WASHINGTON — Nearly one year after releasing its first data strategy, the Pentagon has made progress on sharing data, but the department is still working through challenges related to older systems and human talent shortages, its top data official told C4ISRNET.
The progress comes amid a concerted push in the last year from senior leaders pushing strategies and policies to treat data as an enterprise resource across the department. Data sharing is particularly important as the department embarks on a massive network modernization initiative called Joint All-Domain Command and Control, in which data is passed across services and warfighting domains to give commanders full understanding of the battlefield.
“People recognize that it’s not an option, that we all will share department data,” said David Spirk, the Pentagon’s chief data officer. “And two, it’s not just about big data, it’s about good data. And we’re taking active steps to begin that conversation and ensuring that that’s the way forward.”
In October last year, the department released a data strategy that focused on enabling joint war fighting and senior leader decision making. In May, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks outlined “data decrees” directing Pentagon components to make their data shareable and designated Spirk the Pentagon’s top policymaker for the department’s data.
In an interview, Spirk said that a “cultural movement” is afoot in the department, driven by senior leaders like Hicks mandating changes to the way the department handles data and adding that under secretaries and assistant secretaries are using data-driven decision-making.
Earlier this summer, Hicks announced the Artificial Intelligence and Data Accelerator initiative that would place operational data teams with combatant commands to work on improving data management to help prepare for artificial intelligence and data-driven warfare. Those teams will help catalogue, manage and automate data at all the combatant commands.
“All of them [combatant commands] [are] now asking to take part and jockeying for who comes first in the rollout of the operational data teams,” Spirk said.
Still, the department has several challenges that it needs to overcome for data-driven warfare. In the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, senior leaders realized the department had “grossly underestimated” the department’s problem with gaining access to authoritative data sources, according to Brig. Gen. Rob Parker, chair of the JADC2 Cross-Functional Team.
“We have some real work to do on some big challenges that are out there, [such as] getting access to authoritative data sources [and] having the right policy in place to allow us to share that with our partners,” Parker said at the Sept. 8 Defense News conference.
Spirk also said the Afghanistan exit highlighted some data difficulties, including messy data and systems that couldn’t automated their data feeds, making it very difficult to provide live data updates to senior officials.
“We have a lot of systems that we now need to go back and prioritize and understand that they just weren’t built with the capability to move this fast on our data. And so we’ve got to go back and do that,” Spirk said. “I think that really is probably the biggest challenge we have right now. Again, it goes back to the systems weren’t generating great data and the ones that did, didn’t do it so that it could be an automated machine-to-machine read to go faster. So we’ve got to go back and clean up a lot.”
Spirk also said that one of the lessons learned from the exit was the “power” of using the same data management and analytics platforms that use an open standard architecture— which eases interoperability — from the tactical level up to the strategic.
In the interview, Spirk also said the most common needs he hears from combatant commands are “access to data talent and the platforms that others have found the most useful.” Combatant commands need “human capital that understands how to begin engineering their data into these systems so they can understand what the art of the possible is,” he said.
While the department has set some foundational policies in place, such as its data cataloguing memo, sufficiently skilled personnel need to be in place across the department, services and combatant commands in order to actually institute the mandated data policies. One of the next steps as the department’s top data official is boosting data literacy across the department, Spirk said.
“We need them to understand the opportunity of good data driven technology, have more reps on how to integrate it, and how to do that data quality associated with taking that to the next level,” Spirk said. “[That] will be the kind of the next phase for the CDO.”
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.