Why self-sufficiency is key to fostering data literacy in the Air Force

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The Air Force wants to improve data literacy and culture, so it's creating a cadre of "citizen analysts" and communities of interest to build and then spread their knowledge.

The key to developing a data forward culture might require some cross-pollinating with personnel and teaching them how to build (and use) their own tools.

Donald Anderson, the assistant director, A9, Air Mobility Command and the deputy director of A9 for the 18th AirForce, said one of the biggest challenges to creating a data culture is a fear of failure, or a need to be "ready." But to combat that, the Air Force is focused on a sort of grassroots approach that involves training certain personnel and swapping them out.

"We bring folks in from, say the maintenance world, three or four folks, and we teach them to be citizen analysts, so they can start dashboard building themselves, and then we'll take one or two analysts from our department, and physically take them within each of the departments," Anderson said during a Jan. 11 AFCEA webinar.

"So that's actually how we are getting this culture to spread by finding the analytic support physically, and then teaching them to self-serve themselves," through the Air Force's VAULT data platform and customized dashboards. 

Anderson said it's important to get the organization's buy-in so they'll actually use the data analytical tools that are built. 

"So rather than just flooding the pump with dashboards, we're actually tailoring them down by watching what people are looking at and where they're clicking. But it's all possible due to the data strategies and the data connections that the headquarters has provided us." 

To further stimulate a growing data culture, the Air Force's chief data office is also looking to create eight different communities of interest to build data literacy as part of its overall data governance structure "at the ground level," said Col. John Arendale, chief liaison officer and Air Reserve Component adviser for the secretary of the Air Force's Chief Data Office. 

"Another thing that we look at to help build that data literacy and to grow a community of data practitioners is that right now [Secretary of the Air Force’s Chief Data Office] is looking at launching eight different communities of interest," Arendale said Jan. 11. 

"Now these COIs will fit into our data governance structure, which most decision-making organizations and processes have…but fitting in at the ground level will be our communities of interest. So bringing together people who have fresh ideas around major topics."

Arendale said the goal is for participants, which can range from civilians to guard and reserve to contractors, to study Air Force policies, pair them with their technical skills, and feedback ideas that will improve the data governance process. 

"And by doing that, we band the user base, the people who will be aware of and making use of data policies and standards," Arendale said, "but taking their technical interest to turn it into initiatives that can flow up to the data governance process for decision with the approval, scheduling, prioritization and funding."

"It is the total force -- that's civilians, that is military, active guard, active duty, guard and reserve, it is our contract partners -- to bring that best idea forward, put it into the governance process, get it decided, funded, get it prioritized, and get it out there."

Arendale also said leaders can nurture a data culture by ensuring their organizations have career paths for data scientists, which can ultimately "expedite a commander or program office's ability to achieve its mission goals" and influence management and policy. 

And while data talent will take what they learned to wherever the go next in their career, it's important for the organization that "brought them in" to have a "sustainable career culture that will not only keep people gainfully employed but give them the career growth [so] that they will invest themselves in the tenure of the organization. And as they do they bring forward this renewed or open culture on data science applications." 

"Oftentimes, what happens is we look at bringing in an expert, maybe a team of folks who are willing to work and they might be coming from…the operations research analyst position in the active duty force. Or perhaps they're coming from the new 1560 [job] series that [the Office of Personnel Management] has created for data science," Arendale said. 

"But if we don't envision a career [path], then those people are going to later on look for career development opportunities on their own and will leave the organization."