Earlier this year, Cindy Walker was named Director, and is now Vice President, of Data Analytics Center of Excellence at Salient Federal Solutions, Inc. In this role, Walker is responsible for Salient’s Data Analytics strategy and expanding market distinctions and innovations of the DACoE to include predictive analytics, agile business intelligence and big data solutions for Salient’s clients.
She brought more than 25 years of information management and business intelligence expertise to the position, having previously served as strategic advisor and architect guiding enterprise transformation, knowledge management, enterprise data management and information sharing efforts across the federal market.
WashingtonExec recently spoke with Walker about the progress she’s made in the eight months she has led Salient’s data analytics initiatives.
WashingtonExec: In your new role, what has surprised you and what do you find most challenging about your role?
Cindy Walker: I’ve been pleasantly surprised as I’ve done more detailed research into the federal government’s recognition of the potential of analytics in support of their missions; and how, even in a flat and, in most cases, a shrinking, IT budget landscape the agencies have recognized the importance of analytics and have set aside funding or are planning to continue to invest in analytics.
You’ll probably recall that when I spoke with WashingtonExec back in March when I had just joined Salient, I noted how delighted I was that Salient is currently supporting clients’ comprehensive data sets that can be tapped and combined with external data to provide valuable, actionable insights almost immediately. Since then I’ve been pleased by the overwhelming positive reception our business units within Salient have shown me and the DACoE team as we build on their good work to deliver increasing data proof for mission impacts using that data. I believe they are embracing me in my role to work with them and their customers because they recognize the value that their customers seek to realize from leveraging our current support and their existing data to realize more value from data analytics.
WashingtonExec: Will you speak about Salient’s approach for leveraging big data; specifically, will you explain the concept of data proof for mission?
Cindy Walker: We recognize that agencies have high expectations and critical mission needs for analytics, and we understand that they need to realize measurable value for the investments they make in this area. So our proof to impact analytics offering places a heavy emphasis on delivering the mission impacts our clients want to make with analytics.
What that means is we’ve developed a distinctive offering that brings a laser focus on providing the data proof that can deliver the impact that our customers want to have on their mission, allowing them to grab data quickly, with precision, from a variety of data sources, internal and external, to answer burning mission questions.
We’re also getting the analytics design and the visualizations done in a way that the analyses can be used in mission operations on a daily basis to help our customers make mission decisions faster — to take whatever insights they gain from looking at the data so they can take action on it quickly.
We close the gap between searching for data and sifting through all the available data and actually analyzing data to make measurable mission impact. We’ve designed our offering with three key parts to enable that to happen with reliability, with confidence and using best practices for identifying the highest value data sources, ingesting that data quickly, and having confidence that the data being analyzed is right.
However, we go way beyond that because we recognize that customers need to have proof that they will get value from their analytics investments. For example, we have invested heavily in a proof-to-impact studio, which is an innovative, dynamic laboratory that not only includes leading big data technologies but also curated, high value data sets relevant to our customers’ missions. This offering provides our customers proof of positive impact on their mission before they invest a single dollar in our services.
We’ve also codified our methods and processes within an agile development methodology and framework that’s implemented in a way that is scalable and transparent to the client as we execute the roadmap to deliver the analytics. Our whole focus is on mission impact, unequivocal data proof, and on compressing the timeframe for the clients to realize value.
WashingtonExec: Do you think that the government is behind the private sector in terms of big data technology advancement?
Cindy Walker: That hasn’t been my experience. I’ve actually seen pockets of high advancement in both the government and in the private sector. Of course some of the most highly publicized advancements came early, the Google, the Walmart, the Facebook, the Amazon, but obviously in our intelligence community on the government side, they’ve had wonderful success with big data, with analytics, and with exciting things like real-time streaming of data about events that are happening now along with video analytics. So I’ve seen advancements in pockets in both private sector and in the government space.
WashingtonExec: How can companies that work with big data balance this increasing need and desire for information with the public’s privacy concerns?
Cindy Walker: That’s a huge challenge for everyone. I really think that has to start with the recognition that there must be accountability at all levels. An individual should be accountable for weighing the risk-reward balance and understanding explicitly what personal information about them may be exposed if they choose to download a mobile app or allow the carbon monoxide detector in their home to connect to a cloud somewhere as the Internet of Things evolves, for example. So I think we each have an individual responsibility.
I also think that companies like Salient, who are providing analytics services, have a responsibility to inform our clients and maintain and protect metadata and analytics on what’s happening with the data that’s being collected, analyzed, and shared and where the data is coming from so that our clients have awareness of the risks, as well as the rewards associated with the analytics.
Based on the type of data feeding the analytics and the associated risks, we can then put the appropriate security controls in place to protect privacy according to well defined policies.
That’s one reason we’re excited here at Salient to have synthesized the exciting things we are doing in the Analytics Center of Excellence with the innovations our Cyber Security Center of Excellence promotes. We see those two things as inextricably linked, the analytics with the security, especially when it comes to addressing the public’s privacy concerns.
And, certainly, federal agencies have a responsibility to promote the use of open data, like the Obama administration is doing, but obviously roll it up to a point that it can’t be tied back to personally identifiable information.
So there’s responsibility and accountability required on all levels, beginning with the individual, to the analytics service provider, all the way up to the federal agency that is collecting the information. Risk-reward balance is a challenge related to addressing privacy concerns that will continue to be a challenge going forward and will require continued attention.
WashingtonExec: The data industry is changing so fast. How do you think the landscape of data analytics will look in about five years, and what is the market trending toward right now?
Cindy Walker: Technologically, things are moving very fast, and I think that we’ll be more connected as the Internet of Things evolves, offering the potential for data analytics to happen effectively in real-time in the future.
As for what the marketing is trending toward right now, I’m seeing this coalescing of requirements that can’t be separated involving several key areas—analytics with the security controls that have to be in place, analytics with mobile solutions to deliver on any device that is context and proximity aware, and analytics with agile development practices because we want to reduce our risk and reduce our cost by delivering analytics capabilities quickly and in small chunks so we’re spending less and getting value sooner.
Right now I’m seeing that federal agencies want to reduce their initial investment in data analytics as much as possible. For example, they want analytics in the cloud so they won’t have to invest in on-premises infrastructure, and some want analytics as a service so they don’t have to invest in building analytics applications. They want to buy the analytics services and capabilities, but they don’t want to worry about tools or the application development costs or complexities.
Salient is responding to those trends and getting ahead of them by coalescing what we’re doing across our centers of excellence so that we can offer our customers secure, mobile analytics now and also help position them for the future.
WashingtonExec: What are you excited about, as it relates to data analytics right now?
Cindy Walker: This is a very exciting time in the analytics field. We’re on the cusp of doing great things with the federal agencies recognizing the potential value of analytics to help them stretch their very limited and shrinking budget dollars if they do it right.
We’re excited about the opportunity for our proof to impact analytics to accelerate that process so that we’re able to make a real difference, stretch their budget dollars, and improve mission performance for our customers.
WashingtonExec: When you aren’t working, how do you like to spend your free time?
Cindy Walker: I’m an avid native gardener and wildlife aficionado. So what I spend a lot of time doing is transforming my personal landscape by getting rid of any plants that aren’t native, and replacing the them with native plants that support wildlife, the bees, the birds, the butterflies. I actually use analytics to help me do that because I use great open data sources on gardening and on native plants. It’s this nice blend of what I love in my hobby and what I love with my work. I’ve actually gotten my yard certified as a wildlife sanctuary, and I’m very proud of that.