NASA Internal Memo: One NASA Web Portal

"NASA's Office of the Chief Information Officer, and the Office for Public Affairs, have been directed by the Administrator to bring all public Web content and sites into the portal infrastructure and operate them through the portal's editorial process.

All NASA officials who publish, maintain, or fund such Web content are to work with the portal management team to migrate their content into the portal. NASA offices planning to develop new public content should plan to do so within the portal infrastructure."

Editor's note: Bravo!



Comments? Send them to

nasawatch@reston.com

Your comments thus far:


[NASA GSFC] Like almost anything else NASA does, this is a mixture of common sense, enlightened policy, megalomania, and sheer ignorance. It is only common sense to let Web users have a similar "look and feel" especially for top-level (e.g. Exploration, Life on Earth, &c. or Centers) NASA pages, and it's great that with the enforcement comes Section 508 (accessibility) enforcement for the benefit of people using non-standard Web browsers, e.g. because of physical disability.

The megalomania comes into view when you see that the folks behind this have left a bit trail describing "Web management" in organizational management terms, rather than in technical management terms. That has led them to standardize on standards-breaking technologies such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and frankly is a fair example of what's still broken about our "corporate culture," though thankfully not one liable to risk anyone's life.

The sheer ignorance is the top-down view of how and what NASA communicates, and that by far the best way to communicate is not via slick, policy-driven pages but by scientific and engineering results pages that show the excitement of the folks building the hardware, doing the science, and telling their fellow taxpayers (and everyone else on the planet) about it, particularly when they do the communicating themselves. The MER and Cassini Websites are perfect examples --- and they're the ones that get the zillions of hits, not the "To Worlds Beyond" Exploration page, with its link after link of reports, org charts, and even the President's and Administrator's statements. Aside from industry insiders, who really cares about such stuff? When people actually finally do go to those places and make those unexpected discoveries, that's when the Exploration pages will get the billion hits.

Joe Gurman
NASA civil servant

Editor's note: The depressing aspect of this note is not the first two paragraphs - but rather the last one: "who really cares about such stuff?" You can argue about whether a common or a distributed approach to running NASA's web activities is the wisest - but If the agency's employees exhibit this arrogant ambivalence to the need to involve the people who pay their salaries (taxpayers) and those who make space policy, then the agency has a real serious problem - one which I doubt is going to be fixed any time soon. Indeed I find it troubling that this person works for NASA.


[NASA JSC] An instructive bit of NASA history?

I heartily agree with Mr. McDowell's assessment regarding the current problems with the NASA websites, and another reader's '5th grade book report' observations regarding the bland, dumbed-down content of most NASA sites. If the one-portal initiative helps to fix these problems, that'll be a step in the right direction. But that's more a matter of making NASA's Public Affairs 'engine' better (and less condescending), a big enough challenge by itself. Perhaps, Keith, you ought to start a fourth comments page on that

However, back to the one-web-portal issue. I would offer a tidbit of NASA history that might illuminate a serious danger in such an undertaking:

A number of years ago, I was an instructor at one the centers and was tasked with developing an introductory briefing for new hires. The subject matter is unimportant, but it was medium-technical, and it was to be one of about 40 or so briefings that were collectively geared toward explaining, generally, what the center (and NASA) did. (Most of the other briefings had been taught for two or more years).

Roundabout this time as well, a new group had been established in the training directorate the Instructional Design section who were brought in to help the instructors (most of whom were engineers like me) more effectively teach and train our students. My briefing was targeted to be the first developed from scratch under the purview of the instructional designers. I would bring forward the technical material, my ID counterpart would suggest how to make the briefing as effective as possible. Neat idea.



Unfortunately, a problem had developed across those 40 intro briefings that the ID people were directed to fix the depth of content was all over the map. One briefing described how the spacecraft went up, orbited, then came down, while three briefings later the students were learning which switches to throw when executing particular abort options and the critical velocities that differentiated one abort option from another(!).



So, the ID supervisors had directed the IDs to standardize all the briefings. But since many of the ID people weren't engineers and knew very little about the briefings' diverse technical content, the ID people were wasting their substantial instructional design talents standardizing what they could: the color of the transparencies, the format of the transparencies, the font (and font size) on the transparencies, the headings on the transparencies, and the overall briefing structure. While my assigned ID and I together came up with some very innovative and interesting ideas, the ID management kept rejecting them since they didn't conform to 'the standards.' (Ironically, what they were out to do would have made every single briefing all forty of them look and feel identical. As any instructional designer will tell you, that will guarantee ineffectiveness through disengagement of student interest (i.e., zzzzzzz) Was it any surprise that ID management eliminated the How to Give an Effective Briefing lecture from the series?).



