Data is growing exponentially. Data is also everywhere – edge, core, and cloud. Most importantly, effective data capture, security, management, and analysis are critical to agency missions. Federal agencies must be able to keep pace with growing data volumes and leverage emerging technologies to create data-driven insights that support mission objectives.

How can Federal agencies rise above the data deluge today and well into the future?

Coast Guard Tees up Cloud

One way that the U.S. Coast Guard is taking control of its overloads of data is by standing up a formal cloud environment of its own this month.

“For a long period of time we’ve had an on-prem [cloud] – part of our organization that was managed internally and managed well, and a lot of our data sits in that on-prem area. Slowly, we would move to siloed cloud environments, but really never a formal cloud of our own,” Brian Erickson, chief data and artificial intelligence officer (CDAO) for the Coast Guard said during MeriTalk’s “New & Next: Put Data to Work for Mission Success” virtual series on June 28.

“That’s what we’re standing up right now this month,” Erickson said. “We’re starting to put containers in our own our cloud infrastructure and laying down the policy on how we’re going to onboard other applications and platforms within this cloud environment to have a more friction- free exchange of data for organization.”

The CDAO explained that having its own cloud environment has allowed the service branch to begin to explore the tactical edge of its operations and move the data from the edge to the cloud-based warehouse for deeper analysis across the Coast Guard.

“One recent game changer that we got on board with is we awarded some contracts to Starlink and started to put that on our cutters,” Erickson explained. “One of the biggest pain points within our organization was low connectivity with our cutter fleets as they went on what was really a worldwide deployment – but far outside of nearshore operations.”

“Recently, within the last three months, we’ve started to conduct installs, and they’re happening quite rapidly, and we’re hearing game changing results from the cutter fleet,” he added.

Erickson said the “lightning fast” connectivity has been a big help for the Coast Guard’s edge analytics.

Hitachi Vantara Federal Chief Technology Officer Gary Hix, said during MeriTalk’s webinar that “data is the new oil.”

“Data is out there and has unique value,” Hix continued. “So, it’s taking advantage of that data fabric to really share data across all these different domains and get the maximum value out of that data.”

Hix said that the biggest challenge that Federal agencies have is getting a handle on their data and making it usable.

VA Harnessing Emerging Tech

One way that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is tackling their data deluge is through leveraging emerging technologies, VA Director of Data and Analytics Innovation Amanda Lienau said.

“We’re seeing real enthusiasm around emerging tech, and particularly data analytics technologies, as in reducing administrative burden,” Lienau said. “Most people are aware of the problem of burnout. Healthcare – this is one of the areas where burnout is high – and so we’re making use of artificial intelligence, large language models, natural language processing to help make the lives of our care teams easier.”

“Of the hundreds of images that are collected, we can use AI to prioritize, do an early identification, and then make the workflow easier for clinicians so that when they’re engaging in care, they’re doing less sifting through information,” she continued. “How can we reduce the administrative burden so that humans do what humans are uniquely good at which is connecting with other people.”

One of the biggest challenges that the VA faces, Lienau said, is retaining its tech talent.

“This is a rapidly developing field, and the challenge we run into is we can recruit and get enthusiastic fellows and interns who are excited to learn and work with the VA,” she said. “It’s hard to retain talent, because we have a different pay scale than industry.”

Some of the approaches the agency has taken, Lienau said, include providing training programs to individuals within the VA who want to develop data science skills. “Maybe they don’t have a specific credential, or specific kind of academic training, but [they are] doing training on the job with VA data. So, we’ve noticed a real impact for bringing people into the VA and connecting them to the unique assets within the VA.”

The U.S. Coast Guard is working towards hiring a “suite of professionals” specializing in treating the data like a “true asset,” Erickson said.

According to the CDAO, the service branch plans to hire for five new work roles within the next five years: data stewards, data analysts, data scientists, data engineers, and AI/ML specialists. Erickson said the Coast Guard plans to resource out for these roles, reskill and upskill its current employees, or contract expertise in.

“What a data scientist was yesterday may not be what they are tomorrow,” Erickson said. “So luckily, we now have an office that is devoted to this activity, and we are going to care for our data like we care for our ships and our aircraft and that’s what our future is.”

Agencies Must Shift Training Culture to Overcome Tech Skills Gap

Across the Federal government, agencies are striving to harness vast troves of data to gain insights that will help them meet mission-critical objectives. To do this, they need skilled IT and data science professionals, who are in chronically short supply – and often struggle to maintain and grow their skills as technology evolves.

In order to overcome the tech skills gap, Traci DiMartini – the former chief human capital officer at the General Services Administration who recently stepped into the same role at the Internal Revenue Service – said the government needs to shift its culture to foster more skills-based training.

“It’s this idea of continually investing in your workforce – having training available and identifying what the employee wants to learn and grow, but also having a strong Human Capital Office and a strong Chief Learning Officer that knows how to best assess the skills that are needed, not just for today, but going forward,” DiMartini said during MeriTalk’s “New & Next: Put Data to Work for Mission Success” virtual series on June 28.

“When budgets are tight and cuts are being made, training is the first thing that goes, and I really don’t think we’re going to be able to flip a switch and all of a sudden say we need all of these data scientists and we need people that are data literate until we actually make firm financial commitments to invest in all training across the board for people – and definitely data literacy should be at the top of the list,” she said.

“Government employees will stay with an agency if they feel valued and invested,” DiMartini added. “And that also comes with investing in training. Not just the mandatory training we all have to do every year – ethics and security on your computer, those are important, but they’re not the end-all be-all – people are hungry for skills-based training like data literacy, like sustainability and climate, like advanced IT training.”

Tony Holmes, practice lead for public sector solutions architects at Pluralsight, said during the webinar that training should be a tactical skill and second nature for government employees – like “setting up a Zoom meeting or creating new project plans.”

“It’s something that we should all be doing. And the truth is … that agencies with smarter people are more productive, more innovative, more adaptable, and see more interesting ways to innovate with data and data insights,” Holmes said. “So, we need to be celebrating learning. We need to be demonstrating it, we need to celebrate those that exemplify learning, and let it be known that people that are developing skills are likely to be more involved in more interesting projects and missions.”

DiMartini said that in the face of a rising crisis – an aging and retiring workforce – the government needs to revolutionize. It will take money and strong leadership who have open minds about training, but above all, it will take a workforce that remains curious and agile.

“That’s the only way we’re going to be successful,” she said. “Being more open and agile to figuring out how to do things new and differently and also be willing to take risks. Because I think with a learning culture comes a culture of not being afraid to fail. And I think there is this idea that because resources are so scarce, we need to do everything perfectly the first time and that is just not a recipe for success.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.