Who’s Your Data?

The emphasis placed by most commanders on the command and control (C2) aspect of an integrated common operating picture, displaying operations, logistics, and intelligence data into one dashboard is important, but right now for the Marine Corps, that’s like taking an M4 outside the wire without bringing any 5.56 ammunition with you. Those tools are only as good as the information used to populate them. Data needs to be the new weapons system of choice, and the collection, management, and utilization of that data in a centralized repository is the ammunition that makes those tools effective.

The Marine Corps Data Strategy was last updated in 2009, and it charged that

the long term objective of collecting and analyzing metrics is to assess the operational and financial benefits associated with implementing standards, eliminating redundancy, and migrating to shared infrastructure.

While the intent sounds legitimate and focuses on the automation of data collection, the reader should ask what has been done in the last seven years. I am by no means a cyber or data expert, nor am I an information technology specialist. But as a logistician and a self-proclaimed gadget geek, I know that in the last seven years I gained the capability to turn my lights off and adjust my thermostat from my phone, but in my last unit (only nine months ago), my maintenance Marines were annotating corrective and preventative maintenance actions on a paper service request and having a clerk who understood the maintenance system manually input those changes. Society is consuming more and more data each day, and the demand for data is ever increasing. The Marine Corps is lagging behind in its enterprise investment into data.

Why This Is a Big Deal

In 2009, at the same time the last Marine Corps Data Strategy was published, average download speeds in the United States were clocking at 7.12 megabits per second.1 Not even five years later in 2014, the average speed rose to over 31 megabits per second—a 435 percent growth.2 Moore’s Law only exacerbates the problem—as technology packs more power in a smaller package, industry continues to drive the price down to the point where sensors and computers are mere pennies on the dollar from what they were a few years ago. As this occurs, we will continue to produce more and more data each day. On a daily basis, the world produces 15 petabytes of new data, which is enough data to fill 300 million four-drawer filing cabinets full of paper.3 Are we going to continue to ignore that data?

Anyone who has worked in the Pentagon knows that programs live and die by the Program Objective Memorandum (POM) and Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution process, which is the Services and agencies recommendation to the Secretary of Defense on how they plan to allocate resources for programs.4 The POM is how the Marine Corps fills the bank account for each program. A new start in the POM today means fielded capability in about five years. The world is moving at a 435 percent growth rate in five years, and the best we can do is a five-year delayed start with today’s technology, which will probably be obsolete by next week.

Treat the Problem, Not the Symptom

Despite the Marine Corps’ inability to field items quickly through the POM process, there are avenues in which commanders can register capability gaps, such as the urgent needs process and force the Headquarters to act. But on an almost daily basis, I receive emails and participate in meetings where other organizations at the tactical and operational levels are spending millions of dollars on stove-piped efforts in developing common operational pictures with fancy interfaces and mobile capabilities, but we aren’t investing in the data that fuels those tools or at least we aren’t doing it fast enough. That is equivalent to treating a patient’s discomfort in his chest and arm for muscular fatigue when he’s probably having a heart attack. As taxpayers, you should be outraged, and as Marines, you should be concerned that you’re being sent outside the wire without the proper ammunition. Commanders need to register their need, assist in defining the requirements, and never stop demanding a fielded capability rather than go rogue into software and hardware development.

Marine Corps data is currently siloed in a multitude of systems, applications, and environments. Many are tagged as authoritative sources, but we don’t go to the level of detail to define what type of information is actually authoritative within that source. Information within an authoritative data source directly conflicts with similar information in another authoritative data source, so how do we really know which one is authoritative? Even data governance, which is not an easy task, is difficult at the lowest levels of the Marine Corps. We struggle to have consistent, reliable, and repeatable data from which we can conduct better analytics and improve the way we do business. While this sounds boring to most (and trust me my eyes glazed over before I really understood the problem), we can use an example to display the problem.

Does the number 123456789 mean anything to you? Is it a quantity, a partial phone number, a grid coordinate? What if we displayed the numbers like this: 123-45-6789; now it looks a little bit more familiar, more like a SSN. The first three numbers are called “area numbers,” which represent the state and zip code in which you were born. The two middle digits are called “group numbers,” which break all the SSNs within the same area number into smaller blocks for administrative purposes. The last set of four numbers is a serial number within each group designation, and the total combination of those numbers is a unique identifier to each individual. All SSNs in the United States are created in this format. Now imagine applying for a mortgage with your spouse, and you write your SSN on the form with the above format, but because of a lack of data governance, your spouse received the SSN in a different format: 98-7654-321. This could create problems in purchasing your dream home. Now who cares if I have an app on my phone that can display the SSNs of people near me (well maybe the FBI will), but what does it matter if that information isn’t correct or in a standardized format that means the same thing to all who view that data?

Industry Figured It Out, Why Can’t We?

