Army’s solution to forecasting and taming the data deluge

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Lt. Col. Bobby Saxon Lt. Col. Bobby Saxon spearheads the Enterprise Management Decision Support program that helps senior Army leaders make better-informed decisions.

When Lt. Col. Bobby Saxon took over the Enterprise Management Decision Support program in 2010, it had just reached full operational capability. Three years and several accolades later, EMDS has evolved into a big data analytics tool that gives Army leaders better insight into unit readiness — and possibly, even a glimpse of the future.

Since its launch, the Oracle-based EMDS has served as a one-stop shop for Army decision-makers to get data from many disparate sources, in near real time. What EMDS ultimately does is pull raw data on unit readiness, personnel, equipment, training and resources from the Army’s classified network, turning it into actionable information that can be easily understood, said Saxon, division chief and program director in the U.S. Army G-3/5/7 Program Office.

“I’m a strong believer in data visualization: taking Excel spreadsheets, rows and columns and turn that into a picture that people can understand,” said Saxon, whose career spans nearly 30 years serving on Active Duty, Reserve and for the Army National Guard.

The Army produces vast amounts of information, and it’s not an easy task to make sense of the data deluge, Saxon said. That roadblock isn’t unique to the public sector, either.

“Tools exist today to consume big amounts of data, but turning that data into usable, actionable information is still a challenge,” he said. “It’s a challenge on the outside as well as on the inside of the federal government.”

Saxon said another struggle has been to convince stakeholders of the program’s value — which, in 2014, might be a little easier thanks to its recognition as the 2013 FedScoop 50 Fed IT Program of the Year and in innovation by the 2013 Computerworld Honors Laureate Award.

“As I like to say, ‘data ain’t sexy,’ so people don’t normally go and invest in a database,” Saxon said. “But if you want what’s possible out of that database, you’ve got to invest in the tools to see and understand that data better.”

Saxon compared big data to an autostereogram — those two-dimensional optical illusions that emerge as three-dimensional with proper viewing technique.

“People struggle looking at that picture, but once it’s there, it’s like, ‘wow, I can’t believe that I didn’t see that before,’” Saxon said. “That’s what big data combined with analytics can do for an organization.”

EMDS is designed for the Army, however, Saxon can visualize this kind of data access, understanding and discovery system in other organizations throughout the Defense Department.

“We try to follow best practices for data standardization, data consumption and data presentation, with the belief that as this capability grew — and the need for this capability increased outside of the Army — other organizations either could take our code or implement it,” he said.

And fully implementing predictive analytics — which hasn’t been done yet — and applying science to the system could help senior leaders “see the future more clearly,” Saxon said.

“It won’t be ‘my experience is that this will happen,’ but more ‘my experience and data point to that this will happen,’” he explained. “By no means do we think we’ll be able to 100 percent predict the future, but we do believe we can take a picture that’s fuzzy and make it clearer.”

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Army, big data, Bobby Saxon, data analytics, Department of Defense (DOD), Departments, Military, Tech
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