NASA IT Labs solicits inputs from all NASA Centers and funds projects in a phased, stage-gate approach. Great ideas pour in from technologists, engineers, and scientists as well as administration, center operations, and procurement. IT Labs believes NASA’s next IT hero can come from anywhere.
My role in IT Labs is to communicate our activities and develop partnerships within the NASA IT community using IT Labs as the vehicle. I have always enjoyed trying to span the gaps in communication and make things clearer whether it was as a high school science teacher, a flight controller for the International Space Station, or in my current place here in IT Labs.
NASA IT Labs was initiated May 2011 with the vision to engage the brightest minds across the Agency to guide NASA's IT strategy and investment decisions and identify IT capabilities that can best support NASA’s needs in a rapidly changing world. IT Labs is a small program of four people, two civil servants and two contractors with additional contractor staff for web support, operated under the Chief Technology Officer for Information Technology (CTO-IT) within the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) at NASA. Nestled within the NASA infrastructure of approximately 18,000 civil servants and tens of thousands of contractor employees, IT Labs collaborates with the CTOs for IT at each of the eleven NASA Field Centers and other IT stakeholders in order to continuously improve IT processes, incorporate IT innovations into the NASA baseline, and encourage grassroots talent to bring ideas forward and develop them in these pursuits.
IT Labs takes an “intrapreneurship” approach to IT innovation by soliciting proposals across NASA for IT solutions, organizing experts and stakeholders to rank proposals, and funding the top projects with a balanced portfolio approach as resources allow. IT Labs assumes an agile approach to project funding and management, and allocates a small amount of funding to develop ideas incrementally, with a maximum of 90 days of development before reevaluation to continue into the next phase. This approach has been well received within NASA and also drawn attention in the Federal space with process mentoring to a similar program developing in the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). The approach works within established contracts and allows for quick realization of success or failure to continue funding or abandon work as a lesson learned. This is contrary to traditional Federal government procurement which is product-driven and funds in annual or biannual cycles. While the traditional approach has merits in some instances, when attempting to develop new ideas with a “fail fast and learn” approach, it can prove costly.
The IT Labs portfolio is supported by a vast network of project leads developing their own proposed ideas, and has provided an otherwise untapped knowledge base which includes the ever-growing ties outside of NASA with academia, industry, and other Federal Government Agencies. While this method has been working for the past two years, it is still subject to funding climates and competes with other OCIO programs for resources. Funding limits constrain the number of projects that can be funded and reduces engagement with the program and across the fabric of NASA IT developers. For this reason, IT Labs is constantly evolving to improve processes and funding approaches.
IT Labs provides NASA a focal point for IT innovation. By forging these collaborations, IT Labs helps reduce redundancy and expand the scope of where ideas are generated like never before. IT Labs solicits to the entire agency and ideas are provided funding based on merit. The current funding approach leverages established funding streams, which reduces the level of effort, and resources required to initiate new ventures. Furthermore, with the network of CTO-ITs, proven projects garner support and visibility that can and has driven additional funding and realized application within other organizations at NASA. These smoother paths to innovation have empowered people with the authority and resources to make innovation happen regardless of their standing within the Agency, i.e., IT Labs redistributes power in a way that gives many more individuals the opportunity to lead.
Within a tightly constrained Agency budget, NASA, now more than ever, needs to streamline IT processes and ensure efficient IT investments. By breaking research and development process into discrete phases with tangible deliverables, IT Labs leverages a stage-gate approach that allows for the development of Enterprise IT projects with minimal resource impact. In essence, even the failures are successes since each effort provides copious documentation and lessons learned, paving the way for future projects. Furthermore, successes are not hindered by a phased approach, but rather broken down into more digestible parts making effective product development more achievable to even the less seasoned project leads. IT Labs equips individuals to lead even when they lack formal authority because they receive funding to pursue their own ideas for the benefit of the Agency. Project leads are energized because they have ownership of the projects creatively and technically.
