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Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

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How NASA Leverages the Crowd to Drive Innovation

Part one of this two-part episode  features Steve Rader (deputy director of crowdsourced innovation at NASA) & Yehya ElMaraghi (former senior lean officer at SpaceX) who engage in a spirited dialogue regarding the future of work. Steve shares how NASA leverages crowdsourcing/freelancers for innovation, and Yehya shares how specialized consultants will play a role in the future of work.


In this short clip from episode one of our innovation webinar series, Steve Rader from NASA talks about crowdsourced or open innovation technology and how it works. 

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The Reinvention of NASA

  • Loizos Heracleous,
  • Douglas Terrier,
  • Steven Gonzalez

nasa open innovation case study

It learned to embrace open innovation, agility, and collaboration.

Since the Apollo program, NASA has faced funding cuts, competition from other nations for space leadership, and a radical restructuring of its operating environment due to the emergence of commercial space — all of which have forced the organization to change its ways of thinking and operating. So over the past few decades, NASA has evolved from being a hierarchical, closed system that develops its technologies internally, to an open network organization that embraces open innovation, agility, and collaboration. This evolution has spanned three phases, each focused on achieving different goals and characterized by particular technology strategies, cultural values, and ways of working with external parties. NASA demonstrates that substantial organizational change is possible, even amid barriers such as regulations and politics.

NASA today is a very different beast from the NASA of the 1960s. Though many would call that decade NASA’s golden age, we’d argue that NASA’s innovation and influence is even greater today.

Since the Apollo program, NASA has faced funding cuts, competition from other nations for space leadership, and a radical restructuring of its operating environment due to the emergence of commercial space — all of which have forced the organization to change its ways of thinking and operating.

Over the past few decades, not only has NASA delivered crucial technologies for society, such as water filtration systems, satellite-based search-and-rescue, and UV coating on eyeglasses, it has also evolved its dominant logic and business model. NASA has moved from being a hierarchical, closed system that develops its technologies internally, to an open network organization that embraces open innovation, agility, and collaboration.

This reinvention demonstrates that substantial organizational change is possible, even amid barriers such as regulations and politics. It offers an example of what we call “strategic agility,” or the ability to effectively (and continually) adapt how a firm operates and competes. This is not driven by a single leader, but by a multitude of champions scattered around the organization who push forward initiatives that slowly create change.

The challenges facing NASA

During the Apollo program NASA’s funding peaked at 4.5% of the federal budget ( US$5,250 million) in 1966 . But shortly after the first moon landing in 1969, their budget plummeted. It is currently at less than o.5% of the federal budget.

Meanwhile, the organization’s mission aspirations grew bolder. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 (and amendments in 1988 and 2004) called for government agencies such as NASA to support the development and growth of commercial space. This not only necessitated a more collaborative way of operating, but it also called for the agency to differentiate its missions. As commercial space organizations began to drive more low-earth orbit (up to 2,000 km from earth) activities, NASA has had to shift its efforts toward exploring deep space, accomplishing further manned missions, and setting up permanent facilities on the moon as a gateway for missions to Mars and beyond.

The emergence of commercial space has also gone hand in hand with an accelerating pace of technology development. This means that the technologies necessary for successful space-faring, particularly human space travel beyond low earth orbit, cannot all be developed by a single organization. NASA has had to become more outward-looking and network-oriented to develop and acquire the technologies it needs.

Competing nations have also been expanding their space exploration efforts. The space industry is now a global, multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder endeavor, where commercial activity accounts for the lion’s share of value. (Over three quarters of the $ 350 billion global space industry revenues are driven by commercial products, services, infrastructure, and support industries.) Sustaining NASA’s and the USA’s space leadership has called for a new way of organizing and competing.

Adapting to change

The reinvention of NASA has been an evolution spanning three phases, each focused on achieving different goals and characterized by particular technology strategies, cultural values, and ways of working with external parties.

The traditional model (from 1960s to 1990s) : In its early days NASA served as both the prime contractor and the exclusive customer of space technologies. This model made sense for a few reasons. First, the frontier technologies that NASA needed were not already available on the market; they had to be developed from scratch by specialized contractors. Second, the Cold War and the space race meant that NASA needed to have control of the resulting technology rather than the technology being made available on the market by contractors after development. Third, NASA’s military heritage, and more broadly the procurement processes of government agencies at the time, meant it operated by issuing cost-plus contracts and owning the resulting technology.

Think of the Apollo program in the 1960s. NASA gave detailed specifications to contractors (such as North American Aviation, which built the command/service module of the Apollo spacecraft, and Ford Aerospace, which built the mission control), defining what should be done and how. NASA, purely funded by government, incurred the total costs and became the owner of the resulting technology.

In this model, the relational approach was one of positional authority and hierarchy. NASA focused on developing and monitoring precise engineering specifications. NASA engineers had large amounts of control over what the contractors were doing. The technology strategy focused on agency-driven investments and strict control over the internally developed technologies. there was a sense of technological superiority and exceptionalism that developed from the government’s efforts to attract the brightest scientists.

The transitional model (from 1993 – 2006): This phase kicked off with the International Space Station project. In 1993 NASA was directed by the White House to collaborate with other nations on the design and construction of the International Space Station. The agencies involved were the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and Roscosmos.

The ISS was a necessary step in the grand goal of launching human missions in deep space, such as to Mars, a key NASA aspiration for decades. A round-trip human journey to Mars would take around 21 months , depending on a variety of factors. NASA needed to understand what would happen to the human body during extended missions in space, and the ISS would provide a way to gather this knowledge by stationing astronauts on the space station for long periods. But ISS would be too expensive for any one country to build alone.

During this transitional phase, NASA learned how to function within a cluster of partners, as opposed to being the dominant party in a supplier/buyer relationship. This demanded shifts in cultural values, relational approaches, and technology strategy.

Culturally, the sense of technological superiority developed during the Apollo program was still present, but now there were more players with their own cultures, technology, and operating models. NASA had to learn how to collaborate. Further, greater cost consciousness developed, as the American public and politicians began questioning the amount of resources needed by the agency. Unlike the Apollo era, when funds were no barrier in the effort to win the space race, NASA now had to accomplish its missions as efficiently as possible and be more explicit about its added value to society. It invested more in external communication.

Relationally, the hierarchical pecking order of the traditional model had to accommodate a cluster of international governmental organizations. NASA negotiated with, coordinated, and led the network of international space agencies to accomplish one of the most complex undertakings of humanity, designing and building the ISS. The work was distributed: NASA ISS program managers led the effort at the operational level and worked with international counterparts to implement the program. There were 15 centers around the world focused on ISS; in the U.S., much of ISS training and program management took place at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA’s technology strategy also evolved to leverage the investments of state partners and share technical responsibility. The agency worked with its partners on developing shared technical interfaces, standards, and protocols, learning how to operate within public-public partnerships.

The network model (from 2006 to present): The network model began with the Commercial Resupply Services program that launched in 2006 to carry cargo to the International Space Station after the space shuttle was retired. The space shuttle’s retirement meant that NASA had to find other ways to resupply the ISS that would not only be reliable but also require fewer resources than the space shuttle. This and a number of different factors — budget pressures, government interest in promoting commercial space, and rapidly growing commercial expertise in space — led NASA to seek suitable commercial partners.

NASA wanted to use part of its budget not only to buy services it needed, such as to resupply the ISS with cargo, but also to spur the growth of commercial space. NASA looked for outside partners because it recognized that the expertise was now available in the open market to deliver frontier capabilities, at lower cost compared to what NASA could develop them for. In 2008 NASA awarded contracts to Space X and Orbital Sciences to transport cargo to the ISS. Space X carried out its first resupply mission in 2012 and Orbital Sciences in 2013.

This model has changed NASA’s technology strategy. It now involves fixed-price contracts within public-private partnerships, where NASA does not exclusively own the resulting technology. Commercial partners can sell their services and technology to other customers. Costs are shared, and NASA pays for milestones reached. Rather than providing detailed specifications for the what and the how, NASA specifies high level goals (the what), leaving the how to the commercial partners. The innovators can then exploit these technologies commercially as they see fit, further fuelling the development of space technology and enhancing the value of the industry overall.

The commercial resupply program has taught NASA how to work effectively with the commercial sector and to manage ongoing public-private partnerships. Culturally this has led to a more outward-looking agency that recognizes the innovative capacity of the market. Dealing with commercial actors has also taught NASA greater commercial awareness, that is, a focus on accomplishing things as efficiently as possible and being conscious about the costs of any given activity — a far cry from what was seen as unlimited resources of the Apollo program.

