NASA creates knowledge net to prevent repeating mistakes

NASA officials are rolling out a new knowledge management system to comply with legislation mandating that the agency implement a plan for obtaining and sharing lessons learned from past missions.

An amendment to the 2005 NASA authorization bill requires the plan to "be updated and maintained to ensure that it is current and consistent with the burgeoning culture of learning and safety that is emerging at NASA."

That "burgeoning culture" refers to the stark contrast between NASA’s successes and failures that highlighted the need to learn from both to ensure future successes. Recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the Government Accountability Office also call for better interagency communication.

NASA expects to complete the system, the NASA Engineering Network, by the end of September, according to agency officials. Before the space shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas in 2003, NASA had been using a voluntary database to share lessons learned. People who chose to write out accounts could enter them into the database, but employees rarely checked it to get information.

"Once in a while, people would stick something in and less [than] once in a while people would check it to get information," said NASA Deputy Chief Engineer Gregory Robinson, who is developing the NASA Engineering Network.

Work on the new knowledge management system began about 18 months ago, after the GAO first raised concerns about information sharing at NASA. The network, currently in its pilot stage, already consists of a NASA Lessons Learned portal that provides advanced capabilities for searching and browsing reports from 48 NASA engineering repositories. The portal uses semantic search technologies to search structured and unstructured data. The Lessons Learned portal only retrieves accredited data sources, not informal blog entries or notes.

Next, NASA will deploy something called the Communities of Practice portal, which is part chat session and part search engine. With that tool, an engineer can consult a group of experts in an interactive message board setting. For example, if a scientist needs to do a test in a thermal vacuum chamber and is not sure how to set it up, an online group of experienced NASA engineers would give suggestions in real time. The system would record the online conversation for future reference.

When scientists use the portal to submit a question, the computer would look at the question, and then automatically respond with an answer from a previously recorded conversation or entry, or post the question to the message board for a live response.

Finally, an Expertise Locator feature will complete the NEN. With that tool, a scientist could enter a phrase or a string of terms and the computer would generate a list of experts associated with the terms, along with their contact information.

To promote use of the collaborative system, NASA has created an agencywide Lessons Learned Steering Committee, with members from each of the NASA centers. The members offer on-the-spot training.

According to Robinson, the pilot program has been effective. "So far, people are getting a lot more information easier and quicker than before," he said.

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