Transformation to Information

by Rick Domingo, FAA Flight Standards Service Executive Director

Jumpseat: An executive policy perspective

We must continue leaning into our role as a data-driven, risk-based decision-making oversight organization that prioritizes safety above all else.
— Steve Dickson, FAA Administrator

Photo of the FAA Administrator.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson

Data. It’s a (deceptively) simple four-letter word. We can probably all agree that it’s important; after all, the team chose data as the organizing theme for this issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine (each article is linked to below). It’s a word that we use all the time, not just in aviation, but in pretty much every aspect of modern life. If I asked you to tell me what it means, no doubt you could quickly offer a reasonable definition.

Like a lot of commonly used four-letter words, though, the word “data” has become something of an abstraction. We think we know what it is, but overuse has possibly muddied its meaning. For example, I suspect that many of us think “data” and “information” are just two words for the same thing, and we use them interchangeably. Certainly the two terms are related, but they are still quite different.

Photo illistration.

No Latitude for Error

According to one online resource, data is raw material. For instance, data could consist of a string of zeros and ones in binary code. That’s not very helpful to the average human being. When processed, organized, and presented in a given context, though, data becomes information — ideally information that human beings can actually understand and use for some purpose.

Here’s another way to think about it. A set of latitude and longitude coordinates is data, but it’s not terribly useful by itself. In the context of a chart or a moving map navigator, though, the latitude and longitude data becomes information. It denotes a specific point in space that might be a named waypoint (hopefully with a name that is easy to pronounce).

Using the latitude/longitude example lets me make a couple of important points about data and information, ideas that are threaded through the articles in this issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine (each article is linked to below). First is the “garbage in, garbage out” idea. Even the tiniest-appearing mistake in latitude/longitude data can have huge adverse consequences. I can recall at least two aviation accidents in which lat/long data errors played a role in the tragic outcome. Incorrect data inevitably skews the information and decisions that arise from it. The point is clear: in any technical field, but especially in one as complex as aviation, it’s critical to get — and use — correct data.

Photo illustration.

More is Better

Here’s the second important idea. If you want to take a trip, a single set of lat/long coordinates isn’t very helpful. While it does specify where you are, you need a lot more data in the form of lots more lat/long coordinates to pinpoint not only the destination, but also the path that will get you there. In the same vein, a single set of data — or a small set of data — isn’t terribly conducive to driving solid information and sound decisions. That’s why several of the articles in this issue emphasize and re-emphasize the need for more data. We all want to see the GA accident and incident rates decrease, and data is key to figuring out where the hazards are, and what mitigations we can take to eliminate them. So it’s great to see how the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) is using the new FAASTeam Data Analysis Tool, or FATDAT, the subject of one of this issue’s features, to gather more data and — important — to transform that data into information we can all use to improve safety. You’ll also see several other examples of how greater (in both senses of the term) data is leading to greater safety information. Read on for more!

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This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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