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Big Bad Big Data – Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Information Overload

2013 may very well go down as the year of big data. At every government conference, training, networking summit, someone was talking about how big data was transforming the way their organization operates.

But one program rose above the rest. This year the Army’s EMDS was selected as FedScoop’s IT Program of the Year based upon cost savings, efficiencies and federal and industry partnerships.

Lt.Col. Bobby Saxon is the Division Chief for the Enterprise Management Division Support System. Lt. Col. Saxon told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program how the Army’s EMDS program works.

“EMDS is a program that brings data together from across the Army, presents it in a very visual way in order to enhance understanding and decisions for action officers and senior leaders,” said Lt. Col. Saxon.

How did EMDS evolve at the Army?

“The reality is there is a lot of technology behind the scenes, a lot of great contractors that are working on our program that help make this happen on a daily basis. It has been an evolution to get to this point. Our program has been fully operational capable since December of 2010. Although we delivered an initial capability that was very needed, we have continued to fill gaps across the Army, as our system has evolved over the last three years,” said Lt. Col. Saxon.

Does EMDS create situational awareness?

“EMDS is mission critical. The information that we pull together is available across a wide range of different applications. The Army in its IT inventory has over 3,600 systems, not all of that information is easy to get access to or easy to understand. What we do is reach across those systems, find the most relevant information for our customers, and bring that into one place. So it is one username, one password, one location to go to so they can see critical information about personnel, on readiness, on equipment, on installations, on training. We do it in a very visual way,” said Lt. Col. Saxon.

  • Many times when you reach out to a stakeholder and ask for a particular piece of information you may get back an excel spreadsheet or some sort of chart or graph. What our system does is ask “How can we paint this picture in a more friendly, easier to understand way?
  • So that anyone who is looking at our system can quickly see the most relevant information and then dive into the areas that need the most attention.’”

Does EMDS help you make a decision more quickly?

“Anytime you are making a decision faster is better. However our system is more about helping the stakeholder make a more informed decision. I am confident that senior leaders have systems available to them in their particular speciality that help them make decisions very quickly. Our system adds to that. It takes not only the information about the personnel community, but it lays on top of that the information for the equipment or the training, and then we put it over the Army’s force generation model, so they see much more of the picture,” said Lt. Col. Saxon.

Lt. Col. Saxon explains how the EMDS system evolved:

  • The system was started prior to my arrival, back in the ‘08 timeframe. The leadership at that time had a challenge in dealing with mobilizations and activations in the transformation of the Army at that point.
  • As we have gone now over five years later we have overcome some of the initial challenges. Initially the technology that was available in the commercial sector wasn’t as robust as it is today. The other challenge was there was not a clear understanding from stakeholders about how valuable all this information in one place could be. We still deal with some of these challenges today, because information is king and if you are someone who has information that other people may not have, it may give you a bit of a leg up. Some of that is cultural barriers that we will continue to work through.
  • Senior leaders are continuing to push that it is the Army’s data that should be there for all of us to use to make decisions. That process has gotten better on the stakeholder side and the tools have also gotten better, which has simply made our jobs easier.

Lessons learned?

“There has been a big effort within the Army and the DOD to standardize how we create, store and access data. That helps out a great deal when you are trying to build a tool like this. Also the mindset now is that there is a belief that we have access to nearly everything. Now people are starting to think, well where is the data? How do I get my hands on it. Previously they thought there is no way we even know what that information is,” said Lt. Col. Saxon.

Too much data?

“Recently I heard the President of Oracle speak and he said, “99% of data is useless.” I think there is some truth to that statement. The key is that now that we have so much data, we have to figure out how we go into it and parse it, to find what information is truly important out there. It is much better to have all this data and work with the challenge of finding out what is important, than having limited data and thinking that data is important,” said Lt. Col. Saxon.

Should we be afraid of data?
“Don’t be limited by thinking big data requires a huge infrastructure and a lot of specialized tools. You can start a database. Start accumulating some of the data. You could even use Microsoft Excel to start doing data analytics to move down that path. You will find nuggets of information that will help you sell your story and help you keep moving forward,” said Lt. Col. Saxon.

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