The Navy Takes the Helm in Data Management

February 1, 2020
By Kimberly Underwood
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The service's new Chief Data Officer has a robust plan to improve information management


As part of the Department of the Navy’s aggressive effort to improve its data environment in its information infrastructure, the department appointed Tom Sasala, Senior Executive Service (SES), to oversee the its data management, establishing the policies and the governance around the data fabric of the department.

The Department of the Navy, or DON, was already on a path to improve its data management when Congress passed the Open Government Data Act in January. The measure required cabinet-level agencies in the military departments to create a chief data officer position.

The DON chief data officer, led by Sasala, is one of four new directorates under DON Chief Information Officer (CIO) Aaron Weis. The others include: the chief technology officer, Jane Rathbun, SES, who is responsible for creating and enforcing technical architecture standards and policies; and the chief digital and innovation officer, Mike Galbraith, who oversees the adaptation, prioritization of investment, and incorporation of emerging information management related technologies into the DON, according to the Navy. Meanwhile, the chief information security officer, Christopher Cleary, maintains the security of DON data and information.

All of the directorates, including the chief data officer, will have a structure similar to that of the DON CIO’s office, unifying Naval and Marine Corps activities, Sasala states. “We are unifying the governance across the Navy and the Marine Corps at the DON Secretary level, so we’ll have deputy DON data officers for the Navy and deputy data officers for the Marine Corps that will operationally report to me as the chief data officer,” he notes.

As the service’s first chief data officer at the Secretary level, Sasala began by standing up a data governance board, as well as implementing concept of operations for how the Navy will perform data management.

“We are in the process of trying to implement the fundamental tenets of how we will do data management across the department to support the warfighter, support artificial intelligence and machine learning, and just generally, do better data analytics across the department,” he explains.

In conjunction with tenets of the National Defense Strategy, as well as the Defense Department’s data strategy—which leaders are in the process of finalizing—Sasala is implementing five lines of effort for the Navy’s data management: setting the foundation for the data; evolving the workforce; positioning and protecting the data; building, optimizing and operationalizing the data environment; and governing and managing the data, the chief data officer says. “And we’ve established an office of primary responsibility for every one of those five lines of effort, and we have human beings assigned to them to start building out the tasks. Once the DOD data strategy gets signed out, we can start staffing the implementation plan across the DON.”

Portions of the data management implementation plan also will be rolled into the Navy’s business operations plan to fit data management into the broader construct. Sasala also is establishing metrics, to monitor data quality, accessibility, timeliness and completeness of the department’s data, which can then be used to measure other military aspects, such as readiness.
Sasala clarifies that their data management concept is centered around the types of data held across 12 information domains managed by data stewards—such as acquisition, medical or legal. “Rather than managing data by system or by organization, we’re managing data by the types of the information and then the unique business rules around those types of information,” he notes.

And the notion of data ownership is not something to which the directorate is subscribing. The data stewards don’t own the data,” he emphasizes. “They’re responsible for stewarding it and making it better and making it of higher quality.”

The information domain data stores will be integrated into a greater Navy enterprise data lake, although that structure isn’t necessarily a physical manifestation of one big database, Sasala confirms. “That’s not really what we’re talking about,” he continues. “It can be a logical sort of thing that we access all these different data sources via APIs [application programming interfaces]. It’s really more about the integration of the data through orchestration and APIs.”
The directorate will share subsets of that data, making it more or less freely available to anyone who wants it—albeit based on job title, function, capabilities or requirements.

In that environment, the chief data officer will make tools, techniques and algorithms accessible at any level throughout the architecture. The platform also will support robust uses of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“The first thing is to create a data laboratory-like environment … where data scientists, data analysts and data engineers can go into and have access to vast amounts of information that is essentially raw or semi-integrated. Then they can apply these machine learning and AI algorithms in what we’re calling a safe environment. And that environment can be a combination of real live production data, as well as minimized or sanitized data. Then the algorithms that are being developed in this kind of playground can then be operationalized into production and used to make real productive, data-driven decisions.”

Sasala acknowledged that cleaning and raising the quality of data is the bulk of the directorate’s effort right now. “My primary drive over the next 12 months is really what I’m calling investing in the data management infrastructure, which is the ability to find the data sets, bring them into an environment, clean and curate them and make them available for analysis. Once we have that kind of highly integrated, highly curated data, it really does provide exceptional value to the warfighter and the analysts and data scientists.” 

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