NASA Web methods, policies, practices, staff, training, purpose

Emily,
I have not forgotten about you and NASA.gov. In fact, I spent many full days checking different aspects of what is going on, who is doing it, who it serves, how much (if any) user involvement is allowed, the level of practice shown in the pages, integration (or not) with contractors and federal agencies, involvement with young people directly, involvement with everyone, support for missions, and much more.
Your webmasters are mostly not identifiable or acting as a group, and then they are working in closed sessions and not documenting what they discuss or decide.  The worst practices in an emerging “open” world.  No “team”, no “profile and sharing pages” for content providers and web technical staff.
You were dissuading me from offering suggestions. The sense I get from seeing what webmasters are actually doing (or not) comes across clearly as “We will do it ourselves, we don’t want anyone to help, we will make our own choices and decisions.  A few people at NASA will decide what is good for everyone.”
That is a bit harsh, but more realistic than “NASA is completely open, all pages are clearly identified, every topic or concept is efficiently connected to all relevant materials.  Our goal is to help the world rapidly and efficiently explore and colonize the solar system and beyond.”
I worked in several federal agencies and have a good sense of how contracting and work is handled.  There is no place yet for an open website run by federal employees or contractors.  I have also, for many years, been reviewing the “.gov” and ‘.US” domains and all their connections and practices.  Even if NASA.gov cleans up its act, is truly an open and efficient interface to the world, the federal agencies under the gov domain are not working together.  There is a lot of “insider trading” and a lot of inertia.  It is too much to try to change from the inside.
No matter how many words I might write, or how many analyses and reports and analyses I might produce, the habits and practices are too ingrained.  Your people just do not know how to work openly and together. That is not just the webmasters, people who are responsible for content that ultimately (and often probably without their knowledge or monitoring) is placed on the Internet.
There are many generations of material under “NASA.gov”.  It has grown by accretion. That is good in a way because I have a general theorem for random neural nets that says you can always losslessly condense and compress that kind of knowledge collection to get 10 times faster access and 10 times more compact representations. But it is very bad, because it looks, from the outside, as a mish-mash of uncurated and disorganized piles of paper.
The newer glossy stuff is hiding more than it shares.  Almost no page actually engages the public visitors, and most of the private (insider) visitors.  it is more like an abandoned brick and mortar building with papers stuck on the wall, than an alive and totally integrated knowledge base and interactive collaborative environment to help the human species explore the universe.
Yes, I know. There are a lot of pretty pictures, and a lot of good things people have done. But ever time I take any topic and try to follow it (I am close to the worlds expert on that now), I run into missing links to necessary information, no way to find the authors and currently responsible people for most of the topics.  Now I know that NASA is old and has done a lot.  The total value to society is great. But most of that is NOT accessible on the site or associated sites.
When I search site:nasa.gov (“webmaster” OR “webmasters” OR “website issues”) it gives 236,000 entry points.  And many of them are talking about “physical accessibility” – for the blind, for people with physical disabilities.
But you (I am from Texas, we say “you” to mean “you all”, “all of you at NASA and its connected groups”) do not have a clear picture of the whole of your external connections.  You are not meeting all your visitors as equals.  You are not treating each person as worthy – no matter their age (particularly young and old), their country, their background.
NASA.gov does not have to do it all.  There are things that NASA does well, and its contractors and partners. But that is mostly hidden and lost on the Internet.  Is some of it coming through?  About one tenth of 1 percent of what could be possible – that is possible with current global technologies and best practices.  But you (all of you) do not have the tools, skills, background and motives to do it.  So almost nothing gets done.  A few peripatetic efforts, and even a few years long multi-million dollar exercises. Even some billion dollar big splashes. But there are few sustainable practices, and what is most missing – consistent methods across all screens and interactions.
It affects both external and internal interactions.  The employees, contractors, volunteers, associates, partners, stakeholders, supporters, families and everyone involved with someone working under the NASA umbrella or connections — they all rely on the Internet now for their information.  Since it is off-putting and disinterested as a whole, that affects them too.