New offices such as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program were set up within NASA to manage and promote commercial partnerships. Leaders managing these partnerships adopted the mindset that NASA is one of several parties involved in space technology development, and favor an open engineering architecture that can facilitate commercial collaborations .

In this networked model, NASA has also embraced open innovation . The agency now poses innovation challenges online in open competitions, crowdsourcing solutions and ideas as a complement to internal innovation efforts. Successful open innovation challenges have included competitions on the design of pressurized yet flexible astronaut gloves, ways to accurately measure the strain on materials used in space such as Kevlar straps, and better forecasting of potentially destructive solar flares.

Given the recent directive the U.S. government requiring NASA to return to manned missions to the moon and beyond, the organization’s new capabilities and structure are becoming even more important. NASA is now able to use innovations wherever they emerge within its networks, so that it can accomplish goals such as deep space exploration, the search for extra-terrestrial life, and a manned journey to Mars.

nasa open innovation case study

  • Loizos Heracleous is a professor of strategy at Warwick Business School. Follow him on Twitter @Strategizing .
  • DT Douglas Terrier is Chief Technologist at NASA’s HQ in Washington, DC.
  • SG Steven Gonzalez is a Technology Transfer Strategist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

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Open Innovation at NASA: Impact in Culture

The open innovation initiative implemented by NASA generated divergent opinions among the R&D professionals working for the agency. The problem that NASA faces with the implementation of open innovation is how to organize and shift the culture, roles and processes to embrace such trend.

nasa open innovation case study

NASA has been innovating in space exploration since 1958. NASA successfully put a man on the moon in 1969 and had continued pushing the boundaries of science since then. A key component of NASA’s success comes from the innovation of world-class highly-specialized scientists and professionals working on the research and development department of the agency. Traditionally, these knowledge leaders work within the organization and only collaborate with public and private organizations of their choosing to bring knowledge into their innovation process. To continue enhancing its innovation capabilities, in 2009 the agency started an open innovation initiative which proved to be very successful by achieving significant scientific breakthroughs at extraordinary speed and with extremely little resources. Despite its success, the open innovation initiative generated divergent opinions among the R&D professionals working at NASA, where one group felt threatened and insulted by the initiative, causing disturbance in their work, processes and culture. The problem that NASA faces with the implementation of open innovation is how to organize and shift the culture, roles and processes to embrace such trend.

At NASA the standard R&D process take 3 to 5 years. In 2009 when the open innovation initiative was first implemented, the average cycle took 3 to 6 months. Also, the cost of the standard R&D process is very high versus the open innovation process where very little resources where committed (NASA offered awards to winners in the range of $15,000 to $30,000). In 2009, 14 problems were revealed to the public, 114 NASA professionals worked using the standard process, while more than 3000 individuals worked using the open innovation model. The solutions shared by the public exceeded NASA’s expectation. As a lead scientist mentioned, “In general, it is known that to receive a solution for that cost [the open innovation award] would not be possible otherwise. Turnaround time for a solution like this could take years under the standard R&D model.” The most successful solution among those received in 2009 came from a from a semiretired radio engineer, who proposed a completely different approach to forecast solar flares coming from solar storms, the algorithm he created was 25% more accurate than the solution proposed by NASA’s scientists under the slower and more expensive standard R&D process. These results represent for NASA a whole new way of doing business.

To tackle the problem about changing culture and processes when open innovation is implemented, first it is important to understand who are the individuals that are currently pushing innovation at NASA. These R&D professionals are highly motivated by innovating, in arguably, one of the most groundbreaking organization in the world. These professionals are willing to take a pay-cut to join NASA and consider themselves “problem solvers”. The level of expertise these professionals have creates substantial knowledge boundaries, and a good portion of these professionals usually keep their knowledge inside these boundaries. Unless willingly chosen, innovation coming from outside these boundaries will not be welcomed. The introduction of open innovation crosses these boundaries giving the opportunity to anyone from the outside to share their knowledge. Under an open innovation initiative R&D professional need to shift from being “problem solvers” to “solution seekers” and to look at the world outside their labs. Also, to implement open innovation, R&D professionals need to share the problems they are trying to solve in the first place. When the initiative was implemented by NASA in 2009 the opinion of the R&D professionals was split, leaving those more reluctant to change feeling threatened and undervalued. A part of this group openly attacked and criticized the initiative, while others just ignored the finding shared by the public. As a senior scientist, noted: “I’ve been attracted to places that allow you to access a problem, come up with a plan, and execute the solution . . . to be able to think and solve greater problems. If I can’t do it at NASA, what is keeping me from going somewhere else?”.

To shift to an open innovation model, NASA is organizing some of its internal departments (such as the Human Health and Performance Directorate) differently, addressing to both structural and cultural changes. Scientist eliminate knowledge boundaries and open their R&D strategic challenges and data to the public. Another key part is taking the internal development software to an open source, allowing internal knowledge to flow. Also, integrating and utilizing the external knowledge received through the open platform. NASA should continue to gradually incorporate open innovation into some of its processes, given the efficiencies generated with such model. However, NASA needs to put special attention on how implement the change since culture inside the organization could be negatively impacted.

Pathways to Just Digital Future

The question remains on how should NASA approach open innovation. Should it change all the R&D processes to the open innovation model? Can standard and open innovation processes coexist in the same organization. What will be the impact on the organization’s culture?

Lifshitz-Assaf, Hila. 2017. “Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries At NASA: The Critical Role Of Professional Identity In Open Innovation”. Administrative Science Quarterly 63 (4): 746-782. doi:10.1177/0001839217747876.

Richard, Elizabeth E., and Jeffrey R. Davis. 2014. “NASA Human Health And Performance Center: Open Innovation Successes And Collaborative Projects”. Acta Astronautica 104 (1): 383-387. doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2014.05.010.

Student comments on Open Innovation at NASA: Impact in Culture

I grew up loving the idea of space exploration and NASA’s space shuttle program. This essay is very interesting because I understand the stance of some of NASA’s R&D department, but the results of the open source program is undeniable. I think a solution is to allow the NASA scientists to focus on projects they choose so they are thought leaders in that area and utilize the open source network for projects the NASA team does not have time to research. The open innovation model would be extremely useful to capture the hearts and minds of aspiration astronauts and give everyone a chance to be a NASA researcher. The space program has captivated the Nation since the 1960s and many of the young people who grew up gazing at the stars are retired and looking for something to do, so why not use them?

I love learning about space, so I really enjoyed this post. While I understand the need for NASA to keep certain problems secret for national security reasons perhaps, a lot of NASA’s research could easily be outsourced to brilliant minds willing to conduct R&D at much lower prices than NASA could achieve in-house. I understand why existing employees at NASA might feel threatened, and adopting open innovation to a greater extent will likely lead to fewer R&D jobs available at NASA, but as was mentioned in this post, a new type of job, that of a “solution seeker,” might be created in the process. At the end of the day, if opening itself up to open innovation results in the ability to take on more moon-shot projects and succeed, I would think this would be a no-brainer for the space program. (Especially in a time where science sees dwindling government funding!!)

This post raised the potential issue of open innovation’s negative impact on NASA’s R&D culture. However, I wonder whether the opposite, open innovation’s negative impact on the public’s perception of NASA, should also be cause for concern. For example, the post mentions that some NASA R&D professionals “ignored the finding shared by the public”. If I found out that NASA did not act on my findings, I would come to view NASA in a negative light. I wonder if this is something NASA took into consideration and what exactly they are doing to set expectations on how they would act on public findings.

I think it’s great that NASA is willing to crowdsource some R&D ideas – I’m sure it’s significantly cheaper, faster, and likely more effective than exclusively sourcing ideas from a small cohort of highly specialized individuals. However, one of the reasons that specialists come to work at NASA is that they have access to sensitive projects that aren’t otherwise publicly available. How can NASA balance working on cutting-edge projects that may have real significance to national security with opening up the R&D process?

Few organizations have the capability and reach to make scientific strides like NASA. Tasked with the most difficult and abstract problems, I would want every tool at my disposal – including outside sources. I do understand the hesitancy to accept solutions from unproven, external sources. Outsiders have a freedom to develop solutions using their own methods outside of the prescribed framework in which NASA operates. Those within the institution may feel at a disadvantage needing to follow strict regulations and guidelines. However, I do think standard approaches and open innovation can coexist. The organization will likely need to reframe the external contributors as partners rather than competition. It would also likely help to get direct input from the engineers on how they think they can better utilize open innovation internally. While it may be difficult, I agree that NASA should continue slowly and steadily incorporating open innovation. Particularly in an environment where NASA’s funding is no longer considered a priority, the ability to incorporate open innovation could unlock significant value.

