The power of data: Data Literacy 101 course helping military organizations make sound decisions

By Eric S. Bartelt West Point Public Affairs Specialist Date: Thursday, Jun 13, 2024 Time: 17:16 EST
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WEST POINT, N.Y. – In simplest terms at its most basic level, data is information, facts or statistics that can be collected, stored and analyzed, which in turn enables leaders of organizations to make more sound, less risky decisions and strategies based on facts provided by data instead of going off of intuition.

Whether it’s in business, a sports organization or the military with money, equipment or personnel usage, the power of numbers and analytics – essentially data – can help discover underlining problems or strengths while sharing new insights and knowledge to help leaders go in the right direction.

From June 3-7 at the U.S. Military Academy, approximately 140 personnel participated in the Data Literacy 101 – Train the Trainer course (DL101-TTC), which is a basic four-lesson, 10-hour course focused on training educators to start or continue their data literacy training at their units or organizations.

The partaking personnel was a combination of instructors, students and observers coming from across the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, academia and industry. The military participants included junior enlisted Soldiers through senior field grade officers, Department of the Army (DA), Department of the Air Force (DAF) and Department of Defense (DOD) civilians, and contractors from many locations as far as Germany and Italy to the Pentagon to Army bases such as Fort Drum, Fort Liberty, Fort Carson and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The main organizer of the five-day event was the Department of Math’s Center for Data Analysis and Statistics (CDAS) with Col. James Starling, CDAS director and Math associate professor, as the lead organizer, and Maj. Chris Bingman, Math instructor, and Dr. Brian Choi, Math assistant professor, as the supporting leads. The supporting instructors came from several places including USMA’s Departments of Systems Engineering and Math to outside entities such as U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) and U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). The keynote speaker for the event was Jordan Morrow, Agile One, who is an author on data literacy and the industry and provides guest speaking appearances on the broad topic.

“The course covers the basics of data literacy, basics of effective teaching, and assessing your unit/organization’s data literacy,” Starling explained. “Additionally, we bring together many of the people who are leading the data literacy and other data related efforts across the Army and DOD. 

“This year, we also provided a Data Focused Python class, taught by the Department of Systems Engineering,” he added. “In this smaller course, the students spent more time ‘on keyboard’ conducting data analysis on various data sets while utilizing data science tools.”

Starling revealed that data literacy is essential to the Army’s mission as it “enhances decision-making, operational efficiency, situational awareness and cybersecurity.”

“By enabling personnel to interpret and analyze data effectively, data literacy ensures informed and timely decisions, which is critical in military operations,” Starling stated. “It facilitates predictive analytics for forecasting events and planning resources, optimizing the allocation of personnel and equipment. 

“Real-time data interpretation enhances situational awareness, while integrating multiple data sources provides a comprehensive operational picture,” he added. “In cybersecurity, data literacy aids in early threat detection and efficient incident response, mitigating damage and improving recovery.”

Starling said beyond the military that data literacy benefits organizations through improved interagency collaboration, innovation, adaptability, training and public trust.

“It fosters a common understanding among different agencies, enhancing teamwork and joint operations,” Starling remarked. “Data-literate personnel are better equipped to adopt new technologies, driving innovation and strategic adaptation. Personalized training programs and a culture of continuous learning are supported by data insights.”

He added that data-driven decision-making promotes transparency and accountability, which leads to building a greater trust with the public and stakeholders.

“Overall, data literacy is vital for the Army and other organizations to achieve their missions effectively and efficiently,” Starling said.

From Starling’s perspective, the goal of the students attending the course is to take the information they learned and the networking with other data professionals they mingled with during the four class days back to their units and organizations “to develop their own curricula.”

“In cases where a curriculum has already been developed for their particular type of organization, start implementing that into their organization,” Starling declared. “For example, for Military Intelligence units, they should implement the INSCOM approved curriculum.” 

A former Special Forces officer and enlisted Soldier, a G-4 Logistics lieutenant colonel with the 18th Airborne Corps, said as his unit’s sustainment officer that they deal with a large number of data, which is utilized in many different ways.

