Data.mil: An Experiment in Defense Open Data
Major Aaron Capizzi and Mary Lazzeri on open data in the Department of Defense, experimentation, and inviting public collaboration
Can you tell us the story of how Data.mil got started?
Aaron: I was fortunate to attend a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School sponsored by former Deputy CTO, Nick Sinai. Listening to Marina Martin and Tim O’Reilly talk about the ideals and power behind open data, I realized many of the barriers to innovation I had encountered within the Department of Defense revolved around limited access to information. Finding and unlocking defense data became a valuable quest. Open data can empower DOD employees to research, understand, and solve their own problems. This became the motivation behind Data.mil. Around that same time, I landed a job just upstairs from the newly created Defense Digital Service (DDS) in the Pentagon.
Mary: I was introduced to Aaron and immediately realized he had a great idea on his hands. The DoD’s open data program needed a jump start. DDS had the expertise and resources to build Data.mil, but I wanted to do it lean. The goal was to get something out there, gather feedback, iterate, improve and ultimately expand. Too many good ideas get bogged down by bureaucratic constraints, real and imagined. With a narrow, targeted scope, I knew we could release a beta MVP within a three months, tops.
What differentiates this project from other open data efforts?
Aaron: From the start, we knew we needed to build more than just another data portal, which typically provide repositories and download links but incite no interest in the data. So the first step was to find military datasets with rich stories that could invite attention — not just post a link. We then needed to provide a place where data scientists, researchers, and visualization experts could start exploring and discussing the data, driving the kind of unexpected but powerful insights and new directions we’ve seen on other successful data initiatives.
How did you build data.mil and how did you invite collaboration?
Mary: DDS and the larger Department of Defense has done a great deal of outreach within the startup and venture capital community. We are always on the look-out for great new software and applications to pilot within the Department. We were lucky enough to partner with two awesome startups in the open data space. Data.mil is built using LiveStories, a versatile and easy-to-use storytelling platform that enabled us to craft an engaging narrative and provide context for our data. The second is Data.World, a collaboration platform for data scientists. With Data.World, we were able to entice researchers and data scientists to put our data to use. We launched our site less than a week ago and already have seen some great collaboration and examples of visualizations developed by the larger open data community.
Aaron: And to help capture interest, we started with a unique dataset from the Air Force, THOR. We selected the Theater History of Operations (THOR) database, a compilation of historical bombing data assembled by a small team over years of tedious work, to feature with the launch of Data.mil. THOR contains digitized logbooks and punch card data from WWI through Vietnam. We are close to locating the results of a Gulf War bombing survey and hope to feature it soon after approving for public release.
Mary: Yes, I think it’s fair to say that open data is not top-of-mind at DoD. In order to get much-needed traction, we needed to launch with interesting datasets that would resonate with both the Defense audience and the general public. “Bombs dropped” data is bound to raise a few eyebrows. We are very interested to see where public discourse takes this data.
It’s also worth noting, for some of our budget examiners out there, we built this product on a shoestring, for less than ten-thousand dollars. It will be extraordinarily inexpensive to maintain.
What’s next for Data.mil?
Mary: Data.mil is true to its tagline. It genuinely is “an Experiment in Defense Open Data.” We put the MVP out there and are eager to iterate and partner with DoD data owners to help them open their data and share their stories.
Aaron: Like any experiment, we don’t yet know where this could go. Beyond THOR, we’re talking to groups throughout the military on sharing anything from manufacturing and logistics numbers to personnel statistics and research data. If it has potential to help solve military problems through open access and competition, we’d like to put it up on Data.mil. And with the help of platforms like Data.World, we’ll be able to track the discussion and see how people are using our data. We’ll use this knowledge to guide our next steps.
Mary Lazzeri is a Tech Policy Advisor and Digital Services Expert with the U.S. Digital Service at the White House and the Defense Digital Service.
Major Aaron Capizzi is an acquisitions officer and digital government advocate in the US Air Force.