Data Warriors: How America’s Data Analysts Help Fight the Nation’s Battles
Conflict and battles have been a mainstay of the human experience, and the modern era is no exception. Throughout the world, many conflicts are going on at once, and America’s leaders, military personnel and agencies have to continually stay informed and react at a moment’s notice to what’s going on around them. When a conflict, battle or event looks like it’s imminent, usually a waterfall of data and information has preceded it.
That’s because behind every physical battle — where soldiers, military personnel and equipment handle things more traditionally — a digital information battle has been raging in the virtual realm. This digital battle haseverything to do with collected data, big and small — data that scientists and analysts pore over in painstaking detail to find usable trends, patterns and actionable insights.
Take, for instance, data collected on a potential threat’s hideout. Before launching a sweep of the property, analysts are tasked with collecting information about the local population, who lives and is staying there, what weapons or equipment they have access to and extensive directly related situational data. This information is then passed on to the appropriate parties — such as military commanders and administrators — who use it to make a well-informed decision about the next plan of attack.
Of course, this is just one incredibly specific example of how battles are being waged in the virtual world.
Data Has Always Been Crucial to Battlefield Commanders
Even when modern computers and smartphones didn’t exist, data was still a cornerstone of the American military and its operations. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are crucial components of a successful military plan. Intelligence — specifically on enemies or threats, for instance — is necessary to respond with tact and proper force.
Before World War I, battlefield commanders relied heavily on horse-mounted cavalry for their reconnaissance and troop movement data. However, trench warfare rendered these methods obsolete, and with the birth of the airplane, a new method of intelligence-gathering was born: airborne surveillance.
Yet even as intelligence-gathering methods advanced to include amazingly sophisticated spy planes and satellites, surveillance and data were always collected, parsed and even shared through human labor.
Today, that’s no longer the case. Modern technology and big data systems can be deployed and used to do the bulk of this work. Data analysts and scientists still review the data to extract actionable intel, but today’s software, tools and systems make the process much more efficient. Military and intelligence data teams have now shifted focus to the collection, processing, exploitation and dissemination of the data they have access to.
While much of the actionable intel and insights acquired from treasure troves of data is born out of human experience and knowledge — such as a data scientist or expert having experience sifting through data, putting it to use and knowing how and when it can be valuable — modern technology has completely altered this landscape. Today’s big data tools can read information and use the knowledge and experience subject matter experts have programmed into the analytics software to automate and optimize the intelligence processes and provide relevant reports and dashboards.
Since national and global security has become reliant on intelligence and surveillance data, it has also become reliant upon the efficiency and effort required to understand that data. Just because hundreds of terabytes of information, statistics and insights have been collected doesn’t necessarily mean you instantly know what value it has to your agency’s mission. Data needs to be turned into actionable intelligence to help the front-line warrior.
Modern and New Levels of Data Collection
In today’s world, the military and intelligence agencies are constantly wading through a sea of data and information, from satellite and drone imagery to high-resolution surveillance videos, to communications between parties via email and social media outlets, and banking and financial data.
In fact, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the amount of data the U.S. military must sort through has increased by about 1,600 percent. Armed services use an estimated 7 million connected devices today, which is expected to double by the year 2020. So, on top of the data being collected about enemies, threats, other companies and the world at large, there’s also data collected internally through the military’s devices and labor force.
More importantly, as these new devices, channels and platforms open up, so do new opportunities for data breaches and vulnerabilities. Ever-increasing risks for data security and cybersecurity present a potential hazard on many levels.
Of course, the question then becomes: Do the benefits of collecting, storing and using this data outweigh the risks? To answer that, we need to look at how the modern military and intelligence agencies are using this data, and how it impacts their missions.
How Data Impacts Military and Intelligence Agencies
In the context of combat, turning data into something usable is referred to as creating a common operation picture, or COP. The COP is essentially the snapshot of information that can be injected into missions, processes and decisions to boost success rates and improve experiences. Military teams and agencies in the field rely on COPs or reports that are updated in real time.
Let’s say a soldier or leader discovers a new point of contact during an operation. They identify this contact is a suspect or involved with a recent attack or bombing. They can update the COP on that person, right from the field. It works like a wiki or information database. As that COP is updated, so are all the other data files and access points connected to it.
A soldier hundreds of miles away could reference that contact’s COP and see new information almost instantaneously. A general or commander could also reference that information to come up with a solid approach to the situation playing out. Remote operations and remote orders are not only possible, but they’re also more accurate, efficient and reliable, thanks to modern data.
