NASA's Inconsistent Support of the International Space Apps Challenge

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Several weeks ago NASA and a number of sponsors held the International Space Apps Challenge. The intent was to enlist people from all across the world to create solutions to problems and issues associated with spaceflight. The participants were truly spread out across our planet including Antarctica with support from the crew aboard the International Space Station. Over a 48 hour period that spanned 21-22 April more than 100 applications and solutions were developed by the participants. Even though the event ended on 22 April, participants were still working on their apps weeks later.

Voting is now underway whereby people can pick their favorite Space App. Projects that have been nominated have posted videos that explain their project. A description of the nominated apps is provided at open.NASA.gov. The diverse composition of the participants is only exceeded by the diversity in ideas that were brought forth.

Events like this app challenge are not the way NASA tends to do business. According to NASA's Open Government Initiative office, a total 2,083 people participated in this event in one way or another. If these people did nothing but code and not sleep (software developers have been known to do this) this combined effort represents a maximum of 99,984 hours of labor - again just during that 48 hour window. If you take the median hourly salary for a programmer of around $25.00 you get a total potential value of at least $2,499,600. Of course, some people earn more than $25.00 an hour as programmers and not everyone spent the entire 48 hours coding - although work still continued well after the event's official end. Those variables considered, there is some real value in terms of labor and talent dedicated to this project while it was underway - and it was provided free.

Add in the fact that NASA spent a total of $62,583 on expenses associated with this event, and that each of the local organizers spent thousands (some spent tens of thousands) of dollars on non-reimbursed support, and you get a rather nice return on NASA's relatively small investment - probably to the tune of $10 (or more) of labor and donated resources for every $1 NASA spent. Hmm, that sounds a lot like the standard return on investment numbers (that NASA can never seem to actually validate) used to justify the value of spending money on NASA as a whole.

NASA is fond of hosting tweetups and spends money to put them on. The return on investment? Theoretically I assume that the return is more public awareness for the agency. I guess - you see, NASA has never provided me with any social media metrics despite multiple requests that they do so. I am not certain that they even have metrics for their various social media activities or, if they do, that the metrics are designed to measure anything of clear, tangible, or concrete value so as to be able to explain the concrete outcome of these various activities.

NASA likes to brag about all of its spinoffs. In most cases the claimed benefit of the spinoff is hard to determine given NASA's inability to explain what things cost - especially things done in the past. Nor does NASA take the full programmatic cost into account when it makes these calculations and refers to "return on investment".

In this case, some initial investment by NASA has spawned a number of applications and code that can not only be used by the agency but by other projects as well - at no cost to the end user. If the software is useful, the community that developed it will self-organize to continue to develop it - at no cost to NASA. If the code is no good, then it will not be used but may spawn an interest in other products. Either way a large number of people had a chance to come together to tackle problems of interest and possible applicability to NASA. They donated their time at no expense to NASA.

Imagine if such activities were to become the norm instead of one-off experiments? Well, this is exactly what the White House has been trying to promote across government. This event was described in a NASA post on the White House Open Government Initiative blog as being "a key feature of the new plan and fulfills a commitment included the U.S. Open Government National Action Plan.". NASA issued a short press release announcing the release of the 2.0 version of its Open Government Plan. OSTP has also made a point of mentioning this apps challenge as part of its overall plans. This event was also seen as a key national commitment to the international Open Government Partnership.

But when it came to promoting this activity NASA issued one press release on 9 March 2012. The only time NASA public Affairs made any mention of this activity after that was a single Tweet via @NASA - but only after the event had concluded. Had NASA PAO been more proactive the participation would have certainly been higher.

NASA PAO does not see the activities conducted by the Open Government Initiative as being "news" - that is quite obvious by now. Indeed, NASA PAO goes out of its way not to promote these activities or to only go through the motions and do the least amount of PR when they do. This is all somewhat baffling when you see NASA PAO hyping its own social media activities - again, sans any known metrics that demonstrate their value. Yet this apps challenge has numbers, deliverables, and a growing external community that can be easily identified.

NASA claims to have a communications and public engagement strategy under development. One would think that such a strategy one would see a way to encompass all that the agency does, its relevancy to the nation and its citizens, how it fits in with the rest of the world, and how it is investing in our collective future. Instead I see nothing but chaos in this regard. Many parts of NASA purposefully ignore what other parts are doing. Overlapping education and public engagement projects compete with one another and drain already depleted budgets. And when you listen to presentations and discussions on this topic in front of the NASA Advisory Council, it becomes abundantly clear that no one at NASA seems to care enough to make fixing this situation a priority.

As such, I think it is inexcusable that NASA has not made more of an effort to promote things such as the International Space Apps Challenge - especially when the White House places such a priority on things like this. There is much risk in this ad hoc and dysfunctional public engagement policy at NASA. Now that the first apps challenge event was such a success, efforts like this could continue - without overt NASA involvement - thus making NASA less - rather than more relevant. If that happens NASA only has itself to blame.


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