Navigating the digital winds

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You don't need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows. On the other hand, when it comes to competitive sailing, perhaps you do. "A shift in 5 degrees in the wind can make the difference between winning and losing," said Robert Mairs, the new chief information officer at the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "And most people don't have any idea that the wind is even shifting."

An avid sailboat racer, Mairs worked as a team meteorologist for the America's Cup sailing team in 1977 and for the U.S. Olympic sailing team during the 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics.

Mairs' job was to advise the teams before they left the dock on what they could expect from the wind that day. "Then they need to go out there and use their own judgment as things change," Mairs said.

Mairs races his 30-foot sailboat in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday nights and competes in sailboat races several weekends a year. Last year, he won what's known as High Point on the Bay in his class, an award given to the boat with the highest average finish positions for the year. A former Navy Seal diver, Mairs has always been attracted to the water and interested in the weather. He recalls the late Apollo missions that returned color satellite images of the ocean from space. A joint group involving the Navy, NASA and NOAA formed to take advantage of the data the astronauts were bringing back from their missions, and Mairs volunteered to work on it.

"That's how I got involved in satellite oceanography, and it kind of evolved into more satellite than oceanography," he said. "My career followed satellites and disciplined science."

Tom Pyke, CIO at NOAA, said Mairs has "an excellent perspective from a management standpoint, and he brings to the job superb technical credentials. He's got a track record of always finding ways to do things better from a management standpoint."

Mairs officially became CIO at NESDIS — which operates three data centers and the nation's civil and military environmental satellites — in January. He has spent the past 20 years at NESDIS in various positions. He led the development of several NOAA systems, including the NOAA Satellite Active Archive, a system that enables users to search, browse and order environmental satellite data via the World Wide Web.

NESDIS' archive of digital satellite data is growing in leaps and bounds and is already more than 800 terabytes in size. But only a small portion of that is online. As new satellites are launched into space, including the military/civilian satellites scheduled for launch later this decade, NESDIS will have to grapple with managing more detailed data and more pictures of Earth.

"How do you manage hundreds of petabytes of data? That's not something that a lot of organizations are facing now," Mairs said.

The Internet will play an important role in the agency's IT strategy. "The strategy is for us is to transform and routinely optimize our business functions and put more and more of them on the Web," Mairs said.

The Robert Mair File

Position: First chief information officer at the National Environmental

Satellite, Data and Information Service.

Background: With NESDIS for the past 20 years. Most recently served

as deputy director of the Office of Satellite Data Processing and Distribution,

where he managed one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's

largest data-processing facilities.

Education: Bachelor's degree in oceanography from the University of

California, Santa Barbara, and a master's degree in engineering from the

Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. Completed a graduate development

program in computer systems management at the University of Maryland.

Personal: Lives in Annapolis, Md., with his wife, Diane, who is an occasional

crew member on their 30-foot sailboat.

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