Each identified phase: Idea, Proof of Concept, and Prototype, build upon one another with escalating deliverables that are provided in the final Pilot phase with a handover to Enterprise Services to transition for Agency implementation. It is a departure from traditional NASA project management with the intent of still meeting all necessary objectives and facilitating a smoother inoculation of new technologies in IT.
Ideas investigate a capability or technology that has potentially significant value to the users with a technical position paper. A proposal for the Idea phase is usually requests minimal resources and is vetted by the IT Labs review panel to ensure other work has not already been conducted and that the issue is worth investigating. Even prior to the stolen NASA laptop in October 2012 that received so much press, IT Labs and the review panel thought it was important to fund an idea proposal regarding how NASA safeguards mobile assets. The events of Halloween last year proved the importance and drove the OCIO for priority one implementation of mitigating tools to lost or stolen devices.
The Proof of Concept phase quickly shows if a thesis for using a targeted capability will work in a proposed environment which includes a white paper and an observable demonstration. Have you ever heard the boring slide show mantra of "Next... next slide... next..."? What if the presenter could swipe their hand in front of them to advance the slides and interface with the computer? What if you could control the lights in a room? Or the temperature with a motion of your arm? One of the projects funded this past year uses Microsoft Kinect to interface with a computer via gestures and voice. Yes, it may be easier to use a mouse and keyboard but expand the idea of tasks in a home, an office, or a vehicle where someone may have a handicap or an abundance of tasks. Gesture-interfaces may become as ubiquitous as keyboards and are worth further research. We have a presentation of the technology on our YouTube page here.
Prototypes are limited-scope trials aimed at solving a specific business problem that is representative of the eventual larger solution. They require detailed business cases and a prototype demonstration. One such example is still in work for an Agency Federated Code Sharing Library. The waste committed at recreating code is enormous and this team has partnered with the Automatic Rendezvous and Docking team with estimates of saving in the tens of millions of dollars for each space vehicle since they use similar or identical rendezvous and docking software. This is only one aspect of necessary code at NASA. Savings can only increase with the use of such a library.
A Pilot project is really the phase into operations. IT Labs hands over the reins to Operations with all or most of the documentation they need developed in previous phases of IT Labs' process profile. A small scale implementation of the solution is conducted that includes a representative subset of the customers and other impacted stakeholders. One of IT Labs' pilots is implementation of Google Apps into the firewall for document generation and sharing. An article regarding the details of integration stirred interest from the DoD. I received an inquiry from a DoD contractor and pointed him to the appropriate NASA folks to help him out.
My experience with this program has only been over the past year but, as mentioned earlier, the program started in 2011 with inspiration building into its culmination in May of that year. The original stage-gate concept with low risk timeframe and resource allotment came in part from then NASA CTO, Chris Kemp with input from the NASA Center CTOs for IT. IT Labs architects a forum for anyone in the Agency to propose IT solutions but confines work and funding to quickly halt unsuccessful projects as lessons learned or continue to promote them by their merits. Funding projects incrementally breaks big units of R&D process to make progress more attainable for the new or unexperienced project manager. Center CTOs for IT have assumed mentoring roles and proved themselves incredibly valuable as leaders to the selected project teams at their respective Centers.
This past year had the best outreach as of yet but funding was hindered drastically by the Sequestration. Agency communications began in November 2012, including Question and Answer sessions, with a target of opening the FY 2013 Project Call on February 4. A full Agency e-mail was sent out on the opening day of the call and seven weeks were allotted to turn in applications. The Question and Answer sessions were conducted agency-wide before and throughout the call to bring more awareness of the program and we started a blog page to give further detail in a more fluid form. Since then, we have also started a YouTube channel and recognize our leaders as IT Heroes with our "Be An IT Hero!" campaign. The word is spreading and the movement continues to grow with momentum gaining from the bottom and support from the top in the form of projects as well as collaborative groups of citizen activists forming across the 11 NASA Centers with IT Labs as the linchpin for funding or simply making the introductions as connectors.
