TEDxNASA: Right Message, Wrong Audience?

Keith's 17 Nov update: I just got the press release via NASA LaRC's official email distribution list - it was sent out at 9:26 am EST. I am a little baffled as to why a press release first issued only via PR Newswire 4 days ago on 13 November only gets delivered to NASA LaRC's official distribution list 4 days later - and only 3 days before the event itself - announcing that tickets are available "starting Saturday, Nov. 14" i.e. 3 days ago. Oh yes, tickets will not be available after 5 pm today - no mention of that either. And no mention whatsoever is made in the release of the fact that the event will be webcast live. One could easily get the impression that LaRC PAO is not especially interested in this event.

Keith's 17 Nov update: Someone just sent me the final TEDxNASA program and I have posted it here.

Keith's 15 nov note: Tickets for the 20 November TedXNASA event are now available online.

LaRC PAO has been silent on this entire event until yesterday. They issued a press release late Friday - one that has yet to appear in my email box from the official NASA LaRC PAO email distribution list. As such, most media will not see it until Monday morning. With a ticket availability window of 6 days - two of them on a weekend, such tardy PR only serves to make it less likely that non-invited individuals will learn of the event and arrange their schedules so as to try and attend it. For those who cannot attend in person the event will be streamed live, according to the organizers.

I do not have printed copies of local newspapers in front of me, but I can say that there is no mention whatseoever at the Virginia Pilot and there is only a miniscule item online at the Daily Press. Nor is there any mention the Christopher Newport University website (where the venue, the Ferguson Center, is located) or on the Ferguson Center website.

While there is mention of this event on the NASA LaRC website there is no mention of the live streaming webcast that the organizers promise. Also, there is no mention made of the event at NASA.gov. NASA now has 4 digital TV channels. Yet there is no mention of this event or a webcast on the education channel schedule or the special events channel.

Given that this is a NASA sponsored/funded event, there are a number of things that the organizers are supposed to consider. One is access for the disabled. I see no mention of who to contact if there are wheelchair or mobility access issues. Nor is there any indication that the event will have a sign language interpreter, or that video will be captioned.

Logistics and PR aside, what is really troubling is this description of the audience that the organizers are seeking as posted on the TedXNASA website: "An Exceptional Audience TEDxNASA attendees will be just as extraordinary as the speaker line-up; they will include internet pioneers, local technology leaders, movie producers, architects, creative directors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, authors, engineers, investors, celebrities, scientists and leading opinion formers of every kind. Indeed, we expect all 1,700 spaces at the Ferguson Center to be occupied."

How elitist.

Yes, the event is free, but it is paid for with taxpayer dollars. To be certain, the people doing the bulk of the talking will have nice voices, be witty, smart, and offer provocative ideas that need to be offered. Indeed, many of them command nice speaking fees, so they have some sucess in this regard. Some of the speaker choices strike me as a little odd - but I am going to withhold judgement on that until I actually witness the event in person. After all, it takes more than just rocket scientists and geeks to explore the universe - and NASA desperately needs to get out of the box it is in and expand the means whereby it interacts with a broader portion of the electorate. Everyone pays the taxes that support NASA, so it follows that they all have an opinion on the topic.

That said, there seem to be a lot of motivational speakers on the agenda - with no discernible technical expertise. The TEDxNASA website currently says "DR. SUE MORTER Bio Energetics practicioner that will explain how we can become who we really are" yet the description that one of the TEDxNASA organizers, Steve Craft, sent me says "quantum physics and bio-energetics practitioner Dr. Sue Morter" - which is what the TEDxNASA website used to say. So, what happend to her "quantum mechanics" expertise? As best I can tell from her website (where she makes that claim) she is a chiropractor, teacher, and a motivational speaker. Maybe her undergrad minor was in "quantum physics". Perhaps she will explain this in her presentation.

But it is not the speakers that annoy me. Rather, it is the organizer's audience description that has me baffled.

Why can't the meeting organizers be equally happy to have people with less notoriety or stature - you know, 99% of the taxpaying populace? Why can't they be seeking the following sorts of people in attendance: truck drivers, single parents with gifted children, janitors, homemakers, people who have lost their homes, children with a C- grade averages, accountants, lawyers, journalists, small business owners, hairdressers, elderly citizens, people on welfare, disabled people, farm workers, community activists, people who do not care about NASA, returning veterans, the unemployed, people who are just getting by, etc.?

No, I am not suggesting that the organizers have a check list so as to craft a socially correct audience or assemble a diverse cast of characters straight out of a Fellini movie. But I do wonder if the organizers set foot in the real world when they decided on their narrow target audience instead of one that includes all of the people who pay taxes, vote, and expect something in return. Shouldn't you hope to see your neighbors at something like this?

One of the organizers, Steve Craft, told me "We did want to have a variety of people from different backgrounds to get a similar audience participation as what occurs at a TED conference. With that in mind, approximately half of the invitations went out to local businesses and universities. They were each given an allocation of tickets to distribute as they wished. Another 25% of the tickets will be allocated to NASA Langley employees, NASA Langley contractor employees, NIA employees, and NIA member universities. The remaining 25% of tickets will be made available to the general public."

It is good that these free tickets will be distributed with little in the way of audience sculpting and that tickets can now be obtained by anyone who goes to the website. But the phrase "Similar audience participation as what occurs at a TED conference" is of concern. A typical TED audience is composed of people who can afford the ticket price for TED events - one that is regularly upwards of $6,000. You do not see too many regular folks at those events - just the elite and well-financed. That's fine for a privately sponsored event, but this event is being sponsored by the federal government.

NASA's education and public outreach activities, while often done with the best of intentions, often fall short when it comes to reaching out to people who do not have a clear interest in - or understanding of - space. All too often NASA efforts only focus on those looking to be reached - and those who already agree with the message NASA is sending. As such, an event such as TEDxNASA is a dramatic departure - a welcome one at that. The organizers are to be commended for thinking outside of the box. Indeed, the only way to try and expand NASA's outreach, convey its value, and seek citizen input is to go out and just do so. In so doing NASA needs to take risks, learn from its mistakes as well as its successes, and keep trying - again and again.

NASA is certainly not lacking in armchair organizers who either think they know what "the public" wants or dismisses "the public" as being irrelevant or incapable of understanding what NASA does. The TEDxNASA organizers are going after that those tired paradigms with a big hammer. I just wish they'd go all the way and shatter all of the narrow, pre-conceived NASA notions of who should be involved.

When NASA endorses an event with a target audience that seeks to focus only on the gifted, the interesting, and the privileged, it goes in the opposite direction of where it should be headed. Until NASA finds a way to break out of its inbred box of outreach practices, and touch the lives of everyone, it will remain a niche activity and an afterthought at budget time.

I was paying attention during the Obama campaign. As such I am hoping that this event can reflect the spirit of inclusiveness and openness that the campaign championed - not run away from it.

TEDxNASA: Details Revealed, earlier post

A NASA Conference That No One Can Register For, earlier post

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on November 17, 2009 1:06 PM.

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