From a logistical standpoint, data also helps with the more practical aspects of managing troops’ basic living needs, such as housing, weapons, payroll, attrition and staffing.
Where Does the Data Come From?
With all this talk of data and how it’s analyzed and used, we glossed over one of the most important components: Who is doing the collecting and analysis?
Prior to mounting an assault, formulating a plan or even doling out commands, reconnaissance and surveillance must be carried out. The success of any mission relies not just on the collection of the appropriate data, but also the efficient, reliable analysis of it. Data analysts, field agents and a variety of standard personnel are responsible for collecting data about a location, involved parties and histories.
- Active: The collection of data from external networks or information systems
- Passive: The collection of data through an internally owned network
- Hybrid: The collection of data from networks or information systems expressly set up to entice a target
After choosing the appropriate source, analysts and intelligence agents move on to receiving or collecting the necessary data. Once the data is scooped up, it’s stored and organized in one of three forms:
- Raw: Raw data is unprocessed and unfiltered, yet can still be incredibly useful. Raw data generally includes information such as IP addresses, locations, network logs, forum posts or communications and more. It is the actual data — with nothing attached to it and nothing done to it.
- Exploited: Exploited data has been processed and or reviewed by a fellow data analyst. Keep in mind, this isn’t meant to indicate finalized data, like a final draft. Instead, it could be a snippet or blurb of data the analyst in question found interesting. Data content is generally still raw and unfiltered, but there’s an accompanying analysis or breakdown of what it means and what it could be used for.
- Production: Production data is the final step in the data collection and analysis process. It’s essentially finalized and converted into a report for dissemination by the necessary parties. It may or may not include raw data, but it will certainly have a full explanation of everything contained within. The data itself has value to anyone who has access, including those not in data analysis and intelligence.
The teams and departments that handle this entire process are broad. Internally, agencies collect metrics to assist with performance tracking, budgeting and human resource planning from their enterprise resource systems. Additionally, there are intelligence agents and field agents who collect data and pass it on to data storage facilitators. Next are the data analysts who take that stored data and convert it into usable intel. The intel is then processed for accuracies and or errors before being made available to the appropriate parties, such as an individual soldier or military commander. The data analysts who process the information are also responsible for creating the reports and dashboards — providing detailed accounts of information and data that can be made accessible to relevant stakeholders.
How Do I Get Involved with Data Intelligence?
Getting involved with government agencies, military, the DOD and related companies is a long and complicated — albeit critical — process. Because of the nature of the work, and the data and content you will have access to, anyone working in the industry goes through a strict vetting process, including regular background checks. But don’t let that scare you off — especially if you’re delighted by the prospect of working in the industry.
You can always go straight to the source and pursue a career with any one of the major government agencies and or military branches. If you are a vendor as opposed to an individual, breaking into the data intelligence community may be different for you.
One of the alternate routes is signing on with a trustworthy government contractor who regularly works with the U.S. government, defense agencies and intelligence departments. An excellent example of one such contractor is DataSync Technologies. For the two years in a row, we’ve been named a finalist for the Small and Emerging Contractor Advisory Forum Government Contractor of the year. We’ve also been named one of the “Best Places To Work” by the Washington Business Journal and the Washingtonian.
Contractors must not only use and deploy crucial data collection and analytical tools, but also handle all information with great care, exceptional efficiency and continually improving accuracy. Keep in mind, DataSync is not the only contractor of its kind, but it is one of the most prominent and successful in today’s market.
The Future of Data Analytics
No one has a time machine or a crystal ball that can see into the future. But, with the right amount of data that’s translated appropriately, we can undoubtedly make accurate predictions. That is precisely where these technologies and systems are headed. More importantly, as the number of involved parties grow, we’ll see more capable, accurate and efficient data being created and processed.
Big data analytics and modern tracking systems are the solution for many things, especially when they have been integrated into with enterprise resource systems an agency, business or brand owns. You see, once these platforms are synced up, it helps the enterprise has an added advantage on the competition. Why? Because on top of everything you can track, monitor and measure, you can also benchmark and compare your internal performance to that of external parties, or your rivals.
Considering the future of data analytics and related parties, security, privacy, risks, attacks and actionable data are all components of these modern systems and platforms. Organizations, security experts and analysts, government agencies and even IT professionals need to collaborate to assist the modern data-driven war fighter as they carry out their mission.