Disruptive by Design: The Power of Data Visualization Tools for Cost Analysis

May 1, 2020
By Jennifer Miller

Data visualization tool power is popping up everywhere.

The Air Force Cost Analysis Agency (AFCAA) offers multiple examples of data visualization tools being actively used for cost analysis, including the Air Force Total Ownership Cost (AFTOC) program decision support system, the Flying Hour Program and an array of research projects. However, these are far from the only examples. Data visualization tool power is popping up everywhere.

During AFTOC User Group meetings, attendees learned (or were reminded) that the system provides: quarterly visibility into almost all unclassified Air Force costs, including major systems and commands; most Air Force appropriations; cost, logistics and programmatic data; and a permanent archive of data. AFTOC is the one source of processed weapon system and infrastructure information for historical data. With more than 18 source data systems feeding AFTOC, and AFTOC churning out both scheduled and ad hoc reports, a lot of information is moving and shaking. Numbers aren’t for everyone, but visual aids can convey information effectively and efficiently.

After nearly a year of attempting to implement another data visualization tool in compliance with the Air Force Network, the AFCAA transitioned efforts to implementing the Tableau data visualization tool. Within months, Tableau was functional at desktops and on the AFTOC server. Military and civilian personnel, including contractors, were using Tableau with relative ease in workshops, during training, for research projects and for day-to-day work products.

AFTOC currently contains multiple user-friendly dashboards alongside more simplistic visualizations spanning both the supply view and financial views of AFTOC program data. The Tableau-supported Flying Hour Program includes a wealth of visual aids providing users fixed and flexible decision support. The program is responsible for the Air Force’s entire flying hour budget. At more than $10 billion, it is a beast with numerous inputs not limited to tables, databases, indices, rates, debates and discussions with partner organizations and other services. That might be touching the tip of the iceberg, making data visualization essential to such a complex program.

I have observed a re-creation of a desktop Tableau dashboard for the AFTOC server environment. In one dashboard, I detected multiple line graphs for trend analysis, dual-stacked bar charts to multiperspective comparison, easy-to-read keys throughout, and filters to adjust the most critical data drivers such as fiscal year, mission design series group and method of cost categorization as a drop-down menu. Users can decide whether Tableau data visualization is robust or simple. Other dynamic pieces and parts available include easy graphical displays: bar charts, pie graphs, heat maps, line graphs, histograms, scatterplots, box-whisker plots, tree maps and more.

However, AFCAA is also watching the other data visualization tools, such as Microsoft Power BI, Excel’s Power Pivot and Qlik. Workshops scheduled for 2020 focus on MS Power BI and others. AFCAA personnel leverage a rainbow of tools to conduct and complete annual research projects. Tableau and MS Power BI are a great fit for those striving to both model and visualize data from their desktops using various sources of information outside of data warehouses. The vast majority of Air Force employees can place a quick tech support call to activate MS Power BI, self-train with Internet videos and tutorials, and be on their data-visualizing way.

Please remember the examples discussed here are far from the only places of data visualization tool power within AFCAA.


Jennifer Miller is a financial manager for the Defense Health Agency in Virginia and a member of the Washington chapter of the American Society of Military Comptrollers. She’s previously supported the Air Force, Army and National Guard Bureau at locations along the East Coast.

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