At Project Call completion, there were about 40 project applications submitted to the internal SharePoint page. The applications included the technology, a rough costs assessment, major milestones, engaged partners, and a one-minute elevator pitch video to describe the idea. These videos really provide a lot of bang and help us, as the IT Labs team, to market these great intrapreneurs with their own words and creativity.
A week is spent by the IT Labs team cleaning up any loose ends on the applications and SharePoint pages and then, two weeks were given to the IT Labs review team. The review team included each of the CTO-ITs from all the Centers, delegates from the Mission Directorates, as well as members of Enterprise Services. Ranking is given by each person over each project unless the reviewer has direct ties to the contributor, for example, being from the same Field Center.
Ranks are summed and analyzed by the IT Labs team and represented to the review board in a qualitative review meeting where overlaps and deficiencies are discussed and mitigated. Generally, the top-ranked projects are funded but if there is redundancy, some may be charged to work together and perhaps, granted more funding than the established max value.
Funding comes down from the OCIO and takes some time to authorize and divvy to the appropriate parties. This year’s announcement of new funded projects and continuing funded projects came in June. Last year, 21 projects were funded but with budget constraints this year, unfortunately only two were funded to continue and five newly funded projects were awarded.
Projects will get up to 90 days to complete their work and their deliverables which includes an outbrief to the CTO Working Group. These meetings of experienced IT community leaders often stir up debate and discussion as well as additional partnerships and synergies to draw upon. Having been in the NASA community for over 10 years, I have never seen such an effective pool of people with the knowledge and authority to make things happen. It is quite refreshing and I am so happy that they get to hear and expound upon the great work that comes out of IT Labs projects. With effective projects, meeting with the CTOWG is really where the magic happens and it boosts the morale of the IT Labs participants to be able to present their work and see such rapid progress.
Just a few of the innovations include bringing Google Docs to NASA with PIV credentials; benchmarking collaborative tools across other Federal research and development organizations; creating a new IEEE standard, 1877, used in an interface that combines plug-and-play and Web-services protocols with automatic test markup language (ATML); testing RFID hardware and software for government inventory; testing of audio/video communications for outreach from remote locations; establishing recommendations for mobile device security and procedures; among many others. I recommend viewing our annual report from last year http://go.usa.gov/TZW9. The FY 2012-2013 annual report is coming out soon. With a total of 60 funded projects in 3 years, the funding provided by IT Labs for those projects is only one aspect of the support. IT Labs also brings mentorship and notoriety that has helped other NASA organizations realize potential and additionally fund or adopt the technology discovered through the IT Labs process. Can you imagine how much and how fast we are learning by distributing the leadership to a wide variety of seers? The IT Labs Program Manager, Allison Wolff, is truly a contrarian, bushwacker, and guardian of making IT better and using NASA's inherent talent to do so. She is currently nominated for a Nextgov Bold Award in IT Innovation and is an inspiration to everyone that works with her.
IT Labs is still a growing program at NASA but has an increasing awareness base among the tens of thousands of civil servants and contractors. The model of IT Labs is to solicit the Agency for the brunt of the portfolio in an annual project call. Applications are reviewed for technological advancement and project business health by an eclectic group of experts and stakeholders from across NASA. Projects are ranked and then reviewed qualitatively by the review team to discuss overlaps, additional enhancements, and balancing the portfolio. The highest ranked projects are funded as resources allow to complete a 90-day phase of research and development with a relatively small infusion of funding. Phases include an exploratory “Idea / Issue” phase, “Proof-of-Concept,” “Prototype,” and “Pilot,” the last of which is done in collaboration with NASA Enterprise Services. Each phase contributes to the testing and documentation required to roll out the product as an enterprise service and can be evaluated at phase end for further funding or abandoning as a lesson learned.
