NASA data platform receives key authorization as CDO prepares to depart
NASA’s Enterprise Data Platform should receive an authorization to operate at a FISMA high level Thursday, one of several loose ends Chief Data Officer Ron Thompson is tying up before he departs later this summer or early fall.
The authorization will let NASA link its most sensitive data to the interoperable, integrated platform, a key part of the agency’s Digital Transformation Initiative.
Thompson, who also serves as NASA’s deputy digital transformation officer, considers data the initiative’s foundational element and the Enterprise Data Platform central to a holistic approach.
“It’s our way to capture, analyze and disseminate data from the agency,” Thompson told FedScoop, in an early exit interview. “It’s not a big data store or data lake; it is using the authoritative sources and linking into those but providing longitudinal visibility into our information.”
Thompson became NASA’s first CDO in 2019, on the heels of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act requiring the role at agencies, and has worked with senior leaders to make data a strategic asset. That’s entailed much of the early work laid out in the Federal Data Strategy’s first two action plans like inventorying data and establishing interoperability standards.
The EDP is a platform that facilitates a modular architectural approach where cloud services are interoperable and NASA isn’t wed to any one technology or vendor. Thousands of datasets are being linked to the EDP across the agency’s aerospace, human exploration and scientific research domains.
Thompson is talking to the agency’s aeronautics directorate about linking the Flight Data Portal to the EDP to help with hypersonic flight research, and the platform will even include administrative, human resources, financial, IT asset and facilities maintenance data.
While the CDO’s initial focus is an EDP search capability for science data, to help citizen scientists find the information they need, his team is also working on a visualization layer that will benefit NASA’s individual missions.
“We are starting to have conversations with programs like Artemis about what we can do and bring to the table, but over time these programs really have been self-contained and purpose-built,” Thompson said. “So we’re looking at helping where we can, lightening the load where we can and not disrupting the schedules that they have; these are tight schedules for these launch windows.”
The Artemis program is NASA’s most ambitious to date, a series of voyages to ultimately land astronauts on Mars. Thompson has worked with that mission and others to build trust and identify long-term investment goals.
NASA’s Digital Transformation Initiative has many other prongs.
Thompson saw artificial intelligence incorporated into operational systems that assist pilots, including one for spacesuit glove inspections. This hardware has traditionally been inspected manually through images sent to Earth, but now a prototype on the International Space Station can compare a perfect glove to a worn one to find safety breaches.
Other efforts include training to adapt workforce culture, which according to the outgoing CDO represents the “biggest barrier” to digital transformation, and process reengineering within NASA’s Mission Support Directorate.
Thompson also works with enterprise architects to avoid simply adopting shiny new technologies and actually determine NASA’s end state, and he consulted human-centered design firms to address speed and delivery and external threat issues.
While Thompson’s successor hasn’t been named, he said they should avoid a heavy-handed approach with NASA’s missions and instead build on the “sound” strategy the agency has in place. He would like to see the next CDO improve senior-level visibility into the office’s work though.
A final point of pride for Thompson was compiling COVID-19 case data at other agencies, layering on NASA HR data and providing a geospatial view of where employees lived to inform work decisions ensuring their safety during the height of the pandemic. The effort helped ensure the Perseverance rover still landed on Mars, launch of the Commercial Crew Program and cadence of launches by commercial partners like SpaceX continued, Thompson said.
The CDO returned to the office, himself, this week, and the data is still being used to make those decisions regarding other employees.
Thompson’s end date at NASA is still being negotiated, and he may take some annual leave first, but his retirement from government will begin in the next couple of weeks. Having worked for Hewlett-Packard previously, he said he’s exploring a “bunch of options” in the private sector.
In the meantime, Thompson plans to travel with family and possibly hop on his motorcycle and “get lost” for a few weeks in August.
Thompson said he expects to end up in a “senior-level, data-related role.”
“For me, this will be a private sector move,” he said.