I literally spend decades working on problems.  I talked to an old friend of mine this week, Compton “Jim” Tucker at GSFC.  He and I worked on the Famine Early Warning System together. It was great to talk to someone I knew, who shared the same goals and urgency to help others. That was more than 30 years ago.  We are still working on similar things.  I found him as I was reviewing the drought in California and the western United States.  His methods could help a lot.
I cannot give you simple answers. The danger is that you take a few things and try to run with them, and they hurt more than they help.  It is not quite like telling someone, “You just cut a hole in their head then go in and change a few things” to explain to someone how to do brain surgery. But close.
I still have to solve these problems for the whole Internet.  I very well might die before I even make a dent in the current bad practices. Without exception every person, like yourself, is smart, intelligent, caring, thoughtful, skillful, inventive, and passionate about the world on things they have invested in.  People care about their jobs and doing a good job, trying to do the right things.  But they do not know how to work together in groups larger than a handful, let alone in millions or billions. That (global communities starting at tens of thousands up to tens of billions – for the future – working together for the good of all) is what I have worked on for the last 23 years full time and substantially before that.
If anyone wants to contact me, you have my email. I have to schedule times to talk.  When I am in the middle of a topic review, I use every spare brain cell.  I was working on “Holtzmark/Holtsmark distribution” and “microfield distribution” a few hours ago.  I know all the related topics, the units and dimensions and phenomena, all or most of the mathematics, all the data streams, algorithms and visualizations – and it is still hard to keep it all in mind, with the proper balance of things – and try to keep in mind the whole of that groups purposes and where they fit into the world, and what that means for the future of humanity.  it is possible to tackle things of that scale.  FEWS taught me that.  Many other things in life taught me that.  And I have learned how to read and understand and use tens of thousands of complex things – and what is needed to let everyone do that.
Every screen should have a uniform way to answer all the context questions. The screen is what the user sees. These are NOT pages, they are visualizations.  The content can be of any type. That includes all the scientific visualizations.  And they need to follow basic rules.  It can be any media types, but they need to follow rules as well.
If you have wonderful images of the universe and only offer them in ways that suit the originators, not the users – that is NOT accessible.  If you put something on the Internet and it is accessible to Google type scanners and people – it is PUBLIC and universally downloadable to anyone on the Internet. But if you don’t put it in context and provide the necessary dependencies – it is NOT accessible.  I am talking particularly about high school, college, adult learners, creative people, concerned people, families and friends and partners and supporters – the global community of people who want to know about the earth and the universe, and particularly now – how to help make solar system colonization a reality.
Since I was 12 years old or so, I have been able to glance at things or study them and remember it all.  So there are about 60 years of everything I have ever seen or thought about stored in my head.  That will disappear in a few years.  But I can look at much of it as a whole – and it lets me see the whole of things. That is why I was so good at setting up the central Economic and Social Databases for USAID and the State Department.  Why I could easily set up FEWS and many other global problems. But to share that with others – not very easy.  I am good at mentoring, but cannot carry people.  I can offer advice, but few have the perseverance or urgency to keep working hard for the many years it takes to change large things.
I will keep working on scanners that can look at the whole of a website or domain, parse and organize it as a whole, then test it against various use purposes and objectives.  A website is a living thing, and it is now more the people who build and use it, than the hardware and software.  The hardware and software are NOT inanimate things, but the living product of the groups that build and sustain it, that set its practices and methods and potentials.  A transport to Mars is not a vehicle as it is the product of many people, an expression of their purpose.
Have you ever heard of Charles Redmond? His name came up a lot when I searched for webmaster on NASA.gov, but he was active many years ago.
Richard Collins, Director, The Internet Foundation
Richard K Collins

About: Richard K Collins

Director, The Internet Foundation Studying formation and optimized collaboration of global communities. Applying the Internet to solve global problems and build sustainable communities. Internet policies, standards and best practices.


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