If funding is not available for a project in the project call or after a positive phase review, projects are highlighted on the internal NASA IT Labs web site on a Sponsorship page. This page is meant to provide a forum for groups at NASA that have the needs and resources to fund a project or, perhaps, can provide collaboration if work continues. While it sounds unlikely for projects to receive funding with an online billboard, the review by Agency experts lends merit to highly rated projects and we have already seen our seed money inspire other organizations to provide their funding or even take over a project altogether.
Some of the challenges to this format are hard to avoid. Being that IT Labs works within established contracts and the money amounts are so small, the projects we fund can take a backseat to the project team’s primary work. They must have approval from their management in the first place to apply for these additional projects but sometimes, those approvals are wiped away with changing priorities. The good news is that the risk is low with such small infusions of capital to support the projects. Plus, this is far and away a minority of the cases.
Timelines may stretch but IT Labs tries to be mindful that innovation takes time. Striking the balance of tight schedules and flexibility of discovery can sometimes be a challenge but we try to walk that line to hold project leads accountable in their research.
Another challenge is helping others to understand the IT Labs format and how it works. When Sequestration hit in the middle of the Fiscal Year, executives were looking for unassigned money to cut. Because of IT Labs’ shrewd allocation of funds and the timing, we had not awarded any new projects yet. Therefore, by the nature of government process, our money was the low hanging fruit to cut from the tree. While we did not receive as much as we had hoped, even accounting for a cut we received less than expected and are looking to a solution for next year. That being said, we also understand that everyone was hit hard by these cuts, and are grateful that we were allocated enough funding for the projects we are able to sponsor. However, we would like to minimize the risk of this happening in the future and are gearing up to start our project call as soon as we hit FY 2014.
In the three years of operation, IT Labs has funded close to 60 projects with great results. All of this work has also been recognized outside the federal government in the form of awards. Namely, FedScoop named IT Labs the “Federal IT Program of the Year” for 2012 and most recently, IT Labs was nominated as an Innovation Honor Laureate by Computerworld.
There are many examples of successes so I will just name a few. A project done in inventory at Langley Research Center with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) received seed money from their center operations and additional seed funding for testing from IT Labs. Results showed reduced time and money spent looking for lost items as well as decreasing the number of lost items. Before this technology use, the inventory cycle finished just in time to do it again for the next year. RFID technology was tested and received so favorably that the required presentation to NASA’s network of Center CTO-ITs escalated from an Agency Facility presentation to the Federal Facility Council across all Federal Government organizations.
Another successful project was the introduction of Google Apps to NASA with PIV credentials. Many things were learned through this process and how to implement in the government space. Someone from DoD read about it in a SecureIDNews article “PIV-enabling Google apps” and requested more information for his purposes. Where that went, I am probably not in a need-to-know position.
Additionally, a project was conducted that introduced social media interface techniques such as those employed by Facebook to make mission operations and communications easier. This is something that could apply to many such communications networks like those of 9-1-1 dispatch operators to reduce stress and assure better relay of information. This project was presented at the 2012 SpaceOps Conference in Stockholm, Sweden and received "Top 10%" recognition for the submission. http://tinyurl.com/SimplerOps-SO2012-Paper
And a project for this year aims to digitize the paper contract keeping system across NASA. Every IT Labs Project Call proposal requires a 1-minute elevator pitch video. Watch the Paperless Contracting Initiative proposal video here at our YouTube channel goo.gl/on2U4j. While this is a government mandate to reduce paper record keeping, IT Labs is providing funding to meet the requirement and also prove a more efficient method of managing development of new technology. Our hope is that our method will check all the appropriate boxes and show a more streamlined way of doing so.
Many other projects are described in our annual report for FY 2011-2012 http://go.usa.gov/TZW9 with our latest report coming out this Summer. We will post the report once it has been approved for release on our Google+ page goo.gl/R5UkRt.
