colab, nasa, reinventing government, second life

How Online Organizing in ’04 and ’08 Can Improve our Federal Government in ’09

Recently I was asked to reflect on how the lessons of online organizing by those of us who worked in the 2004 Presidential campaign have impacted not only the 2008 Presidential campaign (in which Dean ’04 and Clark ’04 veterans teamed up to create Blue State Digital, the technology backbone of Obama’s online operation), but also the Federal Government, over the past four years.

Many 2004 veterans have been working in the realm of making government more open in order to enable watchdog oversight of it. I have been working more in the realm of trying to make government more efficient and effective through technologies and organizing techniques that promote openness. I’m personally mostly focused on the cultural and policy side of things– trying to get people inside NASA used to being more open and sharing by default rather than only when explicitly forced to. There is also a great deal of work being done by reformers in the CIO’s offices and elsewhere on the communications technology side of NASA’s operations. They’re working on open APIs, open-source licenses, etc. I’ve told a bit of this story, in the context of NASA, in several presentations over the past year. Here below I’ve attempted to break down the problems, implications and solutions I see in a more structured format, again using examples we have encountered at NASA.

Note that none of these observations below are specific to NASA… They apply to any large government bureaucracy, and we are working with our change agent peers in other Agencies as well. We simply have the luxury/curse at NASA of a high-profile brand and significant public interest and goodwill to use as a lever for this change.



  • no internal searchable database of people, projects, skills and technology assets


  • internal inefficiency and redundancy; internal competition for resources and a culture of sequestering information because having information that no one else has is perceived as having power


  • reforming human resources policy to permit and encourage more open communication (internally and externally) and bottom-up innovation, and reforming management structure to create a more flat more networked organization
  • foster cultural change, including renovating NASA’s physical plant to create inspiring workspaces that foster openness and collaboration
  • creation and implementation of systems to capture knowledge and make it searchable



  • slides for any Powerpoint presentation to be given to a public conference are supposed to be submitted for review well in advance to make sure that no sensitive information is included in them, rendering it onerous to speak openly or to include recently updated information
  • policies for NASA employees to spend their own time working on other projects, communicating through social media about their ideas and work, etc. are restrictive and at best fuzzy, and the burden of proof rests on the employee to prove WHY they should be able to communicate with the public, rather than the burden of proof resting on the Agency to prove why not
  • reaches millions but is all processed edited moderated content; very difficult to mash this content up and re-share it, and no opportunity for user-generated content either from the public or from a broader array of NASA employees than just authorized Web Content Managers.


  • less public interest and awareness and inspiration and educational benefit than otherwise possible, because content consumption is passive
  • NASA unable to benefit from the innovation and work cycle leverage that could result from leveraging the goodwill, technical skills, time and creativity of members of the general public, and entrepreneurial private sector
  • NASA has difficulty attracting and retaining talent that is used to working in a more open environment in the private sector


  • agency-wide deployment of the Web 2.0 communication tools, communications policies, and processes used by the world’s leading private technology enterprise
  • build communities and create formal processes to leverage the time and skill of these communities for practical benefit to NASA
  • highlight and build on the few examples of successful crowdsourcing at NASA
  • create sustainable professional relationships between NASA and non-NASA personnel that shift NASA’s internal culture through co-working and open-space format events
  • shifting the budget and skillset of NASA Strategic Communications staff to focus on encouraging, training and supporting non-StratCom staff in their public communications role, including hiring staff with corporate blogging and online organizing skills
  • set communications policy that mandates open publication of all internal Agency communications such as meeting minutes, absent demonstrable and internally verified need to maintain confidentiality; shift the burden of proof from the need to show that information is “safe” to publish, to the need to show the information “is not safe” to publish.



  • NASA hires contractors to write code and doesn’t mandate that is be open-source and often doesn’t even acquire the rights to modify, repurpose, or release that code
  • IP created within NASA is unknown and unsearchable internally, let alone externally, and it is extremely labor intensive and relationship-dependent for internal business development staff to collect data, identify IP licensing opportunities, and execute those licenses
  • petabytes of data collected by NASA that is legally in the public domain is extremely difficult to find, search, interpret, and share, due to slow data processing and archiving and limited APIs


  • the inability to get more eyes on code eliminates an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of failures such as the Mars Climate Orbiter explosion
  • NASA pays more $ for code to be written by contractors than it would have to if it leveraged existing open-source projects (including its own)
  • NASA returns less value to the taxpayers because IP assets aren’t easily licensed or contributed to the public domain where they could yield ancillary benefit to society


colab, government, nasa, presentations, second life

NASA CoLab in Congressional Testimony– sort of!

