Imagine tracking a mobile workforce of nearly 200,000 contractors through rugged, hostile territory using only spreadsheets handled by officials who aren't inclined to share the data.
The US Department of Defense found itself in that position in Afghanistan and Iraq. It had hired tens of thousands of contractors to support its troops in those locales, yet officials had limited visibility into what contractors were doing.
SPOT at a glance
Scope: The Department of Defense has 119,706 contractors and 135,000 military personnel in Iraq and 73,968 contractors and 58,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, according to Gary Motsek, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for program support.
Project champions: Those who have played leading roles in deploying SPOT include Army Lt. Col. Richard Faulkner, program manager for SPOT; Gary Motsek, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for program support; and Niels Biamon, deputy G3/5 for current operations with the Army Materiel Command.
IT team: About 15 to 18 IT people from Booz Allen Hamilton and the Army Materiel Command work on SPOT at any given time.
Project ROI: For 2010, the estimated cost for SPOT is $21 million, which covers its operations for the Department of Defense, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Military officials say SPOT reduces the time personnel spend manually entering and tracking data and thereby limits the corresponding cost of doing that manual work. Moreover, it allows military officials to better utilize contractor resources and make quicker decisions. It also prevents contractors from using military support services without authorisation.
"We had no one managing the contractor side of the house," says Gary Motsek, a retired Army colonel who is now assistant deputy undersecretary of defence for program support.
Recognising the need for better management, the DOD developed the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker, or SPOT. The software pulls together and organises crucial information about contractors from databases throughout the US military. According to defence officials, SPOT is the first and only single integrated database containing authoritative data about contractors on the battlefield. It provides visibility into contractor movements and capabilities, accounting for contractors from the time the contract is awarded through deployment, redeployment and close out.
"Somehow you have to keep track of these folks. You have to know where they are and what the capabilities are. SPOT allows us to do all that in an automated, real-time manner," says Niels Biamon, a retired colonel who is now deputy G3/5 for current operations with the Army Materiel Command.
As a system user, Biamon knows the benefits of SPOT firsthand. He says that if an officer needs someone to work on unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq, for example, that officer can use SPOT to identify the nearest technicians capable of handling the job, determine whether they're available to take on the project and, if so, assign the task to them.
The Defense Department didn't operate that process efficiently prior to SPOT's official deployment in 2007.
"With contracting, in the past we weren't concerned with what people it took. We bought an outcome," says Army Lt. Col. Richard Faulkner, program manager for SPOT.
The military departments and divisions that were hiring contractors all used their own systems to track the contractors they hired, usually using Excel spreadsheets, Faulkner says.
"People were asking when the war first kicked off, 'Who do we have?' We had these program executive officers who would send program managers in and out of the theatre, and there was no means but manual spreadsheets to know who was there and not there," he explains. The process was cumbersome and expensive.
"As you can imagine, there was no scalability there," Biamon says.
Officers saw the need for improvement early on, Faulkner says. In 2003, Theresa Miller, a civilian working in the Special Project Office at Fort Monmouth, N.J., developed a web-based application, then called SPO Tracker, to oversee contractors.