I was obnoxious enough to politely thumb my nose at the insanity (did I mention I no longer work there?), and together the ID and I built the briefing the way we thought best. For years, it has consistently been rated by the students as one of the top three of the entire introductory series. Imagine that.



SO, when NASA goes about imposing 'standards' on both its internal and external information flow (as in the web-portal), let's insist they do it smart to ensure efficient access to all information (sure, mention the Vision on all the main sites, and fix the search engine big-time), but NOT let them 'standardize out' the creativity of such a diverse organization simply because those doing the standardization don't understand what they're talking (or webbing) about. After all, it's OUR space agency.


[NASA JSC] Keith; you should know by now that Google (advanced search) will get you to the best sites (NASA or other) after only very little effort. What one needs is some key phrase or other (like Mars Meteorite Compendium, or ALH84001, or such) and off it goes. No problem. I hope the new NASA Portal, or whatever, has a site map, doesn't stiffle creativity, and works as well as Google.

Just Google it!





I am tired of being thrown meaningless "fixes" to help NASA become the new NASA, the friendlier NASA.

Claiming that NASA is doing better by creating a "One NASA" web portal is like saying Saddam is more humanitarian because he got a haircut and trimmed his beard.

NASA - you want to prove to us, the people of the United States of America, that you are fixing things then let go of your death grip on access to space. Do something bold and actually commercialize that bloated behemoth the International Space Station.





[NASA MSFC] Add to this the mandates that all public display booths will have to look alike to achieve that "One NASA" goal and that individual programs have been instructed NOT to use recognizable logos other than the NASA meatball.

God, when is this going to end?

Our first step into the "One NASA" realm meant that all civil servant email addresses had to change to simply include 'nasa', instead of also listing the individual Center. This change has been abysmal as the Center title in the address was of great help to us...but that doesn't seem to matter.

I, for one, believe that NASA management has much more important things to deal with than worrying about stuff like this.

Please post anonomously.


[NASA KSC] anonymous please...

I would not take any pronouncement on web standardization under "One NASA" as anything other than the usual bureaucratic control tendency / paranoia. The result will not be improved communication to diverse audiences, for a simple reason. The term "operate them through the portals editorial process" is a clear indication of a mentality of herding cattle and treating all information in such a diverse agency as if it could possibly be siphoned through one gate. The key words to look for that would have given this some hope of improvement would have been terms like "seeking to help everyone improve on their web content" or "providing a process that recognizes the continuous dissemination on a daily basis from this agency to a range of public, technical, engineering, educational, academic, scientific and managerial audiences". One must recall a term used once to describe the stagnation of Chinese and Arabic empires and cultures beginning in the 16th century (and lasting in it's consequences it could be said to this day)...they had developed "efficient" civil service structures, unlike the West, that flowed information from the top down very well indeed...

Consider too...DoD has already turned most of the National Press into a DoD cheering (or apathy) society because it finally got it's act together in understanding and CONTROLLING information and media to the public. Hard hitting press, journalism, investigation, analysis...are all dead on the subject of DoD, Iraq, militarism, or any activity DoD undertakes nowadays thanks to savvy public affairs and media controls that have taken about 25 years to evolve. Never confuse "control information flow" with "improve information flow". Like Orwell would say ...it's the Ministry of Peace...




Keith -

I completely agree with the other critics who have posted. You yourself have complained in the past about excessive control from HQ over the release of information. I fear this process will impede the simple process of publishing web content and thus greatly reduce the amount of public information available from NASA, and make it much harder to find what information does leak out. One part of the memo you don't quote says:

"Implementing the vision requires us to communicate it to a broad audience. Dramatic and engaging, the One NASA Web Portal offers the broadest, most comprehensive view of our work, communicating directly with general audiences, i.e., the public, students, educators, and kids."

I interpret this to mean:

"We public affairs people, who were all humanities majors in college, are only interested in communicating dumbed-down, sound-bite, glitzy, non-technical information that any science undergraduate will find frustratingly inadequate. We are scared that other parts of NASA might actually put out information that has real content."

