While reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Space Chronicles, I came across a passage that helped remind me how great it is to get the chance to evolve NASA’s enterprise web environment.
From January 3 through January 5, 2004, the NASA website that tracked the doings of the Mars rovers sustained more than half a billion hits — 506,621,916 to be exact. That was a record for NASA, surpassing the world’s Web traffic in pornography over the same three days.
Working NASA’s enterprise web is exactly what I’ve been been deeply focused on for that past year. The entire stack, from infrastructure to software services, is being examined with the intent of providing a technological refresh. Details are beginning to emerge and I’ll share them here as I can.
Without sharing the nitty gritty details, anyone working with Web technologies should be able to predict what NASA is hoping to adopt. Cloud infrastructures. Open source software. A good overview of this effort can be found in NASA’s Open Government Plan.
Congratulations to NASA’s Open Government Team – Nick, Ali, Chris, and a few others I’m sure I’m forgetting – on getting their new website launched – http://open.nasa.gov. The site uses the open source content management system WordPress to publish and share success stories as well as projects that promote government transparency and collaboration.
I have intimate knowledge of everything the team went through to get this site launched. And as it is with anything having to do with the inner workings of the federal government, this project met its fair share of bureaucracy, repetitive debate, and internal politics. I’m pretty sure they had to jump through a ring of fire, solve the debt crisis, and return the ring to Mordor before getting this site released to the public.
But as much as I could praise their perserverance in seeing the project through to the finish line, I’d much rather highlight and applaud the site’s visual and information design. As a admirer and practitioner of minimalist web design, I believe that interface design should get out of the way and let content shine through. Simply put, the best web design lets the content speak for itself. NASA possesses visual imagery that makes up some of the most compelling content anyone has ever seen. I’m happy to see that open.nasa.gov was designed and developed in a way that I notice the site titles, logos, and navigation only as the functional elements that they are; and not the design and branding elements that they are often deployed as.
I wish I could say the same of every NASA web site.
A couple happenings are inspiring the post you are about to read. First, a couple recent posts I published have questioned NASA’s ability to be transparent. Second, I recently gave a presentation at the Social Media for Government Conference that shared a case study of a project I led back in 2007. After that presentation someone asked me, “So what are you working on now?” This post will shine some light on the three largest initiatives I am part of at NASA Ames. This type of current activity sharing is something I’m going to try and share on a quarterly basis.
NASA Ames’ Web strategy
Developing a comprehensive role for the Web at NASA Ames is what I was brought back to Ames to work on. And slow moving progress is being made. Goals have been defined and endorsed by the Ames CIO. One of the key foundational building blocks of the strategy is that have opportunities for participation from interested parties around Ames as well as have a transparent process of execution. So at this point, the effort surrounding the Ames Web Strategy is to build the community of Web stakeholders around Ames with the biggest initial challenge being properly identifying who those stakeholders are, getting them out of their foxholes, and getting them to be active participants in the community. To get over the hurdle, a leadership team has been formed and we’re starting to plan events designed to bring people together, get them meeting each other, and talking to each other.
NASA Ames’ SharePoint instance
Whether I’m the product or project manager, one of my major daily activities is pushing Ames’ SharePoint environment forward. There’s a lot of activity circulating around it and certainly this type of collaborative tool is something that might help bring the Web community together at Ames. At this time, there’s a lot of planning going into preparing for an upgrade to SharePoint 2010.
Making the case for dedicated mindshare on NASA’s web challenges
This is the most important item. Quite frankly, NASA doesn’t have enough people focusing on how to make the agency’s utilization of the Web better. How can we make the Web part of NASA’s cultural fabric? What is the role of Web collaboration? What is the set of governing policies that impact its usage of the Web? What are the elements of NASA’s Web toolkit? These are all critical questions. And there’s a lack of dedicated resources to solve them. We do have great people at NASA who know a lot about how the Web works, but they are not dedicated to solving the problems. In fact, some of them are quite literally looking for signs of life on Mars. So this effort has been about defining the structure of an oversight team to serve the agency and facilitate the role and usage of the Web within NASA. It’s an effort full of ups and downs; political battles; and sometimes frustrating conversations with executive management. But it’s a critical effort. There is strong desire for a “mission-ready Web” which has turnkey features for NASA programs, projects, and missions. But making progress at achieving that vision requires resources.
Just yesterday I posted about how impressed I was with the transparency in a recent blog post from Wayne Hale. And within that post I wondered I wondered if the current workforce in NASA could ever strive be as transparent. Sadly, as of today the answer is a resounding NO.
The latest evidence is in the Participatory Exploration Summit being held in Boulder, Colorado today and organized by NASA’s Engineering and Science Mission Directorate. A set of meetings presumably about Open Government and exploring ways in which taxpayers can participate with NASA programs. It would seem that this exactly the type of event that should accommodate public participation on some level. But from what I can tell, there’s not even any way that a taxpayer could pay his/her way into attendance.