As part of the first ever US Congressional hearing simulcast with a virtual world (it wasn’t QUITE mixed-reality), the House Telecommunications & the Internet Subcommittee held a hearing last week entitled “Online Virtual Worlds: Applications and Avatars in a User-Generated Medium.”

During the hearing, Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab, played a machinima video that featured NASA CoLab in Second Life… sort of! While it was great to be featured alongside NOAA as a pioneering example of Federal government use of virtual worlds, most of the video footage displayed was actually of NASA CoLab’s neighbor island, the International Spaceflight Museum.

ISM, an independent non-profit 501c3 organization, was the premier space-related destination in Second Life long before we at NASA came along, and without their generous advice and countless hours of hands-on support, it’s doubtful that NASA CoLab would have become a thriving open public+government community in Second Life. ISM still has the most extensive and beautiful space-related environment in Second Life in my opinion, and apparently Linden Labs’ machinima makers agree. I do hope that Linden Lab sets the record straight next time they’re in Congress, if not before!

UPDATE: Well, Linden Lab not only corrected the credit to ISM, they actually removed the footage of NASA CoLab island and removed all mention of NASA, which was unnecessary… Ah well!

colab, nasa, papers, second life

Paper About Mixed-Reality (Second Life / Real-Life) at the Next Generation Exploration Conference…

Posting the PDF here so that anyone can access it… Thanks again to the entire NASA and non-NASA Second Life team that made this mixed-reality event happen– and to the paper writing team that pulled together a record of the event and lessons learned in very short order. See also my original post about the event.

colab, nasa, second life

Successful First Day of Mixed-Reality NASA “Next Generation Exploration Conference”

worden_in_sl2.jpgWe had the “Next Generation Exploration Conference II” streaming into NASA CoLab in Second Life all day today, creating a mixed reality conference. Below, NASA Ames Center Director Pete Worden (above) and NASA Headquarters’ Ken Davidian (below) address NGEC up to 50 avatars on NASA CoLab island in Second Life as well as 100 young space entrepreneurs and NASA employees at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. The conference continues on Wednesday with a blended Second Life and Real-Life working group on Lunar in-situ resource utilization.


colab, reinventing government, RG09

RG09: Reinventing Government Under a New Administration in 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about how a new wave of “reinventing government” can occur, and what it would substantively entail, under a new Presidential Administration in 2009. Most of my thinking draws on my hands-on experience in one little corner of the Federal Government with our NASA CoLab program, but I want to draw far beyond that. The ADI Leadership Forum I participated in on Saturday had a breakout session on this topic lead by Mitch Kapor and David Weekly. We didn’t get very far in that 1 hour session (the take-home, after a rather excruciating debate, was “more openness would be good”), but it WAS great to see that the topic was on the radar screen of this community enough to be put on the program.

I’m going to start a running laundry list of my thoughts here about RG09, in no particular order, and keep updating it between now and, well, Jan. 20, 2009 (at least):

  • RG09 is NOT just transparent elections or campaign finance reform or more transparent legislative process– all of which are themselves fundamental;
  • RG09 IS implementing changes in the way the Federal bureaucracy– approx. 1.8 Million civil servants if my brief online research is correct- does it’s work
  • Quick easy and impactful changes that an Executive Order might be able to launch:
    • Most Federal government data (other than that with national security, ITAR or citizen-privacy issues at stake)– pretty much anything you could get with a FOIA request– be required to be:
      • published in a consistent standardized format with appropriate metadata
      • licensed openly under a (new?) Creative Commons license
      • be accessible online through open an API
      • be accessible online through semantic search
    • All Civil Servants with no security clearance be encouraged to:
      • Keep and publish their work calendar online in iCal format
      • Twitter at least once a day about the most interesting or important thing they did or learned that day
      • Consider these activities in performance reviews of their direct reports
    • Etc…