PEO EIS is in uncharted territory, constructing a 360-degree view of the Army’s data landscape.
by Ellen Summey
“I don’t think there is one single leader we have briefed this to who hasn’t said, ‘This will change the Army,’ ” said Col. Harry Culclasure, director of the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS). He leads the team responsible for the Army Vantage data analytics platform, which is undertaking a pretty challenging effort: compiling, verifying and visualizing the Army’s vast troves of data.
“I came in to this project in the late spring of 2019, into what was the Army Leader Dashboard,” Culclasure recalled. “At that time, it was really a senior leader dashboard for giving readiness data. I think, particularly through our strong senior leader participation, including bringing in Dr. [David] Markowitz [assistant deputy chief of staff, G-8] as our functional [lead], it has really evolved into an all-leader data analytics platform, for all leaders to make decisions, not just the senior leaders of the Army.”
Markowitz, who is also the chief analytics officer of the Army, believes the platform is already establishing its role in the broader Army. “[Vantage] is a foundational layer of our Title 10 ability to manage the Army,” he said. “It is a key enabler of the Army’s data strategy, of where we’re trying to get more broad, Army-wide data integration to make Army data available to the Army. This is a key tool set to get us there quickly.”
A ‘COLONEL FRIENDLY’ INTERFACE
First, let’s establish its technical credentials. Army Vantage is an enterprise data analytics platform that connects to and draws data from new and legacy systems in any form, at any scale. It is a commercial solution, configured to meet the Army’s needs and procured under DOD Instruction 5000.74 using the software-as-a-service model. The platform is hosted in the cloud with authority to operate on the U.S. Army unclassified (NIPRNET) and classified (SIPRNET) networks. It supports advanced analytics, collaboration, metadata management, reproducibility, scalability and role-based security, while also reducing the technical barriers to entry.
To illustrate that final point, “I find it surprisingly easy to use,” said Col. Kyle Jette, the platform’s lead data scientist. “One of my jokes is that the data analytics tool in the platform is ‘colonel friendly.’ If I can use it, then most people—who are more technically savvy that I am—are in great shape. It’s intuitive and easy to use, and we’re doing things on our team to make it even more approachable.”
Markowitz agreed, and said he has seen data analysts eager to explore the platform. “What has surprised me has been the analyst layer, which is this kind of middle-tier user who wants to do data analytics and push the edge,” he said. “They just run with it. That layer has just appeared, kind of out of nowhere.” He credits the intuitive interface and data management tools with this ease of adoption. “The barrier to entry is much lower than your traditional kind of data platform,” Markowitz explained. “I think it’s rapidly building a skillset and a community within the Army to bring about the chief’s vision of an information-age Army.”
WHAT’S UNDER THE HOOD?
Army leaders at all echelons have been enthusiastic about providing their data to the platform’s data capture teams and have embraced Vantage as a way to solve problems within their own organizations. However, Jette thinks they have just begun to scratch the surface. “There is a continuum of complexity of use or complexity of problems you could address with this platform,” he said. “To be honest, we’re all thinking kind of small right now.”
Automating ad hoc reports and routine work can save the Army a lot of time, but that’s only a small portion of the platform’s capability. “There are many higher orders of thinking and analysis, and this platform has yet to rev up the RPMs,” Jette explained. “There’s modeling, there’s predictive analysis, and other things this tool can do, but right now, we’re all just kind of ‘oohing and aahing’ over some of the smaller, less complex things.” It’s a facet of human psychology that car salesmen know well: No matter how much horsepower is under the hood, most people start by checking out the sunroof and the leather seats. Kicking the tires, so to speak.
Markowitz agrees that more advanced data analysis will be done in due time, and he also sees the potential for data integration and sharing. Among those more complex tasks are artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). “All the artificial intelligence and machine learning tools are based upon a larger reservoir of data for those tools to learn, and Vantage provides that,” he said. “Vantage has the capacity to host some of those AI and ML tools, but probably more importantly, has the ability to integrate the data and pass it to those who need it, where that type of learning can be done.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
“I think the data EXORD [Executive Order 009-20 Army Data Plan Implementation] has processes identifying the need for institutional change,” Markowitz said. “I would not call institutional inertia a roadblock, but it’s a lot of work the Army needs to get done. As we’re starting to expose the broader data integration needs of the Army, from war fighting to intelligence, to enterprise IT, to the business areas, it’s giving us new insights of the larger road ahead. It’s going to be a long and productive journey.”