I think the Portal probably does a great job of reaching what they call a "general" audience. But PAO assumption tends to be that that is the *only* audience they need to reach. Not only is there a broad technical audience in the US and the world which is strongly interested in NASA, but many NASA web sites serve as a key communication method between NASA and the academic scientific community. These sites are and must be 'public' in the sense that they can't be internal-only, both because they must reach researchers outside NASA and because the process of science is an open one which must be made as accessible as possible to outsiders. However, they must not be under the control of 'public affairs' who do not have the background to understand what is being attempted. And since the territory in between these science sites and the true public-affairs sites is a grey continuum rather than a sharp divide, I conclude that the correct approach is to continue to give broad latitude to content providers at lower levels of nasa.gov and respect their own judgements, within broad guidelines and while providing them with easy tools to fit their content within broader schemes when appropriate.

This is part of a bigger picture: if "One NASA" means "Every tiny decision has to be signed off on by Sean", we're in trouble. The true "One NASA" should discourage turf wars without stifling individuality, otherwise all your talent will leave the agency.

As someone else pointed out, the strength of the web is distributed, easy-to-create content, and my experience has been that all the best sites on nasa.gov have been semi-unofficial ones that would be crushed by the proposed process. Further, I find it extremely hard to find information starting from www.nasa.gov and drilling down, while the search capability seems very ineffective (and does not display well under Mozilla). BY ALL MEANS LET US IMPROVE THE INDEXING AND SITE-MAPPING OF NASA.GOV. BUT DEVELOP A DISTRIBUTED METHOD TO DO THIS, NOT A CENTRALIZED ONE.

It does make sense that the main front pages of the centers and the major projects should have their format and content coordinated. But deeper in the hierarchy, there should just be lightweight guidelines about how to link upward and register their page so that the upper layers can link down. Anything more than that will be counterproductive. There are a lot of talented people in NASA , and some not so talented ones. Overcontrol will stop the former from keeping the public informed and won't fix the quality of content from the latter.

Each major component of NASA (big project, mission line, etc) should have someone whose job it is to fix problems like the missing links you complained about. But saying that all NASA web content has to be tightly controlled from the center and put in a uniform format is simply insane.

- Jonathan McDowell

Editor's note: The problem, Jonathan, is that NASA's field centers publish whatever they damn please on their websites - much in the same way that they manage what they do on a regular basis. In so doing, they regularly go out of their way to ignore the accomplishments of other field centers. Recently, the Administrator of NASA had to go so far as to order the field centers to link to the new space policy issued by the President of the United States. Six months after the President issued that directive, three quarters of the field centers hadn't even bothered (or cared) to post a link to this policy on their home page. That really does not indicate common support for that policy if you ask me. The propensity for letting diversity reign insofar as NASA web content goes is great. But it now needs to be tempered with some direction from the leadership of the agency. If NASA cannot get a consistent message out on its websites it is not going to complete the vastly more complex task of realigning itself to actually implement the President's new space policy.

Reply to Keith:

- Let me be clear that I do believe it is essential that the NASA centers do a better job of playing nice together. And clearly they have failed so badly at this that it is time for HQ to assert some degree of control (which I did say was appropriate for the top-level pages). But the memo as drafted sounds like the pendulum is going to swing too far the other way, into micro-management.


(anonymous, please)

NASA web sites are indeed in need of an overhaul. However I do not think there is any "conspiracy" of "apathy, dunces or ... ignorance". It is, however, reflective of what I have seen NASA software development to be: sloppy and devoid of any standards that commercial software companies employ. Bureaucratic documentation is the emphasis, not sensible maintainability.

In tragic irony, the CAIB report was a clear, readable document that explained cogently a complex program. It seems being "under the gun" creates the best information. Perhaps HQ saw those websites and realize that surfing taxpayers are thinking, "if their HTML is this awful, what is their serious code like?"


[NASA JPL] Yeah sure, centralized authority will make everything great!

I'll have to agree with others that this is a bad idea. We've spent too many thousands of dollars already here at JPL conforming thousands of Web pages to the latest directive from Washington. They look good, but they looked just fine before and too much effort was distracted from adding new content. It would be far better to pass out some visible awards to those doing exceptional work to motivate others, and pass to along complaints such as your astronaut biography issue.

JPL supervisor


[Reporter] For years NASA's main website, as well as its center and research sites, have been frustrating to navigate, and its "search" function has been abysmal. It'll give you a headache when it is used.

If a person were performing a fifth-grade book report the NASA search engine would be a useful tool. Anything beyond the elementary school query doesn't provide much information of use. I can't imagine the NASA search engine is used by those seeking business or research opportunities from the space agency because the time it would take to discovery something of use would be counterproductive and a not profitable.

