JUST IN: Coast Guard Learning to Love Data Management, Information Technology

By Laura Heckmann
A Coast Guard information systems technician adjusts cables inside a server room.

Coast Guard photo

As the United States Coast Guard defines its roll in an increasingly complex maritime domain, it must focus on managing decades of data and harnessing information technology, said the service’s top official.

“We have been on a digital journey as an organization,” said Adm. Linda Fagan, commandant of the Coast Guard, at a Brookings Institution event May 10.

Fagan said the Coast Guard has spent the past six or seven years performing governance work to pave the way for acquisitions, capability and maintenance processes necessary to treat information technology as a “capability we need to acquire.” Information technology must be acquired and maintained as if it were a helicopter or a ship, she said.

“That work has been done, and we’re seeing some good returns on investment in regard to IT systems,” she said, but “there is still work to do.”

In September 2022, the Coast Guard set up the Office of Data and Analytics with the intent of building on the vision of the Coast Guard’s 2020 Data Strategy. The office is charged with making data more accessible across the organization to empower data-driven decision making, according to a Coast Guards news release. The Coast Guard gathers data on anything from marine inspection and drug interdiction details to illegal fishing and ice operations statistics.

“We have not valued our data,” Fagan said. “It sits in databases that don’t talk to each other. In many cases, it’s in narrative form.” She said the way the data is structured, it cannot be easily retrieved or analyzed for patterns.

“So this is now the area that we're focusing on,” she said. “The IT and the backbone investments are being made and we're moving forward and a good way there.”

Part of the Coast Guard’s focus will include utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning, she said.

“If your data is not in a governance structure and in a warehouse structure … it is not providing value to you,” she said. “And so, we’re leaned into that work, as well.”

Fagan said she would like to reach a point where information technology can be harnessed to meaningfully analyze 20 to 30 years’ worth of counter-narcotics data gathered from work in the Eastern Pacific. Data exists on every interdiction that has taken place, yet the ability to analyze it just doesn’t exist.

“We’re not able to do that yet,” she said, adding that she hopes the service will be able to harness the data to identify patterns and predict where the next encounters might be based on time, day and location.

The Coast Guard’s increased focus on data and information technology extends to the workforce as the service looks to draw talent equipped to work within the cyber realm, she said. As part of its efforts, the Coast Guard recently unveiled a new rating of “Cyber Mission Specialist,” she added.

The Coast Guard has not introduced a new rating “for quite some time,” she said, “but that is also an acknowledgement of this changing risk and world that we will need to be operating in.” Fagan said making the shifts necessary to align with technology advancements will require a workforce that is trained and capable of continuing to learn.

Fagan said she eventually hopes to see what she called a “revolving door” of civilian workers who can enter on the active duty side for “a couple of years” and then return to civilian employers but continue to “cross-pollinate, particularly in some of those really highly technical fields.”

“The industry’s got the speed of innovation,” she said.

The Coast Guard will field its third Cyber Protection Team this summer and has hired marine transportation specialists with cyber backgrounds to “bridge the conversation between the ports and the port facilities … where the cyber risk resides,” she added.

Technology and the cyber domain must be taken into consideration aboard the Coast Guard’s equipment as well, she said, which includes ensuring flexibility to incorporate changing technology on cutters that sail for decades.

In thinking of where the Coast Guard needs to be in 10 to 15 years, Fagan used the example of ScanEagle, an unmanned system the service is fielding on all its national security cutters.

“The national security cutters will be with us 50-plus years,” she said. “In 20 years’ time, what is that next technology? I don't know, but we need to have enough flexibility to incorporate what that next thing is.”


Topics: Maritime Security, Infotech, Cybersecurity

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