Connect, communicate, engage. These three things have been critical to the success of IT Labs. Anyone can purport to be the center of the universe in their area but no one can be an island in innovation. Having the established network of CTO-ITs across the NASA Field Centers has been critical to the success and authority of IT Labs. They are a very supportive group, wanting to see innovation in their own circles, and well networked at their own Centers. With a discipline such as IT across an agency as large as NASA, having a group of people in touch with all those pockets is crucial. Furthermore, being able to connect like ideas across varying Centers builds cohesion that imparts roots of stability not only for the projects but also for the program. Roots also extend outside NASA into industry and academia which broadens our knowledge base and opens opportunities for even faster growth.
Secondly, getting across the message is daunting but must be done. Agency-wide emails are common fodder for the trash bin in many cases so multiple methods of communication are required. Again, the network of CTO-ITs is very important. Getting people to the blog I write can open up some minds on what is going on here. To further our reach, we are planning for streamed presentations of our “IT Heroes,” the project leads, sharing their work and the applications in the coming months.
Lastly, everyone is busy so getting people’s engagement is the most challenging of all. I am not a salesman but I can sell a product I believe in. IT Labs falls in that category of getting work done, giving empowerment and excitement to those who are ready to geek out on something to benefit NASA but do not have the resources to do so, and making a tangible difference in not only the IT environment but the culture and climate of accepting new ways of doing business. Engagement will hopefully increase as we fund more projects, highlight more work including any work at NASA that is innovation and IT-related, and execute noticeable change in IT. Providing short presentations of the work will also likely generate excitement and give people a better glimpse of our cause and benefits they will see through our methods.
Allison Wolff, Program Manager
Joel Abraham, Project Coordinator
Jason Duley, Project Coordinator
Kevin Rosenquist, Communications & Partnerships
|A Dozen Agencies Produced 19 Finalists for Tech Innovation Awards||Nextgov||Nextgov, Bold Awards||7/30/2013|
|Nextgov Bold Awards Finalists Announced||Yahoo!||Yahoo! Finance||7/30/2013|
|IT Labs: Improving Information Infrastructure (PDF, 8.5 MB)||NASA||IT Talk (Volume 3, Issue 2; April - June 2013)||4/1/2013|
|Congratulations to the 2013 Computerworld Honors Laureates||Computerworld||Computerworld, Honors Program||3/19/2013|
|PIV-enabling Google apps||SecureIDNews||SecureIDNews, NASA aims for the cloud||1/28/2013|
|IT Labs - Call for Projects||NASA||OCIO, IT Talk Spotlight||1/1/2013|
|FedScoop 50 Q&A: Graves, Wolff, Calabrese||FedScoop||FedScoop, Events||12/18/2012|
|Wrap-Up: 2012 FedScoop 50 Awards||FedScoop||FedScoop, Events||11/29/2012|
|IT Labs: Fueling Innovation (PDF, 3.6 MB)||NASA||IT Talk (Volume 2, Issue 4; October - December 2012)||10/1/2012|
|IT Labs @ Langley Research Center (PDF, 3.6 MB)||NASA||IT Talk (Volume 2, Issue 4; October - December 2012)||10/1/2012|
|Failure is an Option||GovLoop||GovLoop, NextGen Lightning Speakers||5/29/2012|
|NASA ARC Internal Memo: NASA IT Labs First Annual Project Call||NASAHackSpace||NASAHackSpace, Crowdsourcing||5/16/2012|
|On the Lookout: JSC’s Search Enhancement Team (PDF, 8.6 MB)||NASA||IT Talk (Volume 2, Issue 2; April – June 2012)||4/1/2012|
|NASA’s Federal Personal Identity Verification (PIV) Credential Teams Up with Google Apps (PDF, 8.3 MB)||NASA||IT Talk (Volume 2, Issue 1; January – March 2012)||1/1/2012|
|NASA Tests New Smart Card Access To Google Apps||RedOrbit||RedOrbit, Space||12/12/2011|