Even the most basic public queries can be frustrating. An example: Try to effectively find a biography of an astronaut from JSC. A year ago, or so, the astronaut biographies were placed in all sorts of subcategories thus shuffling them around and making it very difficult to find. Before this "improvement" there was a simple alphabetical list. That list is still there, but it is not readily visible, it's underneath all the subcategory layers.

Forget trying to find up-to-date science and other research project work that goes beyond the major Mars rover or other large price-tag programs. A challenge: try to use NASA's websites and search engines to figure out what work is being performed today on the International Space Station. It's a maze of broken links and sophomoric information.

One always felt there was either a conspiracy of apathy, dunces or more likely shocking ignorance that kept the public from finding out useful information about their Space Program. If a portal will improve the public access to information then I'm all for it, but if this latest atempt is just an effort at creating "transparent synergy" or "layers" or whatever the IT buzz is now then forget it.

Why not just put up a picture of the moon and Mars with a big sign that says "We are going here ... someday" and then spend the portal money on that exploration goal?




Keith,

I know that your intention was to improve the quality of NASA Web sites and God knows they sure do need improving; but I am afraid that to add an unfunded layer of bureaucracy with its tendency to control everything will have the opposite effect. Maybe you should distance yourself from the NASA management since your recent close association with them seems to have scrambled you brains. Maybe this is a natural phenomena that all of us should watch out for before we are all become contaminated. The "one size fits all" is and will always be dangerous along with the control freak attitude which NASA has more than its fair share.

Take a good look in the mirror please, I for one would hate to lose your caustic comments and I do believe that you have been good for the NASA bureaucracy.

Keep up the good work; it may be that I am having a bad day.

Jim S.

NASA Retired

PS I read NASA Watch first thing every morning, then my email.




On the web portal, yep, I think you missed one here, Keith.

I'd rather get NASA employees to behave in a One NASA manner, rather than assume that they can't and cover up for them when they don't. I work closely with project teams at several centers, and having all their efforts to reach out to the greater community through public websites be vetted by OPA will strongly disincentivize them, as well as pretty much ensure that what is on these websites is dated and quite possibly dumbed down. Yes, we've all seen inconsistencies on these websites, and some of these are pretty funny, but we all know that the efforts that are expended on them are mostly noble attempts to engage people and get them excited about the work that is being done. Fortunately, website management is not a high strategic priority for NASA.


[NASA JSC] OneNASA, one website. Dull, boring, stifling mediocrity and bureacracy. From astounding amounts of information (and yes, hard to find at times), to cute features and no depth.


While it is perfectly possible to run a "light-weight" editorial/branding top layer that would achieve the goals of centralizing the message on NASA web sites, I tend to agree with previous comments that indicate that the bureaucracy will instead tend to stifle the flow of information out of NASA on to the internet.

Over the years you have done great work on nasawatch.com. This is a fantastic service you've provided. You've been an aggressive advocate of the free flow of information out of NASA.

Unfortunately, I think that your emails (and web posting) to NASA pointing out that JPL's sites (to take one example) didn't have the latest "vision statement" posted on their otherwise excellent, useful, and widely viewed sites may have had contributed to this decision. I doubt that you want to see less information come out of NASA's far flung organization, but I fear that you've contributed to this effect.

I'd be interested to hear your take on this Keith.


[NASA GSFC] The web is (by intent) a distributed system. It is useful precisely because it is easy to add nodes without a "central" organizing authority. Now, of course, researchers who provide no links to the outside world are not doing anybody much good. But that should be a matter of good web design, not an excuse for more centralized planning from HQ.


I do not understand your "Bravo!" comment after the posting about NASA's plan for the "One NASA Web Portal." Currently, there are plenty of researcher-run web sites within the NASA domain that provide valuable information to the public. Requiring these web sites to conform to arbitrary standards set by public affairs people is ridiculous. The sole effect will be the shutting down of these sites, as NASA's researchers have far too many adminstrative burdens already to willingly submit to yet another one. Rather than cheering the decision, you ought to be condemning it as silly and unnecessary.

Just my opinion, of course.


[NASA GRC] NASAWatch wrote: 7 July 2004: NASA Internal Memo: One NASA Web Portal ... Editor's note: Bravo!

Bravo?!? You've watched the government long enough to decode pronouncements like that.

Intended result: better web sites.

Implementation: additional bureaucratic barriers added to making web sites, with no additional funding for the additional time and effort needed to deal with the paperwork and no new personnel hired to put up web sites; resulting in less-frequent updates and less information on the web sites that do exist.

Actual result: worse web sites.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 7, 2004 6:41 PM.

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