Every government agency is loaded with data that it could use to fulfill its mission more efficiently and effectively. But getting from here to there isn’t necessarily an easy proposition. Business intelligence (BI) and analytics solutions can help.
MeriTalk recently spoke with Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, senior vice president and general manager for public sector and mid-markets at MicroStrategy, about the Federal government’s massive wealth of data, how agencies can leverage BI and analytics to wrangle data for timely and accurate decision-making, and MicroStrategy’s pending FedRAMP certification. Nelson has led the delivery of world-class technology solutions in support of critical government missions during his career in government and industry. He is a Navy veteran with more than 20 years of operational and intelligence experience.
MeriTalk: The U.S. government’s largest untapped resource is data. What challenges do government departments and agencies face when leveraging data to better inform decision-making?
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson: The U.S. government has been collecting data since its inception in some form or another and has arguably the largest set of data on the planet. It’s like emptying out an attic with 200 years of data in different forms. How does an organization bring together those disparate data sources? How does it put data in a format that executives can use? Then it needs to be distributed usefully. That’s the strategic challenge.
MeriTalk: How have departments and agencies done this effectively?
Nelson: Customs and Border Protection uses data and artificial intelligence (AI) to figure out which inbound cargo might require additional screening. The Army and Navy use data to manage their components for aircraft and vehicles. Previous maintenance practices used an antiquated construct that says to replace the tires or engine after a specific number of hours. Now, data analysis enables them to adopt conditions-based maintenance, which considers historic failure rates and events that cause a component to fail. It’s a more efficient way to manage hard assets, be more mission ready, and save taxpayer dollars.
The State Department’s logistics management division keeps an accurate inventory of furniture, vehicles, and other physical assets at embassies and consulates globally. Their goal is to distribute the inventory quickly and efficiently without needing to store it in warehouses. They have saved taxpayers millions by using the MicroStrategy platform to track and effectively distribute those assets.
MeriTalk: The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) is using MicroStrategy BI to improve airport operations and customer service. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Nelson: TSA uses business intelligence quite effectively to manage throughput at airports and surge resources when needed. Throughput data is collected at each checkpoint in real time with mobile technology. The data flows into the MicroStrategy platform, which provides a common reference framework and ensures that everyone – from headquarters to each airport – is using the same metrics and has the same access. It’s important to know that the metrics and data they’re using at SeaTac are the same at LAX.
Because of this unified view of airport throughput, TSA can see in real time where it might need more resources and address backlogs as soon as a problem develops. This not only improves the passenger experience, but also helps TSA hire and deploy staff in the right places.
MeriTalk: What lessons has TSA learned that might help other agencies use their data to improve the customer experience?
Nelson: TSA gets the data at the lowest possible level – at each airport checkpoint – and applies it in a useful way. Many organizations are nowhere near that point because the mission owners don’t really know what the art of the possible is. A department may have a BI platform, but the mission owners who make decisions don’t have that data. Effective organizations create a bridge where the mission owners understand what can be done with the data and how to put demands on the analytics platform and data scientists to provide data that helps them make decisions.
Many agencies get stuck on the low end of the analytics adoption maturity curve because they think their data is not ready. They want to inventory their data and clean it before they invest in an analytics platform. The intent is good, but there’s never a perfect time to start. In fact, the sooner they start, the sooner they can uncover problems in the data.
That said, an agency that sets out to buy an entire solution at the start is unlikely to get what it needs. A scaled investment, beginning with a few sets of important data and expanding from there, will help the agency determine which platform is the best fit.
For example, MicroStrategy is an enterprise-grade platform with strength in bringing together multiple data sets to form a common reference point. We are unparalleled in that. If an organization wants to move departmental-level data from an Excel spreadsheet into a format that’s more digestible for a targeted audience, it may not need an integrated platform. But you don’t know that until you start using your data to make mission decisions.
MeriTalk: The Office of Management and Budget is making a big push to improve citizen services and citizen engagement. Where do BI and analytics fit in this effort?
Nelson: Today, people want information faster than ever before. The government has an obligation to respond to that desire. Thirty years ago, the answer was putting more people on the job. Today, that’s not feasible. Automation with BI and analytics can help agencies provide better information, faster, with the same number of people. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, has used automation to address many concerns about veterans’ healthcare. It’s going to be difficult for government to keep pace with citizen expectations for sure. BI and analytics are important tools in that effort.
MeriTalk: AI and machine learning (ML) promise better decision making, faster. But they require massive amounts of the right data, at the right time. What advice do you have for agencies that are grappling with data management and data engineering to enable AI and ML?
Nelson: First, you have to create a data-centric culture. Everyone must know that understanding data is the key to making better decisions. It’s not about throwing more data experts at the problem. It’s about using the data to become more efficient and make better decisions.
When people start using analytics for mission operations, they get addicted to the data and the ability to make effective decisions. Then they demand more from their data, which leads to ML and AI and the next level on the analytics maturity curve.
MeriTalk: How can MicroStrategy’s BI and analytics solution help with implementing AI and ML?
Nelson: One of the strengths of MicroStrategy’s platform is open architecture that allows it to plug into any database – and any ML or Al capabilities. For example, it treats AI scripts as datasets and can make changes to those datasets inside the MicroStrategy platform – and push them back out to the data scientists. Those data scientists can then make changes to their AI models on the fly.
One of the challenges with AI and ML is when an organization starts bringing together disparate data sets. Independently, the information may not be sensitive or classified. But when that data comes together, the output might be very sensitive data that the government doesn’t want distributed widely.
MicroStrategy addresses this challenge with object-level security, rather than file-based security. With object-level security, everyone in an organization can share the dataset, but each person only sees the data elements they have authority to access. File-based security, on the other hand, limits the number of people who can use the data, because the entire dataset has a security blanket around it.
MeriTalk: The May cybersecurity executive order calls for agencies to accelerate movement to the cloud. Have you seen greater cloud momentum as a result, as agencies assess their IT investments?
Nelson: Maintaining a software platform on premises has significant costs. Every time there’s a software upgrade, for example, agencies have to go through all the security testing before they can move the software into production. Upgrades can take months or years, and during that time agencies are paying for capabilities they can’t use.
When they move to a cloud-based model, the upgrades are automatic, and the cost savings can be astronomical. For example, the cloud provider is responsible for the management and storage of data in a way that’s elastic. Instead of just buying a bunch of storage and possibly using it, the organization only pays for the storage that they are actually utilizing.
There can be security concerns, but with the maturation of FedRAMP, very sensitive government information now resides in the cloud, so it can be done. You could argue that the cloud is more secure than on prem.
MeriTalk: Speaking of FedRAMP, MicroStrategy’s BI and analytics solution is pending FedRAMP certification, the standard used by Federal agencies to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive and vital information in the cloud. How will MicroStrategy’s FedRAMP certification help Federal agencies?
Nelson: Until now, there hasn’t been a single independent BI enterprise platform that’s FedRAMP certified and also meets the DOD Cloud Computing Security Requirements Guide requirements. Now, agencies can take advantage of the security and the cost savings in a FedRAMP BI and analytics solution. And we’re a completely open platform, so we fully integrate with our competitors. That means people can use the tools that they’re comfortable with, alongside the object-based security and common framework that we provide.
Rip and replace is dead. The Federal government isn’t going to throw away its multimillion-dollar investment in brand X. And MicroStrategy won’t ask them to. They bought that solution for a reason. But data needs are still growing. Agencies need an integrated, enterprise-grade platform, and that’s where we come in. We allow customers to keep their initial investments and help them accelerate up the analytics adoption curve.