atom, with data one of the protons or neutrons that support the nucleus.

"When we use these types of tools in our platform to empower our airmen to solve their own problems, they are optimizing performance every single iteration so we can work smart," Vidrine said. "That is part of the real data story ... making data the fuel to drive innovation and insights moving forward."

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