There are lots of people that would love to work on a problem for NASA in their leisure time. The successful ones are likely good hires. Why don’t more organizations with high social influence – that can attract people to open innovation challenges – use this model as both a problem solving and hiring practice?

Cool piece.

The open innovation platform has already produced new capabilities and better science for NASA, and it seems smart for the agency to expand it in the future. The cultural concerns raised are duly noted and insightful. In addition to those, i am left wondering how government classification will limit the ability for open innovation to help solve the classified projects NASA is working on? Will open innovation be limited to only those projects that are public knowledge, or can NASA figure out a way to utilize the platform for more strategic and secretive programs?

Great article. One interesting feature of NASA in particular vs. other organizations is that its work is simultaneously (a) incredibly complicated and challenging and (b) extremely exciting and inspiring (who doesn’t love the idea of sending things to space?!). As a result, I imagine it is relatively easy for them to encourage people to participate in their open innovation programs to feel connected to something as emotionally powerful as NASA’s mission (pun intended). I’m left wondering how other organizations that are working on equally important but less sexy projects could optimally position open innovation programs to encourage involvement from the broader public.

Very interesting take on the effects of open innovation on a company’s culture. While I understand the concern of the longstanding employees, if Nasa does not explore the open innovation platform it will not be long before competition beats them to solutions to their toughest challenges. They cannot afford to have an R&D cycle of 3 to 5 years. We are now in a world where the capital investment required to successfully compete in the space industry is falling quickly. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, new space ventures received $1B in funding. New companies like SpaceX, Rocket Labs, and Virgin Galactic, have all successfully launched rockets into space. I agree with some of the comments above in that Nasa should evaluate what problems are most exciting for and best meant for its talented staff, and then ship out the rest under an open innovation model.

Super interesting stuff! I am a big fan of open innovation and I’m impressed at the culture change that it has affected at NASA. I think open innovation and traditional R&D can exist together. A couple of key points is that in classified applications you obviously cannot have open innovation so you have to keep that internal R&D talent in house at the risk of competing for talent at critical junctures. Another point I had is that the examples you list are successful uses of open innovation but are there cases where the public just does not care or have the right expertise? Another thought is how much time has to go into separating the bad ideas from the good ones? How many marginal ideas get through the screen and then require personnel to go through and evaluate each one. How does that trade off compare to just doing it on your own?

I appreciate your focus on the people-side of open innovation. One are of personal interest for me are incentivez, and I think that, in order for open innovation and standard R&D to coexist, NASA engineers need to collaborate with their open innovators. Stand-alone ideas are good, but imagine the progress that could be made if these engineers (both NASA-badged and non-affiliated) worked together. In order to do this, NASA may need to consider creative solutions and leadership to both help their engineers see the benefit of open innovation and help their engineers feel valued in an open innovation culture.

I was surprised, and very intrigued, to learn about how NASA is using open innovation effectively. As an extremely specialized, high profile, and at times, highly secretive organization, NASA is not an organization that would immediately come to mind as a target for implementing open innovation. However, as the post articulates, open innovation has produced tangible, positive results. From my perspective, there are limited to no downsides to expanding open innovation opportunities at NASA in all ways possible and appropriate, pending any security or confidentiality considerations. Improving NASA’s processes and outputs benefit us all; and, if non-NASA employees are able to develop better solutions at a lower cost (similar to the semiretired radio engineer who developed at 25% more accurate algorithm than the NASA scientists), then those crowd-sourced/open innovation ideas should be given a platform to be expressed, and if justified through outcomes, pursued.

Great post – I love learning about space! In general, I think the spirit of innovation relies on an openness to new perspectives and ways of approaching and solving problems. With this in mind, standard and open innovation models should and could work in the same organization. That sounds more difficult to manage from an organizational perspective, but tackling big problems through many approaches seems to be in line with the overarching spirit of NASA. I would encourage the organization to avoid formalization of innovation and let ideas come about however different teams feel they can reach them.

I don’t think it makes sense to change the entire R&D process to open innovation and see a world where both processes can / must coexists with each other. NASA’s has a reputation for being cutting edge, but has relied on a standard R&D process to get it there. As the organization ages and the world becomes more technologically advanced, I think it makes sense to test out other strategies, such as open innovation, in order to maintain a competitive edge.

While I appreciate the cultural struggles that are associated any dramatic change, I think it’s critical to consider both the changes to the R&D process and the potential coexistence of standard and open innovation in the context of NASA today and not in a vacuum simply considering the cultural frictional (that will accompany any change). Four contextual elements that I believe are important to consider when thinking about the potential R&D changes are i) the fact that NASA is a budget-constrained federal agency in the U.S., ii) the aerospace and, now, space travel industries are rapidly developing; iii) scientific progress has historically been achieved through collaborative vs. closed R&D approaches (including the partnerships noted by the author), and iv) NASA’s mission: “drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.” When considering these four ideas and thinking about this the successes from open innovation to date, such as the new approach to forecasting solar flares both with regard to accuracy and economics, I think it’s impossible to not read the tea leaves that change is needed with regard to the R&D processes. NASA must adapt. Without evolving, I don’t see how NASA will be able to stay truly committed to its mission. Forgoing the opportunities for more scrutinized, better, and faster solutions from open innovation seems counter to everything NASA stands for and thus points for whatever necessary cultural change might be required – as difficult as it must be – in order for NASA to remain relevant. I also believe there will be strong positive repercussions for NASA scientists as they are empowered with more information, brain power and overall resources. In short, the downsides are minimal relative to the potential upsides.

As a tax payer that has watched the decline of NASA’s budget as a percentage of the total federal budget and believes in the many benefits of the organization brings to society, the embrace of open innovation is a no brainer. The only question is how to deal with the short-term cultural friction that will undoubtedly exist in the near-term.

Very interesting perspective! I wonder about the efficacy of open innovation for solving problems as important and as complex as the ones that NASA is working on and how the real R&D professional at NASA feel about this. I agree that open innovation promotes learning and a differentiated approach – and in certain instances I think it’s very effective. But, to think that someone could contribute meaningfully to help solve actual “rocket science” seems somewhat far-fetched, and I would think the extra “noise” this creates in a NASA employee’s life at work would serve as more of an annoyance than a positive contribution – not to mention the privacy / security issues that might come along with this type of open forum.

I talked to a NASA engineer about this topic and she made a great point. The innovation and hard work needed to advance our space-faring capabilities has a lot of exciting and fun parts everyone wants to be a part of, but it also has a lot of dirty work and paperwork which is also very important and in need of innovation, but less interesting from the open public perspective. These open innovation projects may also cause NASA to do a lot more of this dirty work and pull people within the organization away from other projects and give them less satisfaction. THeir takeaway was that there needs to be a balance in both original nasa scientist driven work important for the long term and open innovation led work.

To answer the question “can standard and open innovation processes coexist in the same organization?” I would argue that NASA is probably one of the best examples of doing so over the last 100 years. Early space flight required intense abidance by physics-driven rules all while innovating new technology that would do so (and become a huge part of the recent technological revolution). I think NASA should looks to its past to understand that they were once the masters of open innovation, whether they know it or not.

It’s incredible that the open innovation initiative was able to reduce the cycle time of NASA’s R&D process from 3 to 5 years to 3 to 6 months! A lot of the comments above have already touched on the security risk of enabling public access to previously internal information in an institution like NASA, but your piece also highlights a very interesting managerial dilemma: crowd-sourcing solutions, in NASA’s case, has undermined the employee value proposition that has attracted high caliber talent in the past. Extrapolating from what you mentioned in the article, many people join NASA despite a pay cut in exchange for the “right” to solve very important, complex problems, as well as the prestige that arises from the exclusivity of this access. Yet, there are likely other employees who embrace an open innovation model and welcome the ability to collaborate with individual problem-solves in the public. In light of this issue, I would add one more question for NASA’s management to your current list: if NASA continues to embrace open innovation, what changes do they plan on making – or not making – to their talent strategy?

I think this is a very smart move on NASA’s part not only from an innovation standpoint but to manage costs in a time of funding uncertainty. If open sourcing is done correctly, it can significantly reduce R&D and overhead costs. It gives NASA greater control over the resources allocated to a given project and prevents costs from spiraling out of control with the hope that a breakthrough is just around the corner. In a time when NASA’s funding has come under fire, this is a step to mitigate federal support variability and continue to stay at the forefront of innovation regardless of the political climate.

