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Ron Thompson, CDO, Nasa: Mind the data gap

Data is the crown jewels of business, but is often siloed. We speak to the chief data officer at Nasa about developing a data integration culture

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The IT industry talks about putting data at the heart of business. For Ron Thompson, chief data officer (CDO) and deputy digital transformation officer at Nasa, data is a catalyst for change.

Having previously worked as CIO in a number of US government agencies, Thompson describes the role of the CDO as “closest to the top model of the business”.

“For me, on my journey, being a CDO is not just about the data, it’s about understanding how the business works,” he says.

For Thompson, the CIO role is to “keep the lights on” to ensure the business can continue to operate smoothly, while the complementary role of a CDO moves beyond back-office support and tools. He regards the function of the CDO as focusing on data as the crown jewels of the business, and understanding how it can be used for better decision-making.

Historically, Nasa used spreadsheets and duplicated data, which often led to a duplication of effort and lack of trust. Through the organisation’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, which stipulates the use of commercial off-the-shelf software, Nasa selected Tibco BusinessWorks as its service-oriented architecture tool for data integration.

Data integration has a direct and immediate benefit for Nasa, given the astronomical costs involved in space exploration and the immense level of engineering required by these endeavours.

“What we don’t want to do is recollect data we have already collected,” says Thompson. “Science is about proving a hypothesis. More data may lead to a different question. We need to build on what we’ve already collected, make sure we have historical data to see what we already know, and then fill in the holes. But we may not even know there are holes.”

In effect, new datasets collected are brought in to fill the gaps in Nasa’s knowledge.

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Similarly, on the engineering front, Thompson says: “A foundational element of Nasa is we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes.”

The challenge is how to capture all the data, some of which may be in people’s heads, make it searchable and available both internally and to Nasa’s commercial partners, he says. “Technically, this is pretty much a no-brainer.”

A data sharing culture shift

But the challenge is to get the people on board. For Thompson, humans are at the heart of everything. “We have to address organisational change and culture change in the workforce,” he says. “Change management is about the people and understanding what’s in it for them. You have to spend time explaining the ‘why’ and help them understand their role in the whole ecosystem.”

This, he says, is why culture and workforce is one of the strategic thrusts at Nasa.

While people tend to do brilliantly working with purpose-built technology in silos, they are less good when it comes to commonality, says Thompson. Equally, expertise in one niche does not help when the organisation needs to see a bigger picture to draw conclusions.

“What we don’t want to do is recollect data we have already collected. We need to build on what we’ve already collected, make sure we have historical data to see what we already know, and then fill in the holes”

Ron Thompson, Nasa

Thompson believes it is necessary to provide both the data that a domain expert can drill down into and make datasets broad enough for people with expertise in other areas to draw meaningful insights. “We need to have the ability to cut across wide and narrow,” he says. “We tend to be specialised, and not see the benefit of a broader perspective. This is really important. For instance, our chief scientist needs someone who understands volcanoes, not volcanoes on Earth, but how they work on Europa [one of Jupiter’s moons].”

Such insights require data sharing and integration. As an example, Thompson says: “We collect and study data about the sun to predict sunspots and flares that can impact [electronic] communications. These datasets are purpose-designed. There’s an opportunity to tap into 20,000 datasets in our catalogue, to use them more generally. It’s really intriguing for us. We don’t know the consequences of combining datasets together.”

Outside of space exploration, Nasa recently needed to combine various data sources to support its workforce during the pandemic. “We need to know that our workforce is not in harm’s way,” says Thompson. “We took different datasets across government, hospital beds, geographic data, where people live and where we’d seen Covid-19 cases to determine how many folks could come back.”

Although the organisation currently has a very modest rate of on-site work, Thompson says the data is also being fed into Nasa’s future of work initiative. Returning to the theme of filling in the holes and gaps in knowledge, he says the datasets that Nasa used during the pandemic are also being supplemented with diversity and financial data.

Enterprise-wide perspective

Nasa is building an enterprise data platform, but Thompson does not believe it needs a single repository of knowledge. “One size doesn’t fit all,” he says. “Our approach is to catalogue the datasets and provide search and visualisation in the data platform and good standards for interoperability.”

From a culture and change management perspective, he describes the trajectory Nasa is taking as “a coalition of the willing”, adding: “Everyone is dealing with the same pain points.”

For instance, mission directors look at large barriers such as time to market, he says. “What does it mean for Nasa to improve this by 25% over three to five years? We’ve shown what Nasa can do in a crisis situation. It can do great things when we put our minds to it.” 

Thompson’s philosophy is to start with an honest conversation, looking at what the organisation can get behind.

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