Why Am I Doing This NASA Website Critique Stuff?

Keith's note: You may have noticed that I am doing a global critique of NASA's education and public outreach activities. The prime public face that NASA outs forth - the way it explains itself to the public - are its websites and social media. NASA lives to brag about the sheer size of what they do online - which is easily the most diverse and pervasive of any American government web activities - one with a branding that has a truly global reach - an enviable one at that.

Alas, NASA's online presence is so huge that people find information in spite of how NASA organizes things. While there are some very useful, engaging NASA web resources, much of what NASA has online is out of date, broken, and duplicative. If you raise this issue with NASA they immediately pivot and start talking about the vast audiences they had for their last landing. NASA mistakes the sugar high that they get from these spectaculars from the day-to-day, routine use of its online resources by the people who pay for all of the space stuff. And I am going to point this out.

I have been doing things online for 25 years - as long as NASA has. We have co-evolved. Indeed, over the years I have been called into review NASA sites and regularly interact behind the scenes on how all of this works - often highlighting broken things that need fixing. And I am certain that if you ask Jim Bridenstine who one of his tutors on Internet usage was as he hit the ground running you might hear my name. As for that memo he sent out two years ago directing fixes to NASA's Internet presence, contrary to rumors, no, I did not write it. But ...

When NASA puts out a product - be it a YouTube video, a press release, a pamphlet, or a sticker they do not put "Google NASA". No. They put 'NASA.gov". As such it behooves NASA to make their websites the most engaging and easy to navigate once a visitor arrives. And NASA needs to make sure that the parts of NASA that overlap and collaborate on missions and programs also collaborate online and not resort to stovepipes, walled gardens, and duplicated content. Oh yes: the search engine that NASA offers returns woefully inaccurate, often goofy research results.

Architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase "form follows function". NASA's online resources should reflect how NASA functions as it does things and do so in a form (online) that is obvious to a reader without undue explanation. Rather, the current situation at NASA's online presence is more akin to "form follows dysfunction". NASA is managed as a series of competing fiefdoms - directorate vs directorate, center vs center, mission vs mission - and the website aptly reflects that reality. Some stuff is outstanding, most is adequate, much is mediocre, and some is outright broken.

The Biden folks who have shown up at NASA thus far seem to have an interest in clarifying messages and aligning the organization of NASA accordingly. They almost certainly ran into a deluge of firehoses from every vested interest within NASA. This White House is talking about big things - but budgets for "Building Back Better". And there has been a non-stop stream of positive words for NASA. That said there a lot of agencies getting in line for these resources - indeed Congress wants to double the NSF budget. Did you her that NASA? One would think that NASA would want to get its public face in order - and put forth the clearest story possible as to what it does and why it does it - and how this is relevant to the world of 2021. Not to do so may leave the agency at the end of the line.

But more importantly, this past year has seen the world shift to online tools in an unprecedented fashion. While we will certainly re-engage physically, much of this enhanced online interaction is here to stay. NASA risks not being a player in the global arena when its online resources are not maintained to the extent that this new reality calls upon them to be maintained.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 27, 2021 7:03 PM.

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