“We as an enterprise struggle with what to do with data, but coming here (to this course), I really have a much better understanding of the MDMP (Military Decision Making Process) of how to collect data, the right way to approach it, how to ensure that the correct data is sifted, how it’s presented, and then how to present the data in the most opportune way to enable commanders to make the best decisions,” the lieutenant colonel said. “It really is a science on how to collect data and how to go through that process. I didn’t really have an understanding of that. Now I do. Before, I believed it was just somebody in a basement plugging data in. But as it is, the information or data comes up through the channels where everybody has buy in.”

Working in the logistics field, he works with readiness rates, trends and looking at stock of what’s readily available for usage with asset availability.

“Due to our mission, we have to understand, like in certain theaters, what’s available, what’s not and have that tie-in to the information necessary to make decisions,” he explained. “The scope is absolute and that’s a very good plug in that’s really important, not at the very tactical level, but as you’re looking to build a rapidly deployable, readily available force.

“At the tactical level, even at the operational level, you’ve got to understand the impact of force projection,” he added. “You’ve got to understand the impact of where they’re going or the sustainment available to support them … to be able to do that in a certain amount of time to meet mission requirements, it can be a real problem or a real challenge.”

The lieutenant colonel said he learned a lot during the course and was grateful to receive the instruction and learning the material.

“It’s rapid fashion learning where you take it in, you ingest it, and now you’ve got to turn around and give it (and instruct) the next folks behind you,” he said. “It’s like being a data ambassador, going back and appreciating the data, and the efforts from our data professionals.

“This was a good opportunity to come and be immersed in an environment that stresses data literacy – a community of excellence,” he concluded.

Melinda Riker came to West Point to attend the DL101-TTC from the Defense Counterintelligence Security Agency (DCSA), where she is an Enterprise Transformation and Process Improvement specialist.

Her position within her agency of about 10,000 people is about taking what she learned this week and building a data literacy program.

“The outcome of this week … is to have a program structure framework that I can then take and apply to my enterprise,” Riker said. “(The course) provided me with all I possibly need all packaged up and ready to go to just apply it. Some tweaks are needed to our specific enterprise where I’ll change some of the data and other things, but I think overwhelmingly that this week has been extremely valuable for that.”

She said what she learned will benefit her organization “expansively” because at this time they don’t have a basic data literacy program at DCSA, but they do offer some training, ad hoc. However, her organization does offer Lean Six Sigma training where she helped stand it up for the agency to create Green Belts and Black Belts.

“But one thing that we noticed is the fundamentals of data literacy aren’t there when people get into training for the majority of people, they don’t know the things that we’ve learned this week – it’s never been formalized for them,” Riker explained. “So, I’m hoping that this program will actually be a prerequisite for the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt class to provide them a foundational knowledge, an understanding and basically drive our enterprise into equipping them to be able to reach our goals.”

Her agency runs federal background investigations for everyone in the government minus the FBI. Riker believes that getting a data literacy program scaled up for her agency will be remarkable to streamlining its processes.

“It’ll be a more efficient and a generally improved process,” Riker said. “This will mean that you won’t have to wait so long. Ultimately, this will be our enterprise supporting an improved mission of federal background investigations.”

Overall, Riker enjoyed the collaboration and had a chance to have many conversations to network with external agencies with everyone’s ultimate goal in improving the government.

“What I found to be most profound this week was how inspired I am now,” Riker exclaimed. “A collection of practitioners who are driving the government toward improving, which doesn’t always feel that way when you’re in the daily grind.

“To know that there are people pushing for good change, understanding or better aligning the governance so that it is faster and better,” she added. “It gives me a breath of fresh air to know that we’re going to be OK – we’re going to do it together.

“Every step that we make toward data literacy is going to ultimately improve, not only my agency, but also benefit the government at large,” she concluded. “This also will support DOD mandates to improve processes and that we are working toward a better goal. I think we’re all doing good, and we have a good path forward after this training.”