NASA Explores New World Of Open Data

NASA has been publishing a lot of data for a long time, but getting it into standard machine-readable formats is still a herculean task.

the goal is to provide a catalogue of data sources with pointers to websites where they can be accessed.

"Knowing that we have exabytes and petabytes coming down from satellites, to me we haven't even scratched the surface," Beck said. Given the necessity of setting priorities, she and Duley have focused on reaching out to the parts of the agency most capable of coming up to speed quickly. Luckily, several NASA programs, particularly those related to Earth sciences and climate research, are more mature in their approach to publishing data. That's because they have long-established relationships with external corporate and academic consumers of that data.

"If you look at climate data, we've been working on that forever," Beck said.

More obscure data sets have an audience of their own. Duley uses the example of a website he managed on research about outgassing -- how much different paints and casings and other substances slowly evaporate when exposed to the vacuum and temperatures of space. That is specialized knowledge, but if you're designing a satellite or a space exploration robot, it's compelling reading -- and when the site went offline for maintenance, Duley got a half-dozen emails every day asking when it would be back.

Telemetry feeds from the International Space Station are an example of data that is readily available but not necessarily easily understandable, Duley said. "They're really not documented very well, so you'd have to go to a website and reverse-engineer how to connect with it." One of his goals is to do a better job of putting such data sets in context.

One of the best open data success stories to date concerns Dan Hammer, whose Global Forest Watch project recently won the UN Big Data Climate Challenge. Prior to joining NASA as a Presidential Fellow, Hammer had already tapped into NASA data on behalf of a United Nations program to monitor deforestation. He led the development of analytic software that made use of data from NASA's Earth-watching satellites. "It had nothing to do with NASA, except that it was our data," Beck said. At the time, Hammer was working for an independent research organization, the World Resources Institute.

That's exactly what open data is supposed to accomplish, Beck said. "This is a way to get more innovations from our data than we would have imagined, just because we don't have time to think about it."

She is also proud of the NASA Space Apps Challenge, where anyone can compete to do something cool related to NASA data or problems in space science. The "people's choice" winner in that competition this year was a space helmet smartphone. Another winner, SkyWatch, provides a visual representation of data collected from observatories around the world in near real-time.

Regardless of concerns about mandates from above, Beck said, "We want to make our data public, period. There's just a new way of making it public."

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