NASA JPL CIO must keep up with the innovation ‘Joneses’

The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab runs the deep space network and sent the Rover to Mars.

But here on earth, Jim Rinaldi, the JPL chief information officer, is finding ways to bring a different kind of innovation to employees.

Rinaldi said he engages the workforce to find new and disruptive technologies that could help JPL meet its mission.

“We looked at technologies whether it’s advanced wireless or is it more the newer or latest versions of home automation that might apply here. We are big into how we can make things easier for JPLers to get their jobs done and provide them the tools and capabilities that they do remarkable things with,” Rinaldi said. “We’ve had great success in that. We’ve created an IT petting zoo that allows people to see some of the technologies we bring in and test it and play with it, and we do this at such a low cost, it keeps us from making big mistakes. We can make small mistakes and try things out. Our customers seem to appreciate that and they are very engaged with us because we are able to do that.”

Rinaldi said he borrowed the concept of an IT petting zoo from Booz Allen Hamilton.

One example of a technology Rinaldi brought into the petting zoo was the Pebble Watch — a precursor to smart watches now on the market.

“The idea was many of our mission folks who work on Mars mission work on Mars’ time. So they would have to have watches made for that,” he said. “What we did was take the Pebble Watch and programmed it to have a Mars clock on it. It was kind of innovative but fun at the same time in the sense of solving a real problem for a fairly low cost.”

He said JPL also created apps for smartphones that benefited not only the center’s workforce, but anyone who downloads it from the app stores.

“One example is spacecraft 3-D. Whenever I show that, it’s like a magic trick because it uses augmented reality. It does a great job of explaining our missions so it’s great for outreach,” Rinaldi said.

The innovation isn’t limited to the CIO’s office either.

NASA JPL and Microsoft announced back in January a partnership called OnSight to let scientists use an emerging wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens.

“It provides an immersive visual experience for scientists and engineers. In particular the lab is looking at how we can use that for researchers working on Mars mission or any planetary mission where we can capture the visual and they can have that experience of feeling they are on Mars when looking at objects, a rock or something that has been dug up from one of the Rovers,” he said. “We, in IT, were involved. It does use a lot of IT that is emerging so being aware of it and supporting it anyway we could was part of our goal.”

Rinaldi said the CIO’s office hosts an IT expo every year and it’s open to all NASA employees.

Beyond innovation, Rinaldi also is focused on providing the infrastructure and commodity IT services to JPL under its $28 million budget.

Rinaldi said a big focus over the last few years has been data and digital strategies.

He said JPL is improving the ability of scientists and engineers to access and use the data securely and easily.

“Our data strategy has been to make sure we know where the data is, it’s marked properly and that we can allow the proper access,” he said. “We’ve made some great in-roads in that. It’s been a challenge because people weren’t always knowing where to put the data and now we have better rules of the game, so to speak. We’ve also created some better capabilities for people to find data. Our search is not a traditional search. It’s very different, using the latest open system software tools and we’ve been able to make it very smart.”

Rinaldi said one of his top priorities is implementing a digital strategy to automate labor-intensive processes and the way systems share information.

“We want our strategy to include that the data will stay with the owning system and we will access the data from there so it stays as pure as possible and that we are not moving it around and transforming it in several different ways,” he said. “We are finding we can build systems faster when we have that capability.”

Related to big data and digital government is JPL’s ongoing move to cloud services.

JPL was an early adopter of cloud computing, and Rinaldi is creating a hybrid cloud.

“We’ve moved a lot of Web hosting for both public cloud and internal cloud,” he said. “We haven’t moved our email yet. We do contract out our email already. I’m kind of on a wait-and-see when it comes to email because there are so many others doing it, I didn’t see it was a big compelling need at the moment.”

Rinaldi did set up for researchers or scientists a catalog of services where they can provision their own cloud instances.

He said by doing it this way his office can make sure the security parameters are met throughout all cloud layers and the instance is registered in their database.

“Now we don’t have to worry when people get a server if they are going to do the right thing,” Rinaldi. “I don’t want people using their own credit cards. All cloud services are to be provisioned throughout offices so we have purview into what’s there and make sure the proper security layers are in place.”

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