How FAA’s Latest Challenge Looped in Data Newbies


In addition to creating new visualizations about national airspace, the agency encouraged employees who don’t work with data or in IT to give its tools a spin.

Submissions are in for the Federal Aviation Administration’s latest data visualization challenge, which officials hope will result in a new, dynamic way for the public to review important information about the national airspace and get more agency employees involved in working with data.

The Administrator’s Fact Book Viz Challenge asks teams to take a static PDF document known as the Administrator’s Fact Book and develop a living, changeable, visibly appealing website to help members of the public understand what is going on with the National Airspace System, or NAS.

The factbook contains information on all aspects of the NAS, including airplanes, drones and commercial space travel. The document includes key data points such as the number of airports in the U.S., active pilots, registered unmanned aerial systems, licensed commercial space operations and figures on FAA’s workforce, budget, industry forecasts and rulemaking documents.

The challenge: to develop visualizations to clearly and attractively showcase all of that data and connect those visualizations to data feeds that will keep the information up-to-date.

“There is a lot of text and tables within that document,” FAA Deputy Chief Data Officer Marseta Dill told Nextgov in a recent interview, “So, we thought this would be a perfect data set for a visualization challenge.”

Submissions for the Data Viz Challenge closed Friday, with more than 100 participants entering 30 visualizations for contention. Among those, 80% of participants were federal employees—with the remaining ranks filled with FAA contractors and interns—and “the majority of participants were not in IT,” Dill said.

The projects will be assessed on five criteria: storytelling, clarity, relevance, utility and aesthetics.

Dill said clarity is probably the most important of those, to ensure “people really understanding what the data represents.” Storytelling, relevance and utility will also be major factors, with aesthetics as the “icing” on top.

Dill also noted that while all required data was included in the main documents, participants have the option of pulling in other public data feeds, which Dill said will garner them extra points if used appropriately.

The challenge is open to FAA employees and contractors, though only the former group is eligible for a cash prize.

“If the winner is a FAA employee, we are planning to do a monetary award,” Dill said, confirming that contractors are not able to claim that prize.

Beyond the award, the app created by the winning team will inform future iterations of a visual dashboard for the Fact Book. The team itself will also be invited to participate in future data visualization work, though the nature of that has yet to be determined, Dill said.

That’s been true for past winners, Dill noted, including a participant in a challenge a few years ago who just completed a detail in the CDO Office.

Overall, FAA officials “want data to be accessible and understandable,” Dill said, not to mention dynamic and updateable, rather than in a static document.

Along with getting ideas for new visualization options, the challenge has a few secondary effects that are just as useful to the agency. Among them, increasing awareness of FAA’s cloud-based data analytics platform, which anyone in the agency can use to work on big data sets.

The platform comes with a suite of tools, including Tableau and Power BI, though users can bring any compatible tool they like to the platform.

“Part of the behind-the-scenes of why we did this challenge is we wanted to make sure our workforce is aware of the tools and our data platform,” Dill said. “So that when they do continue on with their day-to-day work, they know the platform exists, they know how to connect to it.”

That goal is key to this specific challenge compared with past contests. The last challenge—run earlier this year—focused on stronger data science skills, Dill said. The challenge was a success and resulted in the creation of the Advanced Analytics Training Program, but participants needed to have some data science skills beforehand to participate in the challenge.

The latest data visualization challenge is focused more on business analytics and looks to get employees from every skill level involved.

“We have to meet people where they are,” Dill said.

Some of the teams include at least one IT-focused employee, though many do not. All FAA employees and contractors were encouraged to submit for the challenge, no matter their background, Dill said, and, in fact, were required to have mixed teams with people from different operating units within the agency.

“We asked them to create teams that included multiple lines of business,” Dill said. “They couldn’t be just a group of folks in IT; they had to bring someone else from another group. And we also asked them to invite at least one unlicensed user—basically someone who isn’t currently using one of those visualization tools.”

This diversity of skills is useful not just for getting more people comfortable with the tools, but also for ensuring diversity of perspective—how people use the tools, how they interact with the data and visualizations, what data points are most interesting and useful in their lives.

Conversely, the CDO Office is learning a lot about the population it serves, their needs and the usability of the tools they are offering—and getting diverse perspectives on that from across the organization has been invaluable, Dill said.

Ultimately, the CDO Office’s goal is the same as the challenge itself.

“Our goal is for our workforce to be well-informed about the goals and objectives and to see the tangible benefits” of the FAA’s overarching data strategy, Dill said. “It’s one thing to write it in a document. It’s another thing for people to see it in action.”