DOD’s forthcoming data strategy focused on joint warfighting approach

Mr. David Spirk, U.S. Special Operations Command chief data officer, speaks to an audience during the USSOCOM Data Engineering Lab grand opening ceremony in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 25, 2019. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo)

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The Department of Defense has been broadcasting its need to use “data as a strategic asset” for years now. But soon, it will give more weight to the phrase with a new data strategy that aims to empower every level of the DOD to more effectively use data.

Led by new DOD Chief Data Officer Dave Spirk, the strategy will support a “joint warfighting” approach to data collection, management and use, where the military branches will work in unison with data across the DOD enterprise. During the Informatica Data in Action Summit, produced by FedScoop, Spirk spoke broadly about the DOD’s data initiatives, saying that until the strategy is officially released, he couldn’t divulge specific details.

Spirk said the strategy will be supported by a new “hub-and-spoke” model where data literacy is recognized throughout the department, which for decades has not effectively collected or used operational data in decision-making. This shift is currently being led by both senior officials and lower-ranking officers at the tactical edge, he said.

Changing the data ecosystem to empower experts and get every echelon of the DOD involved in data governance will allow data to flow from the battlefield to senior commanders who can make critical decisions, Spirk said.

“We are beginning to put the pieces in place that allow us to recognize that full future where people are not fearful of sharing their data but rather are rewarded,” he added.

The shift at the senior level extends to the Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, who, according to Spirk, has endorsed the idea of moving beyond the omnipresent PowerPoint slideshow for senior-level decision-making to using “live data dashboards” in meetings. It would be a move welcomed by many.

“As we start to think about Secretary Norquist himself demanding that we make this turn, the exciting thing is we also have … men and women in the field, in the trenches, demanding that they have the capability to use technology that they use in their normal lives,” Spirk said.

One of the spokes shooting off the hub of a data-driven department will be deployed “edge data teams.” The teams will be modeled off a current program in Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) where cadres of experts are sent to battlefields to collect, use and help generate usable datasets. Getting data experts into the field is one part of what Spirk called gathering “operational data” that reflects ground-realities and informs critical decisions.

“Once we start deploying teams,” he said, “we truly do have an ability to think of a data quick-reaction force-like model.”

To create teams and fill other data-specific positions, Spirk said the DOD is working on a “catalog” of people who understand data. Other leaders have spoken of the need to strengthen the military’s talent management systems to best use people’s skills in technology. The Army launched a similar initiative in 2019 where it selected “data representatives” from units across the department to disperse data management and on-the-ground governance.

To create more “data hubs,” Spirk said the DOD has expanded its CDO council to include data leaders from the combatant commands and the DOD’s components, instead of just representatives from the services and military departments.

“What we have been able to do by opening that aperture is really start to map the data ecosystem and those experts that are in it,” he said.

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artificial intelligence (AI), big data, CDO Council, chief data officer (CDO), Dave Spirk, Department of Defense (DOD)
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