Renee Wynn, Chief Information Officer,
Renee Wynn has served the federal government in various capacities for more than 25 years, including a long stint with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Until now, these positions have been decidedly terrestrial. Not anymore.
How do you approach the process of integrating into a new C-suite team? Specifically, with your new NASA staff?
All new jobs have a learning curve and this one is no different. I’m energized, however, by the opportunity to work for NASA and learn how best to serve the mission. I will draw upon my 25 years at EPA, especially those spent as the Deputy CIO and Acting CIO. I am honored to serve as the next CIO of NASA and look forward to serving my NASA colleagues in my new capacity.
What advice would you give to other CIOs joining a new organization?
The advice I would offer to other CIOs joining new organizations is to be open-minded, invite and be willing to accept suggestions, observe and always be in a learning mode. Also, give employees a voice. To do this, I am meeting with all members of NASA’s Office of the CIO. I’ve learned a lot about them, the work they do and about NASA in general. Finally, collaborate with others to establish sound goals and a vision for your organization.
NASA’s mission is to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” That’s quite different from what most enterprises are striving to achieve. How does your organization apply technology to fulfill that mission? Are there approaches that could be used in a business context?
NASA is a technology, science and engineering organization. We apply technology every day from enterprise IT to mission IT. What makes NASA different is that some of our customers are not located on Earth, as they are working on the International Space Station.
NASA also generates, uses and moves a lot of data. NASA has always been data-oriented, so our support for the Administration’s open data initiatives has allowed us to see what others can do with our data. These initiatives give people around the world the opportunity to problem-solve, using data collected by numerous NASA missions, and potentially offer new perspectives or solutions.
(View of the International Space Shuttle from Atlantis, Credit: NASA)
From our Code-a-thon in 2015, 949 solutions were created by 13,699 participants in 133 cities across 62 countries—all accomplished in one weekend of global collaboration. And all the solutions are open source, not just for NASA, but the world to use. Most of the data generated at NASA is shared via sites like open.NASA.gov, data.NASA.gov, code.NASA.gov and API.NASA.gov.
NASA’s goal to put humans on Mars is creating a number of important technology innovations. Making our data and software, as well as data from others, available for public collaboration is a great way to solve problems. For example, our 3-D Space Container Challenge this year asked students to design models of containers that could be used in space. They could range from simple containers that could be used to hold collected rocks on Mars or an astronaut’s food, to advanced containers for experiments that study fruit flies. Students across the United States spent part of their summer using 3-D modeling software to design containers that could be 3-D printed, with the ultimate goal of advancing human space exploration on the International Space Station, Mars and beyond.
Every mission, instrument and person produces data. The importance of how we manage that information is increasing exponentially because it shapes how we engage with big data from a holistic perspective, rather than mission-by-mission, organization-by-organization, or project-by-project. We recently hired our first data scientist to bring a new perspective on processes, tools and analytics used to tease out new insights from NASA’s vast stores of data.
The Office of the CIO wants to expand big data pilots to support NASA’s vision. We are developing data integration and discovery techniques to further enhance analytics and visualization, and create actionable information and insight from the data. We recently hosted at Goddard Space Flight Center a big data meeting that brought together subject matter experts from NASA, academia and industry to discuss and exchange ideas to develop a strategic roadmap for near- and long-term data management goals.
Many believe that data is an organization’s most valuable asset. Do you agree?
NASA’s people and our contracting team are the most valuable assets! They are making our missions a reality, or as we say, “making science fiction—fact.”
Data is a strategic resource. Every one of NASA’s satellites, probes, spacecraft, science experiments, crewed flight missions and so forth, originate from the same goal: discovery. And what is discovery if not information? And information—certainly in our line of work—is data. Every measurement, observation, image, instrument reading—it all comes down to collecting and analyzing data. But, in the grand scheme, it means little without the people who make the data collection possible and then translate it into compelling narratives of discovery.
We recognize that we need new capabilities to address the growing challenges of identifying, storing, accessing, analyzing and archiving the massive amounts of data we collect every day, not to mention our legacy data systems.
(NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
For this reason, we always are on the lookout for innovative ways to safely and securely implement new cutting-edge technology. We collaborate with other federal, state and local agencies, corporations and organizations to create or find best practices. The agency’s first-ever data scientist is charged with the task of building the data science discipline into agency decision-making processes and beginning to address data issues that transcend individual missions, offices, centers and so on.
What role does NASA’s technology research play in
all of this?
Our role is to enable NASA engineers and scientists to do their job in the best way possible; to enable the groundbreaking discoveries for which the agency is known. To this end, we keep an eye on technology trends in industry that we can test and prototype for specific agency needs. Once we gain traction on an appropriate solution, we infuse it back into NASA. NASA researchers also need opportunities to prototype their solutions. Our Technology and Innovation Lab gives them a chance to compete for internal funding to create a prototype to demonstrate relevance for further investigation in-house. As a government agency, we don’t compete with industry; but if we can’t find what we’re looking for to move our mission forward, we’ll create it or partner with industry to bring the idea into reality.
We currently are working on a data project we call “Doc in a Box.” This technology would provide an expansive medical knowledgebase to crews on long-duration space missions, enabling them to address medical issues without time-consuming consultation with experts on Earth. And we have set up physical and virtual labs for research into other promising technologies. The benefits of applying on our home planet any resulting technology breakthroughs are incalculable.