The threat of open innovation to traditional R&D roles is not one I had considered before reading your post. To be honest, I am surprised that NASA would continue to run traditional R&D given the effectiveness of their open source contests. As an American taxpayer and thus sponsor/beneficiary of NASA’s work, I would encourage them to rely more heavily on open innovation because of the benefits it can yield in speed & cost to otherwise hyper-challenging problems. Perhaps in the R&D group, they can “innovate” by adopting a hybrid approach that maintains regard for national security. Rather than release questions to the entire public, and give small awards, they can appoint a group of 100-1,000 “insiders” and share problems inside that community, offering much higher reward incentives for contributing. In an ideal world, they could even bring in these insiders to collaborate/hone ideas. This would hopefully improve the allure/prestige of participating in open source innovation, while also minimally impacting the time to solve problems.

I believe that this is generally a bad move from NASA’s perspective for 2 reasons: First, it creates huge backlogs of ideas, analyzes and data that will demand valuable resources in order to filter and identify what is actually worth their attention. Second, standardization is key in very technical fields. When you host open innovation platform, you risk creating inefficiency and risks instead of innovation and disruption. In the end, would you let your kids embark on a crowd sourced space mission or would you rather have them on engineers that have been doing that for years?

I think open innovation and NASA are a perfect match. As many others have commented here, I love the idea of space and space exploration. I think there is something very universally human about space and its unknown. Therefore, I think innovation around space exploration should be as democratic and inclusive as possible. Someone had brought up a concern of national security. The more NASA can position itself as a non-partisan, global organization, the more innovative it will be. To end on an inspirational quote: “one small step for man, one large step for MANKIND”.

Fascinating article. I believe the estimates of open innovation efficiency, in this case, could be biased upwards since the challenges presented for crowdsourcing ideas might be easier and less complicated in the first place as otherwise, they would be too important to test for open innovation. The fact that NASA traditional R&D was less creative and less successful with their solutions can just point to the fact that engineers deemed these problems unimportant and not deserving enough effort, both mentally and timewise. However, I believe that crowdsourcing of ideas even for “toy problems” may have a very substantial impact on the breadth of ideas funnel at the very first stage. This approach of widening the ideas arena rather then increasing competition inside the arena could actually be well taken by entrenched engineers as they would be simply given free food for thoughts without compromising their professional superiority and alleviating most the security concerns.

I enjoyed this post! One concern I have is security concerns around NASA’s work. Security will definitely play a major role around what NASA is allowed to crowdsource. For this reason, I believe they have to continue complementing their standard R&D process with open innovation.

Super interesting. It’s great that open innovation has been able to empower more people to share their ideas at an organization such as NASA. As management at such an organization, I would want to make sure that a structure is in place to give equal weight to the ideas from various people. I would imagine that even following an open innovation process, hierarchy could play a role in determining which ideas to pursue. Another question that came to mind is whether ideas sourced from open innovation are more or less likely to be feasible and how would an organization filter for feasibility in order to avoid wasting time and money on projects with a lower likelihood of success.

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Houston We Have A Problem: NASA and Open Innovation (A)

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nasa open innovation case study

Michael L. Tushman

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  • Houston We Have A Solution: NASA and Open Innovation (B)  By: Michael Tushman, Hila Lifshitz-Assaf and Kerry Herman
  • Houston We Have a Problem: NASA and Open Innovation (A) and (B)  By: Michael L. Tushman, Hila Lifshitz-Assaf and Kerry Herman
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Exploring the Frontier of Open Innovation at NASA

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BTG Expert Q&A Blog Header: Image of Steve Rader, Deputy Director of the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation at NASA

NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) is breaking new ground in harnessing the power of open innovation to solve critical problems both within the agency and across the U.S. government. With more than 450 crowd-based challenges issued via the NASA Tournament Lab to date, CoECI has agencies tackle projects ranging from designing tools and technologies to disrupt the flow of opioids into the United States to developing manufacturing processes for the lunar surface.

As the Deputy Director of CoECI, Steve Rader facilitates and promotes the use of crowdsourcing and collaborative innovation platforms in support of such federal projects. He recently sat down with BTG’s Vice President of Enterprise and Corporate Development to discuss his work at CoECI, the benefits that the crowd-based model delivers to federal agencies, and recent news about the NASA Open Innovation Services 2 (NOIS2) contract—which expands the program to include a wide range of micro-tasking, freelance, and on-demand talent platforms, including Business Talent Group.

Listen to this episode of the BTG Insights on Demand podcast to hear Steve’s thoughts on why crowd-based and gig economy solutions are powerful tools for innovation, problem-solving, and engaging the public in the inspiring work performed at NASA. You can also read our lightly edited transcript of the chat below.

Adam Zellner:

Welcome to the podcast Steve. It's great to have you.

Steve Rader:

Thanks Adam, it's great to be on.

To kick off, can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI), including the founding principles behind it, how it got off the ground, and how long it's been?

Yeah, it's actually kind of an interesting story. Back in 2009, Dr. Jeff Davis at NASA—who heads up the Human Health and Performance Directorate that kind of deals with all the astronaut health—he actually got a big budget cut, and as a result of that, all of their R&D work was really kind of in a crunch. So to figure out how to do that with fewer resources, Jeff went out on a mission to benchmark with other companies to see what other folks were doing in this new world that might be of help with his new, smaller budget.

He came across P&G and others that had been pioneering this area. Also I think he took a course with Karim Lakhani at Harvard Business School, and that kind of opened up this world of open innovation. So in 2010 he put together a pilot program with InnoCentive and yet2. Around that same time there was another manager at headquarters, Jason Crusan who started working with Harvard as well and also started some pilot work with Topcoder and Tongal. And it turned out that all of these pilots were really successful in tapping into the internal crowd at NASA through the InnoCentive@Work platform that they were piloting as well as external challenges and tech searches and then the top coder challenges as well.

About that time, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was looking at this phenomenon of open data, open source, open innovation, and they were really promoting the government's pivot to this new phenomenon that was going on. In looking around the government, they found that NASA had done some of this work and had some knowledge about it. So in 2011, they asked NASA if they would stand up a center of excellence around this idea of open innovation to not only promote it within NASA, but to actually help the rest of the federal government adopt it—to mentor other agencies and provide tools and ways for them to get smarter about it and to implement some of these methods. That’s really how it got started, and it's been a really interesting journey over the past nine years.

Yeah, that is interesting. Given that the crowd-based challenge model was originally established to augment NASA's own R&D capabilities, it obviously scaled somewhat organically from there as multiple things came together. What do you see as the key benefits of the challenge model? What does it bring to the projects that you all take on?

Yeah. That's great. I'm glad you emphasized that because that was our first starting point was this idea of open innovation and prizes and challenges as the way to access communities. The big benefit is the diversity, right? When you've got a closed R&D shop, even if you have some of the best folks in the world...and we do, right? NASA has some just amazing scientists and engineers. I think it's easy to forget the importance of diversity in R&D and in innovation.

I would say that one of the big things that we've seen as we've been really looking at this and why it's successful and why it's so important is that the world has changed. We've always had technology changing our options for how we can get things done better, and those that impact our skills that we need in order to use those technologies. But the rate has changed. It has just continued to accelerate, and it's to the point now where we're at this collision point of growth of the population along with the wealth of countries bringing along a lot of education systems over the last 20 to 30 years, so that suddenly there are more educated people around than ever before. In fact there's a stat I use a lot that says that 90% of all scientists that have ever lived on planet Earth are alive today. That's huge, right?

And if you look at similar curves in PhDs or in numbers of patents, they're really these curves that are amazingly steep right now. We've gone from just four or five years ago, a few hundred thousand patent applications a year to, I think in 2017, it was three million a year. Same kind of phenomenon going on in PHDs. And the result of that is just a lot more technology, and a lot more technology coming quickly, and it's interplaying with each other. So for R&D, what that means is it's a lot harder to find those technologies that can give you an edge because you end up spending all your time either researching to try to find it and kind of chasing your tail, or you just go inward and pretend it's not there. In both cases, you're not finding the best starting points for going and solving your problems.

So this idea of bringing in diversity is a well-known piece of the innovation equation. But what we're seeing is, a lot of technologies and skills needed to solve our problems, needed to move us forward on a grand scale, are only outside of the agency or are largely outside of the agency. Because our whole agency is 60,000 people if you add up all of the Boeings, the Lockheeds, everyone on contract. So that's not all engineers, right? That's receptionists and travel folks and security guards. There's just not that many people working space, and when you look at that larger population, you get both the advantages of numbers as well as the diversity that that brings across multiple industries.

It's super interesting. I love that stat about how 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today. It really does speak to just the power of the crowd and how if they're given opportunities and ways to help that they can. You mentioned the White House and their encouragement to create a center of excellence. What other agencies were quick to get on board with the concept?

