flight data

FAA promotes data awareness

When the Federal Aviation Administration began its data awareness efforts in 2016, it started with an electronic flight bag app that puts critical information in the palms of pilot's hands rather than using unwieldy paper charts.

“Pilots had to carry paper charts with them everywhere they flew, and some were so big that they were useless because they were impossible to open in a small cockpit,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a Dec. 4 Data ThoughtLab event conducted by his agency.  “The ability to pull up these charts digitally has changed the experience dramatically and created better situational awareness and safety.”

The largest source of FAA data comes from the System Wide Information Management Program, the digital data delivery platform that turns national airspace data into useful information for the aviation community and will help fully implement many NextGen operational improvements. This data has the power to transform the drone industry as well the “dozens of companies competing to turn out the next unmanned aircraft,” Huerta said.

Planes themselves are flying data generators. Modern aircraft can generate 40,000 gigabytes of information a day, and their sensors can identify mechanical difficulties and alert the pilot and flight crew.

Today's technology can identify mechanical issues in flight "before the crew is even aware that there is a problem,” Huerta said.  “The Boeing 787 can find a problem with a specific part in the plane and start the process of ordering a part while the plane is still airborne so it will be available when it lands.”

The ThoughtLab was highlighted on the first day of FAA’s Data Awareness Week, designed to draw attention to the agency’s enterprise information management initiative. Leaders from the Census Bureau, Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) and FBI also gave presentations on their data awareness efforts.

Through the Center for Enterprise Dissemination Services and Consumer Innovation, Census is working to streamline production of visualizations that let users interact with the population data collected by various surveys.  Census Business Builder provides demographic and economic data through a combination of Census datasets and information from third parties like Esri for small businesses and regional planning efforts.

The Opportunity Project is another Census Bureau effort that gives third-party developers access to agency datasets to build software tools for combatting homelessness and addressing job training, public safety and public transportation challenges.

“We don’t know all of the things that people are going want to do with our data, so we should let others access this information,” acting Census Director Ron Jarmin said.  “We are working to make sure the data is interoperable, which requires good metadata so we can aggregate statistics that can allow people to drill down to what is happening in their local communities.”

Since 2004, the EAC's Election Administration and Voting Survey has been collecting data after each national election.  While the agency publishes a report after each election, the EAC is working to make more detailed information interactive with Tableau's data visualization platform.

“We want to understand the trends in convenience voting and share the data to help with election reforms,” EAC Commissioner Matt Masterson said.  “The idea is to allow election officials to compare how they are operating compared to their peers.”

When the FBI began to work on its data strategy last year, Afua Bruce, data strategy lead at the Department of Justice, said she initially ran into resistance from project managers who were concerned about opening up their datasets to the wider agency.

“Adopting data analytics and [applying] analytics is a change management process where you need to work in ways that you haven’t done in the past,” Bruce said.  “When people are hired in the FBI, they tend to grow with the organization, and you can run into a lot of resistance to changing what is already being done.”

Bruce encouraged FAA employees to look for small wins where work can be done without a huge infrastructure investment and that can show the potential for expanding data analytics capabilities.  The FBI has found some success with opening up data platforms to managers and program analysts.

Products from Tableau and Palantir are being used to provide non-technical end users with a graphical interface for visual analytics.  Coders, on the other hand, can use Visual Basic and SQL to do comparisons on “limited amounts of data,” and open source tools like Hadoop and Python can be used to create new work environments.

The FBI has also stood up a data science community of interest to connect various programs within the agency.  “Connecting people that do good work can strengthen our position to have a greater adoption of data science,” Bruce said.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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