Pentagon to Silicon Valley: Teach Us Big Data


The Pentagon is setting up shop in Silicon Valley to forge partnerships, identify new technologies and maybe even recruit some new talent.

In Washington, where tech buzzwords are dropped more frequently than phone calls in the Metro tunnel, it’s not surprising to hear the Pentagon wants to get better at big data.

What is interesting, though, is the Defense Department’s approach. Rather than ponying up big bucks and buying technologies as was once commonplace, the Pentagon is setting up shop in Silicon Valley to forge partnerships, identify new technologies and maybe even recruit some new talent.

As the Pentagon turns its eyes 3,000 miles westward, perhaps the biggest goal of all is also the simplest: learning.

With an emerging technology like big data, which itself is a blanket term that means different things to different people, getting beyond the buzzword to business value could be the difference between a failing or fruitful Pentagon initiative.

“It’s not that we want to take what Silicon Valley is doing wholesale, but we need to be able to learn how they’re using big data, what they’re finding successful, what they’re finding in terms of roadblocks and the obstacles for adoption,” said Tom Morton, cloud strategist for the Defense Department.

Morton spoke Thursday at an event hosted by immixGroup in Tysons Corner. Also speaking were Wo Chang, digital data adviser for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Gary Blohm, director of the U.S. Army’s Architecture Integration Center.

“Twitter does a whole lot more in big data than the [Defense] Department does right now, and they use it very successfully as other companies do,” Morton said.

Twitter and other social media powerhouses LinkedIn and Facebook use massive stockpiles of customer data as the backbone of their businesses. Their motivations boil down to one singular goal -- profit. While that stands in stark contrast to the Pentagon’s ambitions, the methodologies and best practices used by successful Valley companies can also be applied to the military.

“They have a commercial motivation,” Morton said. “We have other motivations that aren’t aligned specifically to saving money. We are trying to be more effective and efficient and deliver value to the war fighter.”

Civilian agencies have similar room to grow their capacities for understanding big data. Successful big data initiatives like those at the Food and Drug Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission and NASA are more the exception than the rule, Blohm said.

Intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency have fully embraced the importance of big data. The intelligence community at large can serve as early examples for civilian agencies looking to explore these emerging technologies.

“I think our Cyber Command and intelligence groups are great examples of communities looking hard at big data,” Blohm said.

(Image via Genialbaron/