After some legislation that kind of enabled people to use prizes and challenges came along, several agencies really popped up and were early adopters. I would say Department of Energy was very active early on, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, they were pretty big. We've seen work in USAID, in NIH. I would have to go back and think because I don't want to leave anybody out. There were several agencies that really got on board quickly. I think there were some in the military as well. And we actually formed a community practice that GSA now runs.

There's challenge.gov , which is the site where we post all challenges that the government puts out there and it's this running list of a lot of open innovation work going on around the world of government. And it's funny, we actually collaborate with folks. So for instance, we had an internal crowd that we built called NASA@work where we use our employees as a crowd. And we had a great meeting with CIA. They went and implemented something similar but now they've actually done some really creative things that we are now learning from them. So there's kind of this back and forth with the agencies on trying to learn from each other on how to best use this and we're still experimenting.

Yeah. It's exciting to hear about the innovation being shared across agencies and that you're—for example, with the CIA—you're learning from what they've done and how they’ve built their own version and modified it to work for them, and you can all leverage it.

In 2015 CoECI launched the NASA Open Innovation Services contract (NOIS) . What were the goals with NOIS, and how did it differ from how the program was administered previously? What was the shift that you were looking for?

Yeah, so in the early years we had a direct contract with InnoCentive and yet2, and then we had a contract with Harvard Business School, who then had kind of a subcontract with Topcoder and I think they also reached out to Tongal every once in a while. It's interesting working with Harvard because it's this older-than-the-country institution. We think our bureaucracies are bad—it turns out Harvard has some pretty amazing bureaucracy and a big overhead. So part of it was, we wanted to move out to a little bit more streamlined, inexpensive model where we could access these vendors easily. One of the things is that we were seeing lots of new communities come online, right? So we were seeing that there were lots of different crowd platforms that were coming out and offering similar services.

So when we went to our contracting folks, we basically tried to be creative and recognize that this was kind of a new era of doing business and that weren't going to just be a few of these, that they were going to change, and they were going to come online, and we were still in this experimentation phase. And challenges, originally everyone thought that was just good for ideation. And then it turned out, well oh, you can also get really amazing video work and, oh, you can get software and, oh, you can solve algorithm problems and data science problems. The breadth of things you could do with challenges and with open innovations was expanding and it wasn't like one vendor was optimal for everything.

In the contracts world at NASA—and I'm imagining that it’s this way a lot of places—it is like a nine to 12 month ordeal to put a contract in place. If we were going to do these single one-off contracts with everyone, that was going to be a huge amount of overhead. So we put our heads together and said, "Well, we're kind of still experimenting. Let's use this…" And I have to credit the procurement folks because they actually presented us with these options that, we have this lightweight way to bring in what we call a Multi-Vendor IDIQ contract which is Indefinite Deliverable, Indefinite Quantities, and bring a bunch of contractors on that all meet the requirements that you're basically looking for, and then you can issue task orders on to that contract and compete them.

And so you say, "Hey, I need to have a piece of software built." And you'd put what we call it an RFP—or now we call it an RFTP—but it's basically a request for a plan, right? Tell us how you would do this? how much it would cost? What your schedule is and why you're a good fit, right? Why should you do this? What are your qualifications?

On that first contract, we had 10 vendors, and obviously only a subset of those were going to bid on software contracts, and only a subset would bid on problem solving, and only a subset would bid on video. So it was kind of like they could self-select what they were specialists in and provide a plan for us, and then we would pick the best value for the government and that would become a fixed price task order. That enabled us to really see what the full spectrum of open source or open innovation communities could do, and it expanded our minds.

About the same time that we did that, we actually also noticed that we could use purchase cards, government purchase cards, which are basically credit cards that at the time had like a $3,000 limit. And we found a few crowd platforms where that was their price point for running challenges—it was a few hundred dollars up to two or $3,000. That mechanism's now up to a $10,000 limit, so we can actually do quite a bit using just a purchase card without a formal contract. That led to some experimentation in, well if we can get this for $50,000, and this software for $30,000, and this other problem solved for a lot more, what can we get over here? And we started doing graphics challenges, and small video challenges, and animation challenges. And then we even did some design challenges—some engineering design challenges—and found some fairly amazing stuff. And so that's become a complement and it opened our eyes to the freelance world, which overlapped in some of those platforms.

You’re describing what I've seen from other organizations—enterprises especially—where they start to build out a portfolio of marketplaces that help them address a series of business areas or topics that require support or could be improved. They may start with one area but they go beyond that. It sounds like there was a learning that you all experienced and growth in the understanding of how this type of talent, how this type of model could support your work, and take it to the next level.

You mentioned the recognition that there was some overlap with freelancers. I think that speaks to NASA Open Innovation Services 2 (NOIS2) , which expands the program to 19 awardees, and BTG is happy to be part of that group. NOIS2 includes micro-tasking, freelancers, high end independent talent like that from BTG. How do you view the spectrum of talent sources that are currently available to you all? And what are you looking to achieve that might be different with this expansion?

Yeah, if I back up a little, we happened upon some platforms that did contests, and they were a passion community that did freelance work as well. We also noticed Topcoder started doing more of that. And we noticed, hey, these platforms are putting together communities of people who have passion—sometimes they curate those in different ways—and that's the real power. So when we put together NOIS2, one of the things we wanted to do was say, "Hey, what we're really about is finding value for the government using these new crowd-based resources. How do we do that?" So that led to us expanding to these freelancers and open talent as part of that contract.

What do we hope? I will say we are still learning, right? Part of this is learning, part of it is adoption. It's finding not just what works, but how to actually get the teams within an organization to use it—which is a huge thing. Part of this has also been learning why this is the thing. We came across a study that was showing that there's going to be more people in the freelance economy in a few years than there are in the regular organization. That's a huge shift, and the more we looked at that, the more we saw that there was this fundamental shift going on where a lot of people for whatever reason are fed up with traditional organizations. But then we also noticed that this rapid change was requiring lifelong learning and that that's a huge component of the freelance world is that they're able to be more agile.

And companies are now having a hard time finding all the right skills and technologies to hire. But if you go out to these platforms of freelancers, you can almost always find somebody who has the latest and greatest technological skills. So these are the kind of things that make us go, okay, wait, if we as the government are going to stay ahead of the curve and be competitive and value add, and we as NASA are going to actually still be relevant as the organization that helps keep America on the cutting edge of space, well we need to be able to adapt to that rapid change too. We're having those same problems of hiring critical skills. We're still having problems finding those latest and greatest technologies, so how can we use this to go do that?

We're still in early days of trying out the model and seeing where we can bring in teams of people or individuals that these platforms have. But I will say early indications are that this was exactly the right pivot at exactly the right time. There are conversations that are going on throughout government on how do we adapt? Really, I take a little bit of pride in that because the government is not always seen as very agile and keeping on the cutting edge, and we think we're really contributing that and we see a lot of willing participants around government that also recognize that and are embracing this. We also recognize that means some fundamental legal things are going to have to change—some laws are going to have to change, some policies are going to have to change—to get it firing on all cylinders.

To run with what you were talking to at the end there, i.e. the opportunity to be a change agent for innovation across government, how do you help agencies understand which open innovation awardee is the right solution for a particular project? I read an interview, you stated you looking to automate the process more. Are there tools you're building? What steps are you taking to do a good job educating folks on what's possible, then how do you select the right person to help you with what's possible? It's an area where a lot of organizations are looking for assistance, and you seem to have a head start on a lot of the enterprises out there. We'd be interested to hear your approach.

It's interesting because I'm going back and reading—it’s kind of an older book now— The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, who was at WIRED. And it's really interesting because he talks a lot about this and it's been known for a while but with the expansion of the internet, with the expansion of options, this filtering becomes hugely important, right? How do you get the right signal out of the noise? And when we started this, there were just a few crowds that were available, now there's, I think I heard a count of something like 700 communities out there that are kind of in this space. So you're right, how do you find the right tool?

This actually became fairly apparent early on when Dr. Davis was leading things, he actually brought in this idea of a solution mechanism guide, which was kind of a wizard that we built around selecting which mechanism you needed to go solve your problem. So depending on where you were in maturity of your project, how much money you had, how much time you had, and what kind of technology you are trying to pursue, you could select those and it would give you kind of a side-by-side comparison of you can go use a tech search or you can use a software challenge. It wasn't necessarily pointing you to a specific platform as much as it was showing how you can go about doing that—and it included regular contracts as well as Space Act Agreements and partnerships.

