The Fourth Imperative for Superior Situational Awareness Dashboards

29 Apr 2018

John Boyd, a Korean War U.S. Air Force pilot and subsequent military strategist, has been front and center in how we at Blueforce have thought about and designed software for use by our national security and public safety decision makers. During the Korean War, Boyd wanted to understand why the F-86 Sabre was so dominant in shooting down the Russian MiG-15. He quickly discovered that while the F-86 was inferior in terms of speed, altitude, and range, the aircraft was more maneuverable and could react faster than the MiG. Yet, taking advantage of this enhanced maneuverability required speedier processing of situational data by the pilot.

Boyd’s curiosity led to the OODA Loop, an approach to decision process that favors agility over raw power when dealing with human opponents in any endeavor. OODA is an acronym for a decision continuum that is based on observation, orientation, decision, and action. Those that can process this cycle quickly observe and react to unfolding events more rapidly than the opponent, and can thereby hijack the opponent’s decision cycle and gain an advantage. Speedier information processing combined with superior maneuverability made the F-86 and it’s pilot an ominous platform.

Fast forward to today: we face asymmetric threats here and abroad. 30 years ago it was 300,000 troops pointing rifles at each other on the Berlin border. How the fight would unfold was somewhat predictive. Today, we face scenarios where 13 non-nation state actors appear out of nowhere, break into multiple teams, and attack disparate locations at the same time causing massive carnage. Closer to home, it’s the active shooter who out of nowhere attacks in a highly non-predictable fashion. Asymmetric threats require adaptive communications, intelligence, and information services that deliver unprecedented speed that feeds the decision process for public safety and military teams so that they may decisively respond to these events. Core to this decision superiority is information sharing and superior visualization tools for the commander. While the map is an often used tool for representing real-time data, “dashboards” have proven to quickly deliver “battlespace awareness” through enhanced information content and an advanced means to rapidly sense, collect, process, organize, analyze, evaluate and exploit ground truth intelligence from the operating environment.

David Pogue published an article in Scientific American last month that struck a chord with Blueforce. Pogue, in his article, discusses the importance of simplicity for the most basic of dashboards: those found in our motor vehicles. He also laments the state of dashboards and their complete lack of usability. And by the way, there is total agreement on the dismal state of digital dashboards in cars. The litmus test for this is as simple as climbing into a rental car on your next business trip and try to quickly pair the phone, adjust the heat, and find the radio controls. Consoles and dashboards in most vehicles today are a cognitive nightmare.

Pogue offers ideas for a more satisfying dashboard experience in the motor vehicle, which Blueforce also views as imperatives for command and situational awareness dashboards for military and public safety. Simply put, dashboards should:

(1) be easy to navigate,

(2) put frequently used controls front and center,

(3) provide clear feedback as you make a change or a mission critical parameter is out of whack.

We would argue that there is a Fourth Rule for decision dashboards for military command and control (C2) and public safety incident command:

(4) Allow the enduser to construct a cognitive view that is RELEVANT to that enduser (and not a fixed and rigid view built by a software developer in Detroit).

While at Lotus Development Corporation almost 20 years ago, we were looking at a visualization concept known as “portals”, where an enterprise could aggregate content from multiple information systems using a “one size fits all” UI metaphor. Yes, the portal portrayed data from multiple enterprise systems from which employees could view data, but the value of the data collective was minimal because of the low relevance to any single person sitting in front of the screen. Many of today’s “command” dashboards have suffered similarly because the developers who built said dashboards surveyed a large population about data and data types and then mashed it all together as if the collective data was relevant to every user. These “fixed” and non-stochastic dashboard frameworks ensured the “relevance” to any single user or role was elusive. It boils down to this: decision data that is important to the logistics chief is different from the data that is relevant to the operations officer which is different from data needed by the medic. Dashboards must allow for enduser self-construction so that relevant data, specific to the immediate mission, is displayed using mission-specific business rules.

Blueforce has invested heavily in the creation of a Common RELEVANT Operational Picture (CROP) dashboard framework in our BlueforceCOMMAND product. It allows any user to construct a unique view of information critical to turbo-charge their own personal OODA Loop. This is accomplished using simple drag and drop actions allowing discrete maps, sensors, services, and rules to be constructed, and reconstructed, on the fly and without the need of developers or the IT organization. We take it one step further though: Once “gadgets” are on the dashboard, setting which data elements are displayed in these gadgets is accomplished through an easy to use settings tool. While an MSA Safety ALTAIR 5X multi-gas detector may have the ability to expose five different gases, the commander may only care about combustable vapors or HME precursors and can thereby “turn off” the other variables in the dashboard display for “this” incident or mission.

The dashboard is as important to a fighter pilot as it is to a commander. When properly designed and implemented, the Common Relevant Operating Picture becomes a reality, allowing humans to build their own relevant view of ground truth intelligence which in turn enables the OODA Loop for decision superiority. Should you find yourself at SOFIC 2018 in Tampa the week of 21 May 2018, we will be demonstrating multiple real-time BlueforceCOMMAND dashboards with real-time NVG imagers, thermal imagers, seismic UGS, laser rangefinders, MSA Safety ALTAIR multi-gas detectors, Bad Elf GPS, and more. Stop by the Microsoft Connected Command Vehicle or the Wilcox Industries exhibit to see more. Or visit us at