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Self-service analytics a ‘game changer’ for the Air Force

The Air Force’s cross-domain platform that lets service members use cloud-based tools to work on data has been a game-changer, the Air Force’s chief data officer said.

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The Air Force’s Visible, Accessible, Understandable, Linked and Trustworthy platform gives personnel secure, cloud-based tools for connecting with data that is essential to mission and readiness success. Read more.

Speaking at on self-service analytics at the April 7 Wrangle Summit presented by Trifacta, a data preparation company, Air Force CDO Eileen Vidrine highlighted two ways that the Visible, Accessible, Understandable, Linked and Trustworthy data platform has improved operations.

First off, VAULT proved crucial when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The platform enabled “our airmen and guardians to do the work at the lowest classification possible and then push it up into a classified environment if necessary,” Vidrine said. “That was game-changing once COVID happened because once we had to really be conscientious about physical distancing … it allowed our people to work remotely and then push stuff up into a classified environment,” she said. Additionally, it helped the Air Force and Space Force “safely manage our workforce so that we brought them in at the point of readiness,” she added.

Plus, because VAULT is hosted in the Amazon Web Services cloud accredited at the highest security impact levels, the Air Force had a capability that grew tenfold in 12 months, she said. Organizations that may not have been in the cloud could use VAULT to easily access a self-service tool to do their jobs.

Everything in VAULT is scripted using its infrastructure-as-code architecture, and a new, virtual private cloud instantiation can be deployed with the press of a button. Through VAULT, members of the Air and Space forces can access current datasets and a catalog of data and metadata.

Second, Vidrine highlighted the importance of strong partnerships in getting VAULT going in 2018 and maintaining and growing it today. Those partners include people within the service, within the military and in the public sector.

“I like to say data is a team sport, and we can’t do this without our partners out in the field,” she said of the solution that won a Government Innovation Award in 2020.  “We need our functional experts to really be part of the conversation. So, not only did we build a self-service platform in the cloud, but we also established a small enterprise-focused data lab based out of Andrews Air Force Base, where any airman or guardian can make a recommendation to look at a data opportunity that has an enterprise focus.”

To date, her office has considered nearly four dozen solutions.

Another critical partnership is with the department’s CIO -- specifically a reciprocity agreement that allows a tool approved for an Impact Level 5 platform to be deployed on equivalent platforms. “We’re working smart to do that security boundary work one time, do it well and continue to maintain it,” Vidrine said. “I think that is also game-changing for us.”

Part of working smart is bringing in open source tools that have no licensing requirements in addition to commercial products. The department works with any Air or Space Force organization that needs or expects to need licenses for a commercial product to “get through the security gates to safely and securely bring that tool onto the platform,” she said.

One way they’re doing that faster is by asking industry partners for evaluation copies to kick off security conversations. That’s what happened when Vidrine’s team brought Trifacta into VAULT last year. The security paperwork was finished before the acquisition, so when it went through, they were able to include it in their next weekend push. That enabled the department to maximize the licensing and show value, she said.

Other commercial partners include Tableau, Databricks, Spark, Python and Informatica. For instance, VAULT has supported Tableau’s visualization tool for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s health assessments, saving months of labor and providing more accurate data analysis.

One use case that illustrates VAULT is work with the Air Force Materiel Command’s financial management community. The project’s goal is to provide data insights into cash balances by understanding underlying business events, forecasting and visualizing the impact of operating scenarios.  

“When we use these types of tools in our platforms, empowering our airmen to solve their own problems, they are optimizing performance every single iteration so that we can work smart,” Vidrine said. “I think that is part of the real data story.”

VAULT’s foundational capability has three cornerstones, according to Vidrine. One is the Defense Department Data Strategy, published last year in concert with CDOs across military departments. The seven strategic goals it sets -- visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable and secure, or VAULT-IS -- fit what she and her counterparts are doing, she said. The Air Force was the first department to adopt VAULT-IS with the VAULT Data Platform.

“We’re looking at increasing that visibility and accessibility, at pushing analytics down so that each airman and guardian have that capability through self-service to really drive data into actionable decision-making processes,” she said.

The Air Force CDO Office’s first Data Service Reference Architecture is the second cornerstone. Published on Airforce.mil, it allowed department and industry stakeholders to understand the baseline VAULT uses.

“We are actually now finishing up Version 2.0 of the Data Service Reference Architecture, which we plan to publish later this year,” Vidrine said. “This is an emerging field and there are new capabilities, and we’re trying to make sure that we continue with that communication,” she said.

The final foundational piece is the first Air Force instruction on data management policy, coming out later this year, she said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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