Can the UK be a big data leader in the military?

Modern survelliance could save money and troops

The British military has long been one of the most active armed forces in the world, but is now having to consider its strategies more carefully than ever under increasing financial restrictions.

Meanwhile, against this political and economic backdrop, the realm of technology is currently experiencing a huge growth in storage capacity, data collection and computing power. The modern world generates a staggering volume of data and the capacity to store, broadcast and compute this information continues to grow exponentially.

One recent estimate from analysts at IDC suggests that the installed capacity to store information had reached 2.5 zettabytes (2.5 x 1021 bytes) in 2012, with this doubling every two years and set to increase by fifty times between 2011 and 2020.

The term 'big data' is one we've all heard before and arguably the most important global trend of the coming decade.

Defence sector tapping into big data

The commercial sector is increasingly exploiting these vast quantities of data in a variety of ways, from sophisticated market analysis that allows precisely targeted advertising, to the real-time analysis of financial trends for investment decisions and ultimately to completely new business models.

In the defence sector, the rise of sensors for telemetry, surveillance and beyond brings the internet of things to the battlefield and operational arena. Adopting big data analytics already used by the commercial sector could help save money and troops for the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

In a report commissioned by EMC and published by the Royal United Service Institute earlier this year, a number of recommendations were made that outline the consequence of not dealing effectively with these challenges, including loss of life and operational failure.

One of those recommendations centred on the need for the UK to have a coherent strategy that pieces this staggering wealth of data together and has the potential to make Britain a global leader even as the US and Australia pursue their own defence big data strategies.

A better use of information could streamline and improve the armed forces' effectiveness; operationally and financially. Big data analytics technologies are a fast-developing field and these tools are crucial components in dealing with the information overload the private sector and defence industry is facing.

Data in action

Consider the following scenario that could take place in the security sector: The volume of data produced by the burgeoning number of unmanned systems - a medium altitude, long endurance system such as Reaper MQ9 or Watchkeeper, for example, can collect the equivalent of 20 to 40 laptops' worth of data per sortie.

Much of this information is only retrospectively analysed. In these circumstances, can we be sure of extracting the maximum value and insight from this data, and not missing that vital 'needle in a haystack' until it's too late?

Over recent years, with an ever-growing reliance on network-centric operations, governments including the US and the UK have allocated significantly increased budgets to improving their ability to collect intelligence, largely as a response to the demands of both the changing nature of global terrorism and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This intelligence data gains value exponentially as our capacity for analysing it advances; in this context it is of note that a recently retired senior US military intelligence officer assesses that 95 per cent of battlefield video data is never viewed by analysts, let alone assessed.

An opportunity awaits

With the capability to point organisations in the right direction, analytics can also save money and manpower. The Chicago Police Department is another example of an organisation that has found great success in using data analytics to predict where shooting and violent crimes will occur.

By deploying officers and assets to these locations, the city of Chicago has reportedly seen a decline in homicides and criminal activity in past months. Several pilots are happening in the UK. Imagine applying this to battlefield operations using surveillance data.

Big data analytics has a potentially significant role in helping to manage the data deluge and assisting analysts in focussing their efforts. Of course there will be complexity and challenges; in preparing infrastructure, changing mindsets, introducing skills and understanding, and in ensuring that use of big data is handled responsibly and sensitively with regards to individual privacy and protection.

The MoD should build on the huge investments being made in this area by the commercial sector and in doing so ensure it is well-positioned to track and exploit further commercial technological developments as and when they occur.

In modern combat scenarios a data scientist helping interpret and analyse data could save many more lives than a hundred troops on the ground.

  • James Petter is the Vice President & Managing Director UK & Ireland at EMC.