And it was mainly for NASA folks—actually folks within his organization—to help them figure out, “I've got this problem, where should I go to solve it?” As we've experimented with this, we've gotten to know a lot of the capabilities out there. Again, we're still learning, but I will say, when another agency or a project comes to us and says, "Hey, we've got this problem," we have a pretty good feel for what that's going to need. But remember what we put together was this multi-vendor contract where we don't actually have to go select, we actually can compete that and then the hope is that they'll self-select and provide proposals for the best way to go do that.

One of the reasons we do it that way is—because things are changing so much and because even each platform, each of these companies that we use, they're always bringing on new capabilities that we don't always know about—so trying to keep abreast of that was just really hard. This competitive contract actually helps us to discover through the proposal process what those new capabilities are, where they can help the government, and that's been really great. One of the things that we work hard on is trying to streamline that process, so that competitive process is both not a heavy burden for our project owners, our team, or the vendors.

For instance, we have a five-page proposal that we limit all of the vendors to. That's kind of hard sometimes to put all of what you want to try to propose you're doing into a five-page document and a few fields in a Google form. But what we're trying to do is to keep our vendors from having to spend hours and hours developing a really meticulous check-all-the-boxes 25-page procurement. Because there's only one winner in most cases, and if you're investing lots and lots of man hours writing proposals, and those proposals are long and technical, that's not doing the vendors any favors either. That doesn't make for a great model, so we're trying to streamline that to where it goes fast, it goes lean, and we kind of lean into this. Provide lots of opportunity for all of these communities to play and then do that in a way that's not too burdensome.

What do you believe are the keys to drive adoption? Now that there's an agreement in place, you have a group of 19 marketplaces that are approved to be worked with—how do you promote the usage of these innovative talent solutions with individual project owners? How do you get folks to embrace the next-gen of work?

These are great questions because I’ve got to say adoption was the key problem early on. We recognized what an amazing tool this was, but early adoption was really hard. In fact, there's a Harvard Business School case study called "Houston, We Have a Problem," that basically explains a real issue we had when we tried to actually use this at NASA initially. Jeff came back and was like, "This is great. It works." He told his managers and his scientists, "Let's go start doing this," and immediately got push back.

The best story on this is actually Alph Bingham—who started InnoCentive—he was at Eli Lilly and he was really a believer that you have to open things up if you really want to find the innovation. So he went to the chief scientist and he said, "Hey, I want to put these 21 unsolved problems out on a website and just see if we can get other people to solve this for us." And the chief scientist agreed. They put them up on the website and immediately all 20 some-odd of those scientists came to the chief scientist and said, "You need to take those down. You hired us to be the experts. We're the ones that have to do this. This is proprietary. You're giving stuff away." So they did, and he had to re-convince them, "Okay, if you need to rephrase it or whatever—to take out any proprietary whatever," but he eventually got them up there and almost all of them got solved in ways that were really innovative. The lesson out of that is the gut reaction for the folks that own those problems or own the current solutions is they don't like it.

They don't like putting their problems out. The way I talk about it is, we hire really innovative people, and if you think about it from their perspective, that initial ask was, "Hey, we want to take the most fun part of your job, the innovation part, and we want to give it to somebody else." Why would anyone be happy with that? So we had to actually work to change our messaging and to really take a lower profile. I called it boiling the frog, where instead of getting managers to mandate going out and doing this—we still have a little bit of that—but we had more getting stories together that we could say, "Hey look, this really worked well. You should try it.” Talking some projects into it and then getting good results that we could then share more.

And that snowball has grown. And in fact this year, I think we've got something like three times the projects that we did last year because that snowball has gained momentum. And our storytelling is now not we want to go get innovative solutions to your problem using crowdsourcing—what we say is, "Look, Jane over here had a problem, and she needed to find the best starting point so that she could go innovate and do work. She ran this challenge, or she went and did this, and look, we found an algorithm to do things 10x faster. We found a technology that she could use that she'd never heard of, and now she's creating a system that's 15x better than what we had.”

That's a story that anyone can say, "I want to be that person." But we didn't highlight the fact that there was some solver out there that brought us that. Part of that is messaging, because we wanted to take that threat piece out. We advertise it as, “The world is changing fast. You have to have better ways to find the new technologies and to get the best ideas and expertise or skills to bear on your problem and innovation challenges are a great way to do that—to get your starting point that then you go innovate.”

We tell people, “You'd never start trying to solve a significant problem with a 10-year-old computer or some old software or old tools, right? You always want to go find the latest and greatest.” That's been resonating with our folks pretty well and it's starting to gain kind of every level, which you have to bring along. But part of this is also that we had to spell out the problem. It took us a couple of years to figure out—oh, we actually have a problem in that if we don't find these solutions, then private-sector space and other countries are going to find better solutions and then we have a relevancy problem. And we're seeing that play out in industry with all of the companies that are going out of business because they're not actually innovating fast enough. There's lots of stats on that that we can go into, but establishing the need was a big piece of that too.

You describe a grassroots effort—packaging stories and bringing those to folks you interact with along the journey. To me what jumps out is also your focus on innovation and growth. There are organizations out there who don't invest enough in removing that threat—and it might be because their intent is actually to take advantage of the arbitrage opportunity that could exist in theory here and that organizations will use—but that the value of the crowd, of crowdsourced talent, of freelance talent, if done correctly, is the opportunity to innovate and create growth and new opportunity for the organization as a whole and for each individual within the organization.

Absolutely. I loved what Paul Estes did when he was at Microsoft, where he basically got rid of the standing army of contractors and said, "Look, core team..." They were doing Office 365 videos and training videos and support materials, and he said, "Go just use freelancers." They had an enterprise agreement with Upwork, but he actually said, "Find whoever and then we'll pay for those freelancers." Basically the idea was, do your jobs better and find who you need to go do them. And he has these great stories of people who had been poor performers in the organization who became stars when they stopped having to do work that they didn't love, focused on what they did love, and then pawned off the other work to freelancers—and found people whose passion was what they didn't have. They were able to put together an ecosystem or a team of people, so that each became team leader of a network of freelancers to get work done.

And it upped the productivity of that group while saving, I think it was something ridiculous, like 75% year over year costs. And I think that's right that when you can find the people that actually have the expertise you need, they work faster and more efficiently. When you learn to reach beyond yourself, it’s kind of like in college, right? If you try to do all your homework sitting in your dorm room versus going to a study group and working with a bunch of people—at least for me, my grades plummeted when I was by myself. But when I actually started working with other people, it actually expanded. And I think the diversity of people you have access to in this new free market offers that opportunity, not to just work with some amazing folks all over the world, but you're really upskilling yourself at the same time.

If you bring in someone with the latest and greatest machine learning and bring somebody else that's got the latest and greatest materials knowledge, and you're working with them, you then know some of that knowledge, you know it exists and it starts to make you hungry for more. Part of the organizational problem that's rampant today is that the old model where you hire people, keep them in labs, keep them insulated from anyone else is basically insulating them from the changes that are going on out there and it's why so many companies are becoming obsolete. Their very organizational model is at odds with this rapid change. So companies that are opening up and bringing in talent and rotating the talent through —and even letting their employees work on side gigs—that opens up an entire new kind of concept for how work and knowledge gets used.

As you describe the opportunity for organizations, and also the old-world challenge, it makes me think about what we're living through right now. You're on this call from your home office, I believe. I am from mine. What was the plan for the program's evolution in the years to come—during the term of NOIS2 and maybe beyond that, if you all have mapped that out? And how has this pandemic had an impact on that plan, the timeline, the type of work that you‘re already doing or will be doing through the program, or how you're shaping the way in which you scale it?

It's funny, I was having a discussion the other day with Chuck Hamilton who used to be the COO at HeroX, and he described it really eloquently. He said, "It used to be that companies and organizations were all about efficiency, and how do you squeeze out the process so that you're more efficient and get a bigger bang for your buck? But that led to a very tight supply chain—you know, just-in-time—that we are now seeing has all sorts of impacts when you have this kind of disruptive change like COVID."

He said, "Companies really need to have kind of a balancing act of efficiency and resiliency." And I thought, you know that is absolutely right, because this disruptive change isn't just COVID, it's the disruptive change that's happening through this rapid pace. So automation and robotics are bringing rapid change, the changing marketplace, the way the markets are changing worldwide as countries become richer and richer, all of these create a constant disruption. And I think companies and organizations need to figure out, “How do you stay resilient?”

To bring it back to your question, which is how are we going to use this and scale this and what's this mean for our future? We're having those discussions now. We're trying to figure out what is the best way to use this. Obviously, there are clear things to use open innovation for in keeping up with the latest and greatest technology, and to really reformulate the way we do R&D, tech work, and problem solving to where that becomes part of the fabric—part of the normal thing. How do we just make that part of it process? We're getting progress on that.

