FAA’s Data Challenge asks contestants to find and solve problems.

The FAA has a big data challenge underway. It is the latest federal opportunity for students to take a shot at some real-world technology problem solving.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a big data challenge underway. It is the latest federal opportunity for university students to take a shot at some real-world technology problem solving. The challenge this time: evolution of the National Airspace System into a more information-centric entity. For more, Federal News Network’s Eric White spoke to the FAA’s acting chief data officer, Marseta Dill on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview Transcript: 

Eric White How did this challenge come together? Is this something you all have done before? What can you tell me about it?

Marseta Dill So this is actually our second year running a challenge of this nature. Sure. And it builds on our partnerships with universities. We have aviation research grants, we have career fair and other recruitment activities, and we have partnerships with universities, as we do serve as mentors for students in their capstone projects. So, you know, our goal is to recruit the next generation of computer scientists, data scientists and engineers, and we manage the nation’s busiest skies. And we want students to know that working at the FAA offers a unique experience in a career that will not only impact the aviation industry, but also around the world as well.

Eric White Yeah, and I imagine you’re looking for some knowledge into new technologies such as, you know, artificial intelligence and advanced analytics. Kinds of aviation related challenges are there that can be solved by utilizing those kinds of technologies.

Marseta Dill Well, we ran our challenge last year. We had almost 30 teams engaged early on, and we narrowed it down to ten finalists. So, we had a team from Georgia Tech that use AI to estimate ground risk for unmanned aircraft systems in our urban areas. Using social media data, Duke University team used AI to optimize airport surface congestion and minimize taxi time. So, as you can see, students use data, advanced analytic techniques, and their curiosity to innovate and explore.

Eric White Yeah. Can we talk a little bit about the challenge itself? So, it’s kind of interesting. These aren’t specific problems. These are almost, you know, find a problem and then tell us how you can solve it sort of deal rather than other challenges where it’s, you know, specific scenarios and things like that. How do you judge it based on, you know, those kinds of the problems that they’re solving? Do those factors into the actual judgment itself and know what kind of timeline do you look at? How long does it take to figure out who has the best tool?

Marseta Dill So you’re spot on. We specifically made the challenge open ended to solicit ideas from students, and we decided to break it up into two phases. The first phase focused on defining the problem and creating a plan to address it using AI and advanced analytics. And this year, we’re asking students to put that in an abstract in submitted by August 22nd. And then we’re pulling together a panel of aviation experts to evaluate those abstracts. And from there, we’re going to narrow it down again to up to ten teams who will come back in March to present their projects in their findings. And from there, we’ll have, a series of winners identified. And what I enjoyed about last year’s challenge, which we plan to do again, is not only did the students have an opportunity to present their projects, but they also had an opportunity to interact with other FAA, my other FAA counterparts who are also doing amazing work, and they were also able to tour some of our partner research facilities where they were able to have conversation with folks, doing this kind of work in the field right now and learn about what they do on a day to day basis for the FAA.

Eric White Yeah, that’s interesting that you have, aviation professionals doing the judging. So, I guess it’s their there to say, oh, this is actually something we really could use.

Marseta Dill Yeah, absolutely. And you know, part of this too, as I mentioned early on, is we hope that it’s a dual benefit. It’s an opportunity for the students to pitch their concept. But it’s also an opportunity for us to hear their out of the box thinking about different ways to approach problems. And my hope is that these interactions do turn into something more, even beyond the challenge.

Eric White We’re speaking with Marseta Dell. She is the acting chief data officer for the Federal Aviation Administration. Pointing the microphone back to you for a second. I know you’re just in the acting capacity right now as chief data officer, but if you can just kind of give us an overview of what it’s like managing all of the FAA’s data regarding the nation’s airways and getting farther and farther up there, as well as FAA is delving into the space realm at this time.

Marseta Dill So in this role, the Chief Data Officer is responsible for the FAA’s data strategy. So, we provide data management best practices. We also oversee our data and information management order. And we also support analytical teams across the FAA to ensure that they have the tools and technology to work with data on a day-to-day basis. I enjoy what I do because it gives me an opportunity to learn about all aspects of our mission, and it just gives me great pride to be able to support the many aviation professionals across the agency, doing their day to day mission work, and in just ensuring that our airspace is safe.

Eric White What are some of the challenges in fulfilling that mission? Is there a case of, you know, do you can you ever have too much data and is, you know, you’re having challenges like this? I imagine they’re trying to find the problems. But, you know, what are some of the real-world issues that you deal with? As far as trying to make sure that all the professionals in the FAA have what they need from you?

Marseta Dill I think one of the challenges that we work through on a regular basis is improving access to data. We have different groups who are performing their work in specific areas. And one of our goals is to ensure that data created or used by one team can benefit other groups across the FAA. So part of what we’ve been helping to do is to ensure that those data sets, we have an enterprise way of accessing that information in order for us to be able to derive, insights and, and just be able to discover kind of the end to end view of, of what’s happening in the Nass.

Eric White You’ve been with the agency for a good amount of time now in not in this role particularly, but can you just lay out of how the landscape has changed as far as aviation data goes? You know, just over the past few years, just the new tech that you’ve seen and some of the problems that you’ve seen solved from challenges such as this one.

Marseta Dill Yeah. So, yeah, so I came into this world within our IT organization after working in our Nextgen organization, focused a lot on research and also in our air traffic organization. On the program management side. It’s a lot easier to work with data than it was kind of years ago. So, I talked about being able to access enterprise data just to do your day-to-day job. The Chief Data Office has definitely made that better. And I think just the general recognition that how important data is when it comes to decision making and even helping us to answer some of the questions that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. I feel like data is just a part of our vernacular, and I’m just proud to be able to kind of move us forward in this area.

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