BI Speeds Coast Guard Operations - InformationWeek

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2/16/2005
10:38 AM
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BI Speeds Coast Guard Operations

A business intelligence deployment lends a hand to the Coast Guard, whose duties demand increasingly rapid aerial response times and checks of vessels on ever-shorter notice.

Before the new century, the U.S. Coast Guard tracked critical aircraft maintenance information on two different, character-based systems that didn't talk to each other. So it's no surprise that the agency charged with policing U.S. shores wanted an integrated system, modern reporting tools, online analytical processing (OLAP), and better overall operational intelligence.

The Coast Guard flies 200 aircraft located at 26 air stations. Each plane generates a slew of detailed maintenance and logistics data critical to ensuring safety and performance. But running two legacy systems -- the AMMIS (Aviation Maintenance Management Information System), and ACMS (Aircraft Computerized Maintenance System) -- meant redundant data entry and limited intelligence output.

So the first job was to consolidate the data, which the agency did in the spring of 2000, moving it all into a single Computer Associates Ingres database. In addition, the Coast Guard replaced a paper-based flight operations system with an active server pages-based Electronic Aircraft Log system.

These were merely the preliminaries, setting the agency's air department on a course to better internal intelligence. The next step involved adding a business intelligence front end. BI software firm Cognos got the nod, and in April of 2003, a portal dubbed ALMIS (Aviation Logistic Management System) went online.

The interface is all Web-based, but the Internet was deemed too vulnerable to potential hacks, so ALMIS sits behind a firewall on an intranet. Over 6,000 users, ranging from senior officers to aircraft technicians, have access to the system. The Coast Guard credits it with saving the agency over $500,000 in its first year of deployment.

The initial savings came from a more transparent supply chain. If a part is on order, for example, a technician can track every step of the order process electronically. Once the part ships, the interface displays a button that will pull up the FedEx tracking site with the way bill number for the part. The increased visibility makes for more efficient planning of flight and maintenance schedules. Underlying the system is Cognos Upfront, the Web portal piece in Cognos Series 7. Cognos PowerPlay builds the data cubes necessary for analysis, while the vendor's Impromptu technology generates reports.

As more and more historical data is captured, the OLAP capabilities of PowerPlay become more important, according to Steve Shrum, Information Systems Engineer with RS Information Systems, the contractor charged with running the system. In February, Shrum and his associates rolled out ALMIS Analytics. "We can now forecast demand on inventory 12 to 24 months out," says Shrum. "This makes us more efficient and better stewards of the taxpayer's dollar."

The system was first deployed on the Coast Guard's new, unified, transactional database, but Shrum says performance issues forced a change. In early 2004, a high volume replication system from Dutch IT vendor PSB went into action, moving data into a separate reporting system. The data, Shrum says, stays in near real-time currency, being, on average, about five minutes old.

Currently the Electronic Aircraft Log (EAL) system stands apart from ALMIS, something Shrum and his team are in the process of changing. "Right now only data on the air frame [the major structure of an airplane or helicopter] is automatically logged through EAL into ALMIS," says Shrum. "We are building an interface that will automatically log component information as well." Components, he further explains, will be automatically "aged," which will translate into better predictive analytics for events like component failure.

All this has caught the eye of the Department of Homeland Security. Shrum says the Justice Department and NASA have expressed interest as well. Navi Radjou, an analyst with Forrester Research, expects to see similar efforts across aerospace and defense supply chains.

"One of the big buzzwords in the defense community these days is 'mission readiness,'" says Radjou. The job of the Coast Guard, he explains, is shifting from routine checks of vessels to more rapid responses and random checks on short notice. In order to do this, however, the Coast Guard needs a near real-time view into all its assets and their current performance capabilities.

This is where BI can play a central role in mission readiness. Radjou also thinks these kinds of BI deployments will translate into more accountability in agencies like the Coast Guard. Performance management-style metrics will allow Department of Homeland Security officials to compare the operations of the Coast Guard with those of the FBI, for example.

Certainly, government response to the 9/11 terror attacks is prompting the drive for more BI in the defense industry, but Radjou points out that the move was underway before the events of 2001. "The buzzword," Radjou says, "is 'Force Transformation,' and on the IT side of things, that means more BI, more transparency into your information systems."

Another buzz phrase that encapsulates this thinking was circulating at a recent Defense Logistics trade show in London: "Increasing the tempo of operations."

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