By Stacey Geiger, 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 11, 2017
Data analytics can turn data into valuable information for future decision making and make operations more effective and efficient. Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance wing are leveraging a new funding source known as Squadron Innovation Funds to design and build a Human-Centered Data Analytics Environment that will help them store and operationalize huge amounts of both research and operational data. (U.S. Air Force Graphic Illustration/Paul Hartman)
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Analytics can turn data into valuable information and for some Air Force Institute of Technology faculty, they want to show you just how to do that.
“On the job and at home, people work with data all the time but may not know how to turn it into useful information,” said Col. Shane Dougherty, Dean, AFIT School of Systems and Logistics.
Data analytics is a collection of various methods that can turn data into valuable information for future decision making and make operations more effective and efficient.
“I recently took a tour of an Air Force data center and during the conversations I had with fellow colleagues there, data was being generated but there was not a whole lot being done to create wisdom, knowledge or understanding from that data,” Dougherty said.
After returning from the trip, Dougherty began to question what type of education on data
analytics was being provided to Airmen, and not just for his career field but Airmen as a whole including officers, enlisted and civilians on how to work with data and to create understanding and meaning from what was collected.
In December 2016, Dougherty and his team visited multiple organizations on the Air Staff. They met with key leaders to investigate what their understanding was relative to data science, data analytics, and if they thought there was a need to have this kind of education.
Dougherty said the resounding response was yes.
In March of this year, at the request of the supply chain management community, Dougherty and his team were able to test the waters and conduct two data analytics workshops at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. The workshops included learning the basics on data analytics and tools within Microsoft Excel in conjunction with logistics data that the students use every day. They learned how to manipulate the data to help do their jobs better and more efficiently. The feedback again was overwhelming that there is a need for data analytics.
“The workshop demonstrated that we need this kind of education,” Dougherty said. “Currently there is no Air Force course for data analytics other than at the graduate school level. The challenge is to find out how to teach data analytics at the operational level. The Air Force Institute of Technology is the conduit to meet the Air Force needs. Data analytics is a new area of need and it is not yet purely defined.”
Eric Glover, Course Director and one of the creators of the data analytics workshop, said teaching the principles and practices of how to do data analytics is the first step. Glover said the stages of using data analytics is finding what happened, why did it happen, predicting what will happen and how to make it happen.
"As example of the evolution of data analytics, take the number 20," Glover said. "The number alone means nothing but if you tell me the average wait time at a local fast food restaurant was 20 minutes, that number has more relevance when you only have 30 minutes for lunch. But still, I cannot do anything with that information alone. If I knew that 80 percent of customers were actually served in less than 6 minutes then that may change my mind about whether to eat at this restaurant. Furthermore, if I took another look at the data and realized that on one day, they had a kitchen equipment malfunction and the customer wait times were as high as 45 minutes causing the average to increase to 20 minutes then the average alone is not a true reflection of the performance of this establishment. You can see the evolution of this data and how you can apply analysis with the overarching system of analytics. It is needful because that number 20 meant nothing by itself.”
Dougherty said depending on the mission and information that needs to be collected, applying data analytics is not limited to using only numbers.
Currently, the 448th Supply Chain Management Wing is applying data analytics through predictive analysis on suppliers to assess if they will remain financially solvent. By avoiding suppliers who show a trend of financial difficulties, they are able to steer clear of potential problems in the future.
"By using data analytics, the Air Force can reap benefits and savings that can then be reinvested to meet high priority needs," Dougherty said. "For instance, a unit was purchasing the same amount of spare parts every year because it was the same number used the year before and the year before that. However, the question was posed, "Is that the right number of parts to purchase?" Once a data analytics model was run, they found they did not need that many parts and were spending money that did not need to be spent. If they did not leverage data analytics, they would have continued to buy the same number of parts."
Dougherty said in a time when Airmen are asked to do more with less, if they are not given the tools, understanding, knowledge and capabilities through education, when asked to do more, they are going to continue to do the same thing they have been doing.
As for now, Dougherty and his team are developing an education needs statement and plan to define the requirements for data analytics that will be proposed to senior leaders for course approval. Dougherty said the challenge will be determining who needs the education and at what level the education should be provided. He said it may be possible to turn data analytics into a core competency course by creating education for the everyday user but then have a more specific education for the acquisitions or logistics workforce and also for senior leaders.
“We are late to need and playing catch-up but we must make sure we are doing it with the right education with a defense focus. We need to make it work and meet the needs for the Air Force and Department of Defense,” Dougherty said.