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February 19, 2013

NASA CTO Weighs in on the ‘Face’ of Data

By Marie Lingblom

Faces and people are probably not the first things to come to mind when talking about data. But Deloitte thinks that should change.

Giving data a face, says Deloitte in its Tech Trends 2013 report, makes it more personal, helps foster a more meaningful relationship, and allows it to be more expressive. Deloitte recruited Tom Soderstrom, IT Chief Technology Officer for NASA’s Office of the CIO Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to offer his insight on the topic of data for the report.

At the outset, Soderstrom says JPL works by a fundamental philosophy that “IT” should stand for innovating together. The jobs of IT leaders, he says, are to provide the environment for that to happen—where employees can work with virtually anyone, from anywhere, with any data, using any device, at any time.

He singles out consumer-driven IT, big data and mobile as important factors for increasingly savvy users of technology. Adding pervasive cloud, immersive visualization and interaction provides a formula for innovating together,” says Soderstrom.

Assembling teams of talented, curious people from different disciplines, either in person or virtually, helps to uncover insights that wouldn’t be otherwise found. It’s human behavior that really drives analytics, he says.

The challenge, says Soderstrom, is that these multi-disciplinary teams should include data scientists. He describes these as individuals who can look at data—structured and unstructured—manipulate it, use data mining and machine learning capabilities, determine statistical relevance, and then model and communicate the results so that others care.

Soderstrom says that’s a tall order for one person so the data scientist may actually be a group of people. This multi-disciplinary approach is being utilized at JPL.

“We thought it was about giving visualization tools to our mechanical engineers, but they were already accustomed to translating blueprints into three-dimensional images in their minds,” says Soderstrom. “Those who really benefitted from the visualization tools were the electrical and propulsions systems folks.”

With the visualization tools, he says, the team was able to see the same thing together, enabling breakthrough insights. For outreach, Soderstrom says JPL puts information in public clouds in order to share interesting information about NASA and science.

They’ve also done mission-critical work that way, putting Mars Exploration Rover data in the cloud to assist scientists all over the world to collaborate more effectively. “It was secure, and saved us an order of magnitude on cost and two orders of magnitude on response time—which is critical when you can only communicate with spacecraft once a day,” says Soderstrom.

Soderstrom suggests technology executives focus on four things:

1. Redefine IT as “Innovating Together.” Unexpectedly IT-savvy people were found at JPL. For example, one librarian turned out to be a closet developer and made publications collaboratively available on tablets.

2. Use Innovating Together to make IT a consulting arm to the business. A customer focus and consulting mindset can deliver co-created solutions fit for use, he says. Besides, it’s often easier for a person to convince another person that a solution is good.

3. Start with analytics in a novel way (mobile, for instance) and develop a high “Return on Attention.” Once you have results somebody cares about, he says, then you have their attention and further investment is simpler.

4. Get started. Don’t wait on the sidelines for the “perfect” tool, cautions Soderstrom. “Be nimble, avoid big bets, and you’ll be more likely to survive and thrive.”

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