The freelance piece is kind of newer. I think there are interesting conversations in the HR world where they see it. They see that it's hard to get the talent they need and that we need new ways to find the talent for when we need it, and to be able to be agile in our usage of it. They've already recognized that hiring 30-year-tenure folks is not a strategy going forward. They're already looking at—and this is happening all across government—how do we have shorter-stint civil servants? How do we do various models that might change? I'll say they’re starting to even have the conversations about what is work in the future, and are there models where nobody works full time for any one organization, but everyone works with a bunch of different folks and that's okay?

There's a lot of runway still to go on that position, but there are people talking about what are the impacts? Is it good to have benefits coupled with an organization if the new model requires you to kind of move around more? Maybe there needs to be a decoupling of work and benefits so that you can actually do things. I know so many people that are miserable in jobs right now that they can't leave because they have to have the benefits. What we see is there's kind of a—this is probably more of a personal vision—but there's an opportunity for people to live their passion, to access global marketplaces, to—as an individual—start to develop lifelong learning skills that allow you to be robust to those changes. Some of the biggest problems with say factory workers or taxi drivers is they were trapped in those jobs by companies that weren't developing them.

The organizations would use those workers until those workers weren't needed anymore and then dump them onto society without any new training. What we're seeing in this new freelance world is these platforms are starting to enable lifelong learning, so that just by working on these platforms, people are learning new skills. Paro.io is a great example. Michael Burdick set up a system where every time they assign somebody an accounting task, they assign it at the limit of that person's skill so that by the time they finish that, they've actually stretched and learned a little bit more.

If you think about it, if we adopted that approach everywhere, then our workers would never be laid off. They would always be keeping up with the latest and greatest because it would be built into the fabric of the work and the work assignments that come through platforms. We're seeing that future. And we're trying to figure out—back to more reality—is, okay, if that's coming, how do we as the government try to figure out how to best do that? How to best find those people that can make a difference for us—how do we find and make them contributors?

One of the things we found in open innovation is that people love NASA and they want to be part of a mission. I kind of looked up one day and I said, "You know, for 50 years NASA's way of doing public outreach has been ‘Look at this cool stuff we're doing, don't you wish you were us?’" And challenges were suddenly providing thousands of people the opportunity to work with NASA—to be part of the team. Even if their stuff didn't get selected, they got to be in there, understanding the problem and trying to contribute. It lit me up and I thought, "Well, this is a whole new model for public participation in everything,” and that passion can come through in lots of different ways. It provides us a way to engage the public. All of those things swirl together, and we're trying to figure out how to structure that in a way that benefits the agency.

There's so much of that that resonates if you look around the space. It's a conversation that needs to be had. On lifelong learning, at BTG we survey our talent, we ask them what they're interested in, and it actually led us to collaborate with General Assembly . I’ve spoken to people who are part of other marketplaces, and they don't expect high end independent talent necessarily to want that same level of learning opportunities because they—you mentioned Harvard Business School—many of the folks in our talent network have degrees from there, but those folks still want to improve their skills. They may have graduated before data science and digital marketing were disciplines taught in the classroom. They want to extend themselves, become certified, and be able to serve clients in expanded ways. So I think you're nailing so much of what needs to be thought through to scale the use of on-demand talent.

I know we're coming close to wrapping up, and I have to ask you—CoECI has been involved with things from developing an asteroid tracker algorithm to adapting video game controllers for recreational and therapeutic use at the VA medical centers. There's some current challenges around removing sedimentation from reservoirs, reinventing the Mars Rover wheel, designing the next generation of space toilets. On a personal note, what's your favorite challenge? The most interesting one, the one that you're thrilled that it came through the program. The idea of it, maybe the solution that was developed, what would you choose to highlight?

That's really tough. We've done like 460-odd challenges so that's a really tough question, but there's a few that stand out. One was the ISS handrail clamp challenge that we did on GrabCAD. Mainly because that—a couple of reasons—one, it kind of went viral. It was like a $3,000 challenge that ended up with 400 or 500 folks that really were wanting to be engaged in providing solutions, and it had some really cool 3D printable handrail clamps that we came out of that with. But it also turned us on to micro-purchase challenges, and that turned us on to freelancing, so it was the beginning of an exploratory journey that really helped us.

There's another one, the disruption-tolerant networking security key challenge, just because I used to work on that team and I convinced them to do some challenges. They actually had this problem that they knew was lurking out there that they needed to solve at some point in the future, which was how do they share security keys in a network that could never be time synchronized? They had looked all around the government for folks that they might have solutions, and nobody had a solution. Topcoder ended up solving that for us, but the funny thing was that they actually pointed out a solution using the Byzantine Generals problem, which we actually had implemented to synchronize computers on a spacecraft I had worked on. So it was almost like we had to ask somebody from the outside that we didn't know to show us that we actually knew the solution. We just didn't know to apply it to security. That to me just demonstrated the power of open innovation right there.

It must be gratifying given your involvement there with the team. That's awesome. Thank you. I appreciate that example, and Steve, I appreciate your time and talking with us today. Again, my guest is Steve Rader, the deputy director of NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI), and I'm Adam Zellner for the BTG Insights on Demand podcast .

In upcoming episodes, we'll be talking with other experts about how independent on demand talent can help organizations infuse in-demand skills and expertise into critical work. Subscribe for these insights and more wherever you get your podcasts, or visit businesstalentgroup.com if you'd like to get started on a project today . Thanks for listening.

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Houston, We Have a Problem: NASA and Open Innovation (A) Harvard Case Solution & Analysis

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Manager of Space Life Sciences Directorate at NASA, Jeff Davis, has been working for several years to create awareness amongst scientists and researchers in his organizations of the benefits of open innovation as a successful and efficient strategy to collaborate on challenging research problems related to well-being and space travel. Despite several initiatives, SLSD members have now been skeptical about integrating the approach into their day to day research and work, and have resisted his strategy team's and Davis's attempts. The (A) case summarizes these efforts as well as the organization members' reactions. The (B) case details what Davis and the SLSD strategy team learned, and how they adapted their efforts to successfully incorporate open innovation as one of many tools used in collaborative research at NASA.


This is just an excerpt. This case is about ORGANIZATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

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Landsat data have become an invaluable resource for understanding and monitoring the Earth and its natural resources. The long temporal record, global coverage, free and open access, and versatile applications make Landsat data an ideal tool for learning and advancing remote sensing skills and studying global and regional trends and patterns. There are numerous educational resources for learners of all ages and experience levels. The resources listed below are a subset of training courses, tutorials, webinars, and software programs that can assist users in learning how to download, process, and analyze Landsat data.


Thumbnail image of NASA ARSET website

The NASA Applied Remote Sensing Training (ARSET) Program offers free self-paced training modules, live webinars, and in-person courses for beginner, intermediate, and advanced practitioners.  The program empowers the global community through remote sensing education and assists applied science professionals and policymakers in using Earth observation data to support management and decision-making. Training courses cover a range of web portals, analysis tools, topics, and data, including Landsat.

  • NASA ARSET Program Overview
  • NASA ARSET Fundamentals of Remote Sensing
  • Training: Spectral Indices for Land and Aquatic Applications (October 2023)
  • Training: Monitoring Water Quality of Inland Lakes Using Remote Sensing (July 2023)
  • Training: Connecting Citizen Science with Remote Sensing (January 2023)
  • Training: Satellite Remote Sensing for Agricultural Applications (April 2020)
  • Training: Investigating Time Series of Satellite Imagery (April 2019)
  • Training: NASA Earth Science Data for Wildland Fire Decision Making (April 2017)
  • Training: Land Cover Classification with Satellite Imagery (January 2017)

NASA Earthdata Webinars and Tutorials

Thumbnail image of Earthdata Webinars and Tutorials webpage

NASA Earthdata is a gateway to one of the largest repositories of Earth observation data. It provides full and open access to scientists, educators, students, and the public with a wealth of data, tools, and information to aid in the understanding of Earth’s processes. NASA Earthdata offers webinars and tutorials that are designed to assist the diverse end-user community in learning more about NASA datasets and their applications.

  • Tutorial: What is Remote Sensing?
  • Webinar: Advancing Science Capabilities with Data Harmonization: NASA’s Harmonized Landsat Sentinel-2 Product (May 2022)
  • Webinar: From Pixels to Products: An Overview of Satellite Remote Sensing (March 2021)
  • Webinar: Mapping Global Urbanization from Landsat Data and High-Resolution Reference Data (November 2018)
  • Webinar: Discover and Access Landsat Analysis Ready Data (ARD) from the USGS Archive (June 2018)
  • Webinar: Know Your Landsat: Understanding and Accessing Landsat Data (October 2014)

NASA Earth Observatory Tutorials

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NASA Earth Observatory is an online platform for image-driven stories about Earth systems, environments, and the climate. The stories emerge from NASA research, satellite missions, and models and often focus on observations of worldwide natural disasters, weather-related events, or stunning landscapes. NASA Earth Observatory has also periodically developed tutorials that provide a more in-depth understanding of satellite imagery and data.