By now, it is understood that the Internet of things isn’t a mere fad. The popping of the dot.com bubble in 2000 allowed for the strengthened foundation and unparalleled growth of industry in the technology sector. Industry has capitalized on society’s massive consumption of data over the last seven years. Companies like Apple and Google made it so the average teenager with a smart phone now has more computing power in their pocket than all of NASA did in 1969.5 Corporate America uses millions of data elements to target ads and boost sales, so effective to the point that Target is capable of predicting pregnancy with 85 percent accuracy and even able to determine the due date within a small window—all based off of customer buying habits.6

I will be the first to admit that being in the Marine Corps isn’t like being in corporate America, and we are not a profit-generating organization. Though we aren’t in business to make money, we are like industry in that we need to capture and use the data we produce to change and better support our business processes. The industrial giant Caterpillar, Inc., has cracked the code on collecting and analyzing data to do conditions-based maintenance and vehicle health monitoring, saving time, money, and assisting in managing the parameters of their warranties.7 They were even able to build a profit center out of it and offer that service to their customer base. But in the Marine Corps logistics community, we are constantly fighting archaic maintenance practices, and our motor pools have too many dead-lined vehicles with not enough mechanics to fix them. This is all because we base our policy off of intuition and experience rather than quantifiable metrics.

Remember the last time you had to conduct a vehicle recovery because your MTVR or HMMWV went down? Remember the hours and lost training time it took to recover that vehicle? Imagine if you received a notification, before leaving the motor pool, that the battery wasn’t operating at peak performance, or there were metal particles detected in the oil, signaling a potential major engine malfunction before a piston rod gets launched through the engine block. But it’s okay, now at least that $3 million investment in the common-operating picture with fancy graphics, that needs to be manually populated with data, will show our abysmal readiness on your smart phone. The Marine Corps needs to invest in the foundation of data before it gets caught up in “shiny penny” syndrome and goes after the latest and greatest hardware or software.

The Hand-Me-Downs

As a former Marine, I take pride in the fact that the Marine Corps has continued to be the fiercest fighting organization on the planet, and we often do it with hand-me-downs. But that can’t be reason for a lack of sophistication in our data collection, management, and analytic practices. A green logbook is no longer sufficient to capture logistics data, and we all know the motor transport operator taking down mileage from a vehicle could very well be inputting numbers on the trip ticket that he picked for the lottery the other night. I reluctantly turn to the Army whose data strategy is current as of this year and focuses on dissemination, analysis, and storage of data.8 Not only do they have updated strategic guidance but they are backing up that vision with setting up their battlefield tactical network by employing Aruba’s Command Post Wi-Fi, a secure gigabit-capacity wireless system that uses encryption approved by the National Security Agency.9 I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to that hand-me-down, especially when the Marine Corps can’t even seem to get a wireless capability in garrison other than the Starbucks at the Marine Corps Exchange.

The World Has Changed, Get Used to It

The world is changing quickly. We will never again return to the mass based “iron mountain” of logistics support. Every wargame citing Expeditionary Force 21, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 2014), demands that we operate in a dispersed environment with company and below-sized units. Supporting those dispersed units is often glossed over, and those wargames begin at the second or third phase of an operation with little regard to how the unit got there in the first place. Logistics support in this type of operating environment will be the limiting factor, but it doesn’t have to be.

In 2013, the Director of the Federal Communications Commission made the case that the world has experienced four distinct network revolutions. Each changed the way people, organizations, states, and cultures interact and develop. The first network revolution, the printing press, distributed information across oceans and social classes, but one had to go to the book to view the printed word. The second network revolution, the railroad, connected communities across continents, but one had to go to the railhead to obtain goods or services. The third network revolution, the telegraph, moved information across great distances in an instant, but one had to go to a telegraph machine to communicate. The fourth network revolution, the digital revolution, is different from its predecessors in that the tyranny of place has been removed.

In the digital network revolution, the individual can now obtain and distribute endless amounts of data and information from their immediate location, no matter the place, or should we say any clime and place, which is where the Marine Corps is expected to operate in the future. Data needs to be the weapons system we utilize to better our business practices and remain dominant in future conflicts, but without the focus and strength of an enterprise investment into data, we will continue to spend what precious dollars we have on shiny pennies and face the enemy yelling “butta butta jam” because we didn’t have the right ammo.

Notes

1. Lance Whitney, “U.S. Broadband Speeds Rise in 2009,” CNET, (10 February 2010), accessed on 8 June 2016 at http://www.cnet.com/.

 

2. Yoni Heisler, “Average U.S. Internet Speed Has More Than Tripled Since 2011,” BGR, (2 January 2016), accessed at 8 June 2016 on http://bgr.com/.

 

3. “Business Analytics,” HBX CORe Program, accessed on 8 June 2016 at http://hbx.hbs.edu/.

 

4. “PPBE Process,” Acq Notes.com, accessed on 8 June 2016 at http://www.acqnotes.com/.

 

5. “Your Cell Phone Has More Computing Power Than NASA Circa 1969,” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, accessed on 8 June 2016 at http://knopfdoubleday.com/.

 

6. Kashmir Hill, “How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did,” Forbes Tech, (16 February 2012), accessed on 8 June 2016 at http://www.forbes.com/.

 

7. “Equipment Management: It Matters,” Caterpillar, Inc., accessed on 8 June 2016 at http://www.cat.com/.

 

8. Office of the Army Chief Information Officer/G-6, Army Data Strategy, (February 2016), accessed at http://ciog6.army.mil/.

 

9. Kevin McCaney, “Army Adding Gigabit Wireless to Its Tactical Network,” Defense Systems, (12 January 2016), accessed at http://defensesystems.com.

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