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Data: The Rocket Fuel Powering NASA

Technology   |   Alteryx   |   Nov 19, 2021

A Fireside Chat from the Alteryx Government Data Summit

Editor’s Note: Ron Thompson, Chief Data Officer at NASA, sat down with GovExec as part of the Alteryx Government Data Summit to discuss some of the transformational work going on at the agency charged with space and exploration beyond the reaches of Earth.

As an agency focused on science and exploration, it’s easy to understand that every mission and critical function leverages, generates, and relies on data to achieve mission outcomes. As Thompson describes, “data is the rocket fuel that makes NASA go.”


Every function at NASA — from experiments to mission planning to understanding the effects of climate change — relies on having access to data. Data is at the core of digital transformation efforts at the agency, and it underlies the four core trusts at the agency related to transforming the culture and the workforce, to building Machine Learning and AI capabilities, to enhancing “what if” scenario model building and automating processes.


Throughout its more than 60-year history, NASA has been focused on digital transformation. More recently, along three critical axes:

  1. How work is done
  2. Continually upskilling of the workforce
  3. Interconnectedness of the workplace


To achieve this transformation, NASA is focused on the importance of data. Their strategy is to make data available and transparent within a well-governed enterprise data platform. Hallmarks of this platform include providing a high level of transparency with good insight into data lineage, clean metadata, and the ability to catalog data assets and provide search capabilities to assist in finding relevant data. This increased usability and transparency will go along way to creating seamless cross agency transparency, data governance and analytics agility with best-of-breed tools that are cost effective, open, easy to use, and not the exclusive domain of those with specialized skills or high-priced licenses.


The unique position of NASA’s mission means that the focus on data is not only confined to the here and now and the future but also to the past. As Thompson explains, in many ways he sees his role as curator or librarian that insights from missions and experiments conducted all the way back to the agency’s founding continue to have a direct impact on challenges being faced today. A prime example of this is finding ways to safely return spacecraft to Earth outside of water landings. Another critical area that requires access to a full range of contemporary and historical data is understanding the effects of climate change. NASA has over sixty years’ worth of relevant data that can contribute to the uncovering of insights within the agency, with other agencies, and the public. Making that data findable and accessible is critical to NASA and beyond.


Underwriting this transformation effort at NASA is making sure the culture evolves to support the transparency of data. In the past, people would perceive value in the ability to interpret data for others, but the critical importance of data in accelerating mission outcomes means there needs to be a change in culture. The culture not only needs to elevate the transparency of data, but also the democratization of data and technology to support more self-service and upskilled analytics capabilities that enable every level of data worker to create insight and higher value analysis.


As NASA continues its journey towards digital transformation, Thompson is most excited about playing a role in making sure the vast knowledge base that NASA has and continues to expand upon is preserved for the future. Not solely as historical artifacts, but more importantly, as bedrocks of insights that can create footprints that future generations can follow to accelerate mission outcomes today and into the future.


Alteryx is extremely proud to be assisting NASA in its transformative journey built on the transparency of data and democratization of analytics. You can watch Thompson’s session or other sessions from GAO, the US Census and others presented during the Alteryx Government Data Summit here.