Jette agrees, and he believes that the Vantage platform can be a large part of the solution over the course of that journey. “What makes me giddy is the potential for this higher-order thinking,” he said. “I would love to see the full potential of the modeling and predictive stuff. I worked in programming for a long time at the Pentagon, and every leader wants to know, ‘What if I took $100 million out of training and gave it to equipping? What would that do? What if I took $500 million out of personnel and gave it to operations and maintenance? What would that do?’ And no one really knows. It’s mostly conventional wisdom and slideshow presentations. That level of data-driven insight is something this tool can enable.”
He envisions a massive budget model that could predict what happens to the Army’s projects and programs when funding is reallocated, or when it operates under a continuing resolution. “Those things are possible,” Jette continued, “but only if you have the data in your environment, and you trust it.”
“What is really cool to me, is the dimension and reach that this platform has,” said Army Vantage product lead Miranda Coleman. “To not only be able to do those money drills at the headquarters level or the Pentagon level, but to go down to the lowest levels of the Army, to give visibility into those exact same things. To be able to provide a tool that touches so many users at so many echelons, that’s exciting to me.”
It may feel, at times, that the Army’s business processes are driven almost entirely by ad hoc reports and slideshow presentations, but Coleman is optimistic about the future. “We are no longer being constrained by the old way of doing things through slideshows and feeding static data,” she said. “We’re leaning forward and finding new ways to solve problems by using authoritative data and analytics. We are working down in the corps and the divisions and the units, and with company commanders, and getting their feedback. We’re making sure that this solution and data analysis are beneficial to them, and can make their time more efficient. We are working to give them more hours in the day to focus on readiness and training, and making sure their units are ready.”
OUT FOR A TEST DRIVE
“Our fielding process has not been the standard fielding process,” Coleman said. “A lot of people are used to those static fielding plans, but this has not been that process.” It was a story of being in the room with the right people at the right time. “We did a Vantage demo to a group of incoming corps and division commanders,” she recalled, “and Lt. Gen. [Michael “Erik”] Kurilla [commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps] happened to be one of those people. He and Maj. Gen. [James] Mingus [commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division] offered up the 82nd 18th Airborne Corps to be our pilot.”
Beginning in September 2019, the Army Vantage team sent trainers and developers to spend three days each week embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division. They worked to understand the organization’s processes, ensure that the data was correct, and work hand in hand with Soldiers to make sure the platform was not only usable but actually helpful. “Army Vantage is a game changer at the company, troop and battery level,” Mingus said. “The system is proactive vice reactive, with thousands of disparate data sources now at our tactical level and senior leader fingertips.” In an information paper dated Feb. 25, 2020, the 82nd noted its belief that Vantage “is both valuable and mature enough for Army-wide deployment.” The report acknowledges that the platform’s usefulness relies entirely on the accuracy of the data in the underlying authoritative sources. Despite that limitation, however, “it is constantly improving in real time and has unlimited application potential across the force once it is fully functional.”
In the early days of what was then called “Army Leader Dashboard,” the PEO EIS team saw the potential for this solution to change the way the Army does business. “That still is our vision,” Coleman said. “We’ve been working on some small-scale data sharing with other systems and data source owners, while also trying not to bite off more than we can chew. But it is our vision that this becomes a common data platform for the Army, and that we are able to pull in all this data, piece it together, and then to provide it to other folks who might need it [for example, an Army Enterprise Resource Planning system], without having to spend the time and money of creating those system interfaces.”
Markowitz also has his eyes on the future of Army Vantage. “I think it will fill two critical roles,” he said. “First, I think it is a tool that has lowered the barrier for data analysts and the data community within the Army. We see them gel around [this platform] and then build their skillsets to be better data analysts and understand the Army’s data, and to help the Army with its own decisions and its own data management. Second, it’s the tool itself and the type of visualization it’s hosting, the mechanics of it. I think those are the two kind of longer-term benefits we’re going to continue to see from the program.”
According to Mingus, it will also create new efficiencies for Army, allowing users to make decisions with the most up-to-date information. “Army Vantage is the way ahead for the Army,” he said. “The system represents a significant step forward in the Army’s efforts to modernize the way we use ‘big data’ across multiple systems. Mission Command requires shared understanding at all levels.”
Whatever the future holds for Army Vantage, one thing is clear: It has been an unconventional effort in nearly every sense of the word. While most acquisition programs follow an established road map to success, the Strategic Initiatives Group and PEO EIS have often had to blaze their own trail to make this vision a reality. With strong support from the Army’s senior leaders and their industry partners, Army Vantage is creating a 360-degree view of the Army’s data landscape.
ELLEN SUMMEY provides contract support to the United States Army Acquisition Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for SAIC. She holds an M.A. in human relations from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in mass communication from Louisiana State University. She has more than a decade of communication experience in both the government and commercial sectors.
Read the full article in the Summer 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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