Monica McEwen, vice president of Public Sector at ThoughtSpot, the leader in search and AI-driven analytics, recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz regarding how technology has shifted the ways organizations collect, analyze, and act on data, common challenges within the commercial and federal sectors, as well as how COVID-19 has advanced digital transformation. She also discussed the federal strategies that have contributed to the increased sharing of data.
“Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to work with USTRANSCOM and I immediately saw how better visibility within cargo movement had a direct impact on mission readiness, as well as how data could drive mission impact. That experience inspired me to support the public sector in their quest to make data not only more available, but more actionable.
We're seeing disruption in the business intelligence and analytics market with cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) driving innovation that’s creating massive value for businesses. I joined ThoughtSpot about two years ago to help bring this technology into the government market as well.”
ExecutiveBiz: How has data changed and evolved in the past twenty years?
“Data volumes have grown a lot to reach the current velocity, volume and variety. There is a huge amount of data that the government agencies are trying to understand and interpret. But it’s not just the volume that’s grown – the kinds of data we’re collecting has dramatically evolved.
Previously, everything had to be in a data warehouse in order to report against it. Now, we're seeing data come from sensors, publicly available data and social media. We’re experiencing a change in the ways in which people expose this data for better decision making and to take action on it.
ExecutiveBiz: What solutions do you offer for your customers?
“After more than 20 years of working with the government on their data projects, I joined ThoughtSpot because of the capabilities that our platform delivers, making it possible for anyone to use a simple, natural language search to analyze data.
Historically, we’ve had to rely on dashboards to get insights. If you think of dashboards, they're a great way to provide a static snapshot, but they have limitations. First, they’re a look at a particular point in time, and in today’s fast moving world, what was true yesterday – or even an hour ago – isn’t true now. Second, dashboards take time to build, and they’re a one size fits all solution. Invariably, everyone in the organization will have a slight variation of what they want to see. If that information is not in the dashboard, users have to wait for someone to create a new dashboard for them.
This prevents the data from being immediately actionable, which is what agencies need. The agencies I talk to want their teams to be able to go in, ask a question, get an answer and take action, all within a single platform.
With ThoughtSpot, users are presented with a very simplistic user experience that mimics what we all have in our consumer lives: a search bar. As a result, non-technical users can go in and ask a question and get an answer back in seconds against their enterprise data repositories, without needing to rely on a technical expert.
When one answer inevitably sparks a new question, users can easily continue to explore. All they have to do is type a new search, and again, they have their answer. Users can continue to explore that data by typing something into the search bar and asking questions. Then, they can find the data element that's of value to them and take action on that.
The second challenge our customers want to solve is enabling technologies to alert users of a concern or area of importance. When they are overwhelmed with data, they don't have time to really make sense of it. Technology has finally caught up and can deliver insights to the users automatically; something that agencies have requested over the years.
ThoughtSpot has incorporated a series of ML algorithms into the platform that help users ask questions that matter to them, even if they didn’t know what question to ask. It presents the user with personalized insights into the data based on the questions that they've asked, what their peers have asked, or about trends, outliers, or anomalies. We call this Augmented Intelligence. We're seeing that this combination of search and the Augmented Intelligence approach is the future to analytics.
It has helped the agencies take advantage of this massive volume of data and make sense of the data in a very actionable way, so that they can make a decision quickly.”
ExecutiveBiz: What are some of the needs of your customers?
“One of the things that we keep seeing is the desire to put data into the hands of more people. Decisions are often made by frontline users, while executives are responsible for the strategic decisions. It's those frontline users that have to make decisions based on how the mission might be changing, so they need data that’s immediately actionable.
We’re seeing that there's a large desire across the government to enable more people to access and understand data to help drive the mission and do it in a more streamlined fashion. Government customers also want immediate answers to their data questions, so they can make better sense of it.
In general, agencies are becoming much more data driven and interested in empowering people with data. Historically, agencies would want to keep data at the enterprise level, without exposing it. There has been a cultural shift to start using the data more effectively, and I’m already seeing it advance agency missions and improve citizen experience.”
ExecutiveBiz: Do you find that there are problems with sharing data?
“We're starting to see a shift in the ways we share data. There have been a lot of privacy concerns, and to some extent those are regulatory. Data access has to conform with all the PII regulatory requirements and HIPAA.
There's also been a cultural divide in terms of using data across agencies. We're seeing a big shift in that arena. Culturally, people are starting to recognize that if we’re collecting all this data, but not harnessing it to make decisions, then we're really not supporting the mission of our agency.
With the recent release of the Department of Defense (DoD) data strategy, DoD is making the cultural shift from the need to know (i.e., information withholding) to the responsibility to provide (i.e., information sharing). Historically, there has been a big concern amongst services, where the different branches do not share that data.
It's certainly a big push to say that if you have data that could be of value to another agency, you need to make it available to them. I've seen that across the civilian agencies in the last couple of years, and the federal data strategy has language around that as well to make the data more accessible.” The good news is that the technology exists to make this a reality. Not only modern data platforms like ThoughtSpot, but the advent of the cloud data warehouses as well.
ExecutiveBiz: How will the Federal Data Strategy improve data standards, sharing and technology capabilities?
“The federal data strategy implemented a framework for agencies to focus on not only how they will use data more effectively, such as data governance and cataloging, but also put in place a framework by which a chief data officer (CDO) has to be named by every agency, so that there is a structure of personnel to help support these missions.
The DoD Data Strategy, which was just released, uses an acronym, VAULTIS, that requires data to be visible, accessible, understandable, links, trustworthy, interoperable and secure. The e strategy outlines with various objectives to meet these requirements.
From a technology perspective, we're seeing the evolution of cloud and AI, which has helped federal agencies make this a reality. The federal data strategy and the DoD strategy have a nice framework in place, but it’s technology and culture change that will help enable the strategy.
The cloud has helped contribute to the rise of the data volume. It provides the ability for organizations to take advantage of all the data that they're collecting. It used to be that if you're collecting data, and you were using something on premises, you wouldn't be able to store all the data.
Now, the cloud has allowed organizations to start capture as much data as they want. The problem now is providing access to it in a way that helps improve decision making. ThoughtSpot has enabled users to go in and get value out of the data by answering questions, as well as leverage Augmented Intelligence to help make recommendations.
We help the users cut through the noise of the data, so that they have access to the information that will be most relevant to them. This is how we're seeing an evolution of cloud and AI come together to help enable the data strategy that's been put in place.”
ExecutiveBiz: How has the evolution of AI supported your solutions and customers missions?
“COVID-19 has really exacerbated the need for data. Digital transformation is being accelerated due to the pandemic. What we saw during COVID-19 was a huge increase in taking advantage of all this data. Organizations we work with, have been leveraging ThoughtSpot to look at supply chain, personnel and how to rapidly respond to the changing dynamics that COVID introduced.
One customer, Canadian Tire noticed, as soon as COVID-19 began, bikes and trampolines started selling out. Not only were they able to spot this increase in demand, but they were able to take action quickly to ensure they had inventory to support the demand by redistributing it from other stores. This allowed them to grow sales, even while 40% of their stores were temporarily shut down.
If you think about that in the context of the government space, inventory and logistics becomes a huge part of the overall supply chain, especially for the DoD. Being able to rapidly identify people, equipment and materials, can enable them to redistribute their resources if there's a mission change.
This is a very powerful way to help drive a more robust supply chain across the government and also to ensure that mission readiness is being met within a specified timeframe. Overall, by leveraging a modern analytics platform, organizations are able to reduce the time it takes to get actional data to the decision makers.