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Out-of-this-world success: NASA's portal draws unprecedented crowds

NASA's new Web portal strategy is bringing space up close and personal to millions of visitors. Children can drive a virtual rover on Mars. Adults can watch streaming, real-time video of important space events. Educators can adapt creative online lessons to teach American children. All of those audiences are benefiting from the millions of documents and archived photos taken from NASA's missions and events that are now available online.

NASA has completely restructured how it communicates to the public over the Web. In 2003, NASA turned its diverse 3,000 Web sites--comprising more than 2 million Web pages, thousands of databases and millions of online reports--into a single public portal. Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, wanted a single face of NASA to the public. That required a single entry point to branch into a variety of diverse audiences targeting media, children, educators and the public. The knowledge management (KM) team devised a portal strategy and asked for five months to develop the site. Instead, O'Keefe gave them four weeks.

"He really wanted to get it done," explains Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. From a KM point of view, Holm says her goal for the NASA portal was to create a robust infrastructure to:

  • capture what it knows,

  • make it available for future folks, and;

  • get people today and tomorrow directly to the information they need.

One critical factor for rolling out NASA's portal involved the server's location. History helped NASA realize the huge influx of public visitors could completely overwhelm the internal networks and interfere with the agency's day-to-day work. NASA placed its data centers offsite to keep the mission secure and off the NASA intranet.

Two partners played key roles in the portal project. eTouch Systems, a California-based service provider of content management and document management, helped NASA identify and streamline the Web site publication process. It owns and manages the underlying content management system and oversees integrated technologies. Speedera Networks, a California-based provider of distributed application and content delivery services, provides the networking, storage and computing services to disseminate images globally in a matter of seconds. Its caching capability enables the NASA portal to handle the wild fluctuations of traffic that occur with NASA's various events and missions.

"We are a network of multilane highways that expands and shrinks based on the needs of customers," says Ajit Gupta, Speedera Networks' CEO, president and co-founder. "We provide customers unlimited capacity to use at a moment's notice without having to spend on that huge infrastructure. It's one thing to accommodate traffic in terms of response time--but we had it all delivered in two seconds."

Gupta says the portal processed everyone as if there were just 10 customers, when actually there were millions of hits. Even though Speedera couldn't simulate the live traffic coming over the Web beforehand, it did anticipate the high activity. The strong infrastructure was already laid out and enabled NASA to achieve 99.995 percent uptime for its portal.

NASA rolled out its public portal late in the evening on Jan. 31, 2003. The date is easy to remember, according to Holm, because the world lost the Space Shuttle Columbia a few hours later. The first day NASA rolled out the rapidly developed system was the day the agency had more hits than it had the entire previous year--and 225 million hits on the portal in the first 48 hours.

"We had to change the look and feel of what we originally designed, which was really upbeat with a rock-n-roll Flash intro to get people jazzed about NASA," Holm says. "But it was completely inappropriate based on what happened."

Mars portal

For the Mars Exploration Rover mission, NASA had an entire year of history with its new portal strategy. The Mars portal turned into the biggest Internet event to date, achieving 8.2 billion hits in the first seven months of 2004 and nearly 67 million visitors.

The agency wanted to provide as much interactivity as possible to the public through the Mars portal via games and information. The Educational Outreach office developed creative ways to virtually drive a rover on Mars. The interactive program uses Flash animation to enable drivers to explore the same areas investigated by the real vehicles. NASA also works directly with schools through "Rock Around the World," which encourages kids to take physical rocks from their backyard and send them to NASA. The agency then analyzes how closely the rocks match the rocks found on Mars, and children can view photos of their rocks online.

The most dramatic surprise of the project, according to Holm, is the number of people who came to view the activity—in the middle of the night.

"NASA has this horrible habit of having these events happen at 2 a.m., but that's when the spacecraft arrives," Holm explains. "During Mars, we had more than 50,000 people logged on at 3 a.m. to watch the real-time video, as well as thousands of thousands tuned in to NASA's Web TV."

Within a few days of the Mars portal release, NASA had already surpassed all government events with the total visitors coming online to view the rovers. In early 2004, Mars jumped to the top search term on Google and Yahoo. Its online visitors also zoomed by large sporting events such as the 2002 Olympic games and the World Cup. The 2004 numbers are mind-boggling for the NASA portal as a whole--102 million unique visitors and 13 billion hits.

"It's taken the Internet by storm at a time when people needed to focus on something that was upbeat," Holm says.

NASA's online success

NASA's Web consolidation not only provided faster, simpler and more reliable access to its millions of documents, but also reduced the cost-per-user by more than 50%. Customer satisfaction scores--captured regularly from every 80th user--rank the highest ever with a score of 81 out of 100. NASA's Cassini mission received a customer satisfaction score of 84.

The KM portal initiative also made a real difference in the agency, according to Holm. For several months, Holm provided metrics to O'Keefe, based on traffic to the NASA portal, that he read in front of Congress to justify NASA's strategies.

"It was a way in which I hadn't thought about knowledge management before," Holm says, "this idea of showing interest in what your agency is doing as a way of validating your future strategic vision. That was one of the nice benefits we were able to support Mr. O'Keefe on."

The agency also earned a number of awards including two Webby Awards, an international honor for Web sites presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. The portal achieved the No. 2 site for government customer satisfaction and was named a top-10 government site for sub-second response time.

Need for knowledge management

NASA's portal strategy is just one aspect of the agency's efforts in knowledge management.

NASA's bottom-line product is knowledge, according to Holm. Sure, the government agency produces new technologies that get spun off to industry (Velcro and Teflon, for example) and amazing medical advances, but it's the agency's intellectual capital that provides its source of competitive advantage.

"The stuff that NASA creates is what writes science textbooks for kids and colleges," Holm relates. "We have the highest-educated work force in the U.S. government. It's really important that we capture those things as they occur and capture it over time. So when others want to look at historical timelines, they can get a sense of what was going on at a certain point in science history."

The agency's 50-person KM team supports 120 communities of practice, enables remote collaboration, provides collaborative tools for virtual teams and encourages storytelling. NASA also is beginning to examine how to reward and recognize knowledge sharing and creating a Lessons Learned Knowledge Network.

"At NASA, the knowledge that helps us do our work is everywhere," Holm states. "We take a very distributed approach to KM by helping people get done what they need in their part of the organization."

Vicki Powers is a freelance writer focusing on business and technology issues, e-mail vpowers@houston.rr.com.

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