Data Strategy

NASA's Out of This World Approach to Data Management

The latest in our CDO Magazine interview series features a conversation with Ron Thompson of NASA as we discuss transparency in data.

Accelerating Digital Transformation at NASA

Ron Thompson, NASA's Chief Data Officer (CDO) and Deputy Digital Transformation Officer, talks to Syniti's Chief Customer Officer Leonard Maganza about how digital transformation initiatives at NASA are reshaping how their workforce works and understands what they do. With data at the heart of the transition, NASA's first CDO improves the agency’s hindsight, insight, and foresight by making information transparent and accessible. 

Using Data as NASA's Secret Rocket Fuel 3.11 

For Thompson, the study of the earth and space represents an inherent curiosity in all of us. “It’s really in the heart of us as humans,” he says. “We want to continue to explore, to have a thirst for knowledge, and answer questions...That’s really the scientific nature of NASA.” 

Despite working with some of the brightest minds science can offer, when it comes to the role of the Chief Data Officer, Thompson doesn’t consider his focus to be that different from any other organization.  

“In a lot of regards, it’s not that unique from many other federal agencies and commercial organizations," Thompson admits. “My role is really to help catalog, to help identify, and to help have an anthology in place through where we can inter-operate as an agency,” says Thompson.  

Just take one of NASA’s latest satellites, Landsat 9. After studying the earth for over five decades, this satellite has gathered quite a bit of data just on its own. With over 50 years of collected observation data, it’s easy to imagine the sheer volume that Thompson and his team manage.   

"We have engineering data that is in the paper format that we do have to digitize, we have to catalog, we have to make findable,” says Thompson. “That historical, 50-year experiment that we did – we don’t want to lose it!” 

To avoid repeating the same mistakes when working with commercial partners in the past, Thompson’s team is working to make all the agency’s information available - paper format or not.  

“We’re going through that cataloging, digitization effort through the agency, working with our engineering community, to make sure we don’t lose that historical knowledge and make sure we catalog that,” Thompson explains.  

“We have over 32,000 data sets that are open data now for anybody to access,” remarks Thompson. “But we really need to take a look at how we catalog that, how we make it available to the public, and how it is searchable,” says Thompson.  

In partnership with NASA’s scientific and engineering community, Thompson’s team is using this observation data of the earth to make that happen. “We’re going to show up differently on how we make that available to our scientists and the public,” he says proudly.  

Think Globally, Act Locally 

The culture aspect of thinking globally and acting locally is something that Thomspon lives by. “Within NASA it’s very complex; we have multiple domains. Aeronautics, human exploration, we have our scientific community, our safety community, and our space tech community,” he explains.  

So just why is it so important for CDOs to look at the organization’s culture and how it works? Thompson’s team works with NASA’s chief scientists to improve the cross-disciplinary exchange of things and information. Even though organizations like NASA encompass world-class experts in their field, “working as an enterprise is not something that is first needs to be a priority,” Thompson explains.  

“As our body of knowledge becomes very, very complex, we tend to compartmentalize and be experts in certain things,” he says. But as NASA’s CDO, Thompson challenges himself and his team to think a little bigger.  

“My role is to think globally as an organization, and I would argue think globally across the federal government and commercial space as well,” he says. “Think globally, and act locally.”  

Transparency in Data for the Next-generation Workforce 

Showing up with transparency upfront is an important tenet to Thompson’s data management strategy. 

We need to think about our next-generation workforce,” Thompson advises. “They’re demanding that we actually be transparent in what we do and really understanding the context of the why.”  

It's not simply about cataloging and making information available or scanning paper forms. Organizations and CDOs need to make sure that transparency into the data and the work is made a priority, built into the company and its interoperability standards. 

“Because you never know what kind of questions, you’ll be able to solve when you mash up the datasets together,” he says. “And we have to do this in a very secure and safe way.” 

Watch the entire interview between Leonard and Ron here.

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