  • How to Pan-sharpen Landsat Imagery (June 2017)
  • Why is that Forest Red and that Cloud Blue? How to Interpret a False-Color Satellite Image (March 2014)
  • How to Interpret a Satellite Image: Five Tips and Strategies (November 2013)
  • How To Make a True-Color Landsat 8 Image (October 2013)

AmericaView Resources

nasa open innovation case study

AmericaView is a nationwide, university-based, and state-implemented network that advances Earth observation education through remote sensing science, applied research, workforce development, technology transfer, and community outreach. AmericaView and its StateView members offer educational and research resources designed empower individuals and organizations in the fields of remote sensing and Earth observation. The following StateView members have developed Landsat-related educational content.

  • AlaskaView (University of Alaska Fairbanks): GIS Image Analysis in ArcGIS Pro (Free Online Course)
  • IndianaView (Purdue University): Python Programming with ArcGIS Pro (Free Tutorial)
  • Rhode IslandView (University of Rhode Island): Remote Sensing with Landsat in Rhode Island (ArcGIS StoryMap)
  • TennesseeView (University of Tennessee): Educational Workshops and Trainings
  • VermontView (University of Vermont): Downloading Landsat 8 OLI Data and Computing NDVI in ArcGIS Pro (Video Tutorial)
  • West VirginiaView (West Virginia University): Free Online Geospatial Courses

Cloud Computing Resources

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Landsat Collection 2 data can be accessed from Google Earth Engine and Amazon Web Services (AWS) . Cloud storage and computing platforms enable Landsat data to be stored, managed, and analyzed in a cost-effective, accessible, and scalable manner. These services also provide access to powerful computing resources, task automation, and innovative capabilities. There are several introductory and advanced resources for learning how to process and analyze Landsat data in these cloud computing platforms.

  • Google Earth Engine Catalog - Landsat Collection 2
  • Google Earth Engine Landsat Algorithms Guide
  • Google Earth Engine 101 Part 1 (Video Tutorial by Google Earth)
  • Google Earth Engine 101 Part 2 (Video Tutorial by Google Earth)
  • Analyzing a Landsat 8 image in Google Earth Engine (Video Tutorial by Google Earth)
  • Cloud-Based Remote Sensing with GEE (eBook)
  • Google Earth Engine 101: An Introduction for Complete Beginners (Video Tutorial by Stanford Geospatial Center)
  • Loading Landsat 8 data into Google Earth Engine (Video Tutorial by James Cook University)
  • Using Google Earth Engine for Land Monitoring Applications, Part 1/3 (Training by NASA ARSET)
  • Using Google Earth Engine for Land Monitoring Applications, Part 2/3 (Training by NASA ARSET)
  • Using Google Earth Engine for Land Monitoring Applications, Part 3/3 (Training by NASA ARSET)
  • LandTrendr in Google Earth Engine (Kennedy Geospatial Lab at Oregon State University)
  • LandTrendr Pixel Time Series Plotter (Kennedy Geospatial Lab at Oregon State University)
  • Registry of Open Data on AWS - USGS Landsat
  • Landsat Commercial Cloud Direct Access Users Guide (USGS User Guide)
  • Landsat Cloud Direct Access Requester Pays Tutorial (USGS Tutorial)
  • Landsat Spatio Temporal Asset Catalog (STAC) Tutorial (USGS Tutorial)

Open Source Software Programs & Resources

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Open-source GIS and remote sensing software programs are a valuable resource for geospatial students and professionals. They offer a wide range of features and functionality that are generally comparable to proprietary software programs. The source code is openly available to users, which fosters innovation, promotes collaboration, and allows customization. The open-source GIS and remote sensing software programs and packages listed below are a select few. 

QGIS (Quantum Geographic Information System)

  • QGIS User Guide
  • QGIS Training Manual
  • QGIS Tutorials and Tips
  • QGIS Python Plugins Repository
  • QGIS Semi-Automatic Classification Plugin

GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) GIS

  • GRASS GIS Reference Manual
  • GRASS GIS Tutorials
  • Image Processing in GRASS GIS

SAGA (System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses) GIS

  • SAGA GIS Wiki - Documentation
  • SAGA GIS Wiki - Tutorials

MultiSpec© (Purdue University)

  • MultiSpec© Documentation
  • MultiSpec© Tutorials and Exercises

The R Project for Statistical Computing

  • The R Manuals
  • Available CRAN Packages By Name
  • Package Terra
  • Spatial Data Science with R and Package Terra
  • Package Landsat
  • Package ShapeSelectForest
  • Package Land Surface Remote Sensing
  • Open-Source Spatial Analytics (R)

Commercial Software Programs & Resources

Thumbnail image of the Earth with a square graphic on top

Commercial GIS and remote sensing software programs offer a wide range of features and functionalities for working with geospatial data. They offer some advantages over open-source software, such as access to technical support, established training programs, powerful tools, and tested algorithms. Commercial software programs are also often designed with a user-friendly interface and can be easier to use than open-source programs.

Esri ArcGIS Pro

  • Introduction to ArcGIS Pro
  • Esri Imagery and Remote Sensing Tutorials
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  1. NASA Open Innovation Case Study

    nasa open innovation case study

  2. Houston, We Have a Solution: NASA and Open Innovation (B) Case Solution

    nasa open innovation case study

  3. Opening Up Innovation at NASA (NASA's Open Innovation Toolkit and Exp…

    nasa open innovation case study

  4. Houston, We Have a Problem: NASA and Open Innovation (A) Case Solution

    nasa open innovation case study

  5. Opening Up Innovation at NASA (NASA's Open Innovation Toolkit and Exp…

    nasa open innovation case study

  6. Participate with NASA Solve

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  5. Expanding NASA Aeronautics Research for Sustainable Aviation


  1. PDF Open Innovation: Boosting NASA Higher, Faster, and Farther

    2 | OPEN INNOVATION AT NASA As was the case for all U.S. government agencies, NASA faced the COVID-19 pandemic and met one of the most urgent worldwide issues of the 21st century head-on. During a time of global concern, the space agency rallied

  2. A Study of NASA Scientists Shows How to Overcome Barriers to Open

    A Study of NASA Scientists Shows How to Overcome Barriers to Open Innovation by Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, Michael L. Tushman, and Karim R. Lakhani May 29, 2018 Don Farrall/Getty Images Summary....

  3. Open Innovation

    NASA.gov brings you the latest images, videos and news from America's space agency. Get the latest updates on NASA missions, watch NASA TV live, and learn about our quest to reveal the unknown and benefit all humankind.



  5. Open Innovation at NASA: A New Business Model for Advancing Human

    OVERVIEW: This paper describes a new business model for advancing NASA human health and performance innovations and demonstrates how open innovation, including the use of crowdsourcing and technology solution sourcing services, shaped its development.

  6. Public Provides NASA with New Innovations through Prize Competitions

    Space Tech Jan 31, 2022 Public Provides NASA with New Innovations through Prize Competitions, Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science Opportunities

  7. Open Innovation Model Furthers Innovation at NASA, According to NYU

    The study finds that web-enabled open innovation proves to significantly advance technological and scientific innovation, but only when a shift in both work process and professional identity takes place. ... In the case of NASA's scientists and engineers, the shift was best from being 'problem solver' to 'solution seeker ...

  8. Outcome-driven open innovation at NASA

    This paper provides several case studies of NASA open innovation activities and maps the outcomes of those activities to a successful set of outcomes that challenges can help drive alongside traditional tools such as contracts, grants and partnerships. Keywords Open innovation Prize competition Challenge Crowdsourcing Space 1. Introduction

  9. NASA Uses Crowdsourcing for Open Innovation Contracts

    Jun 4, 2015 RELEASE J15-010 NASA Uses Crowdsourcing for Open Innovation Contracts NASA is turning to the public and crowdsourcing for outside-the-box thinking about human space exploration challenges with a series of 10 new NASA Open Innovation Service (NOIS) Contracts.

  10. Outcome-driven open innovation at NASA

    This paper provides several case studies of NASA open innovation activities and maps the outcomes of those activities to a successful set of outcomes that challenges can help drive alongside traditional tools such as contracts, grants and partnerships. Introduction

  11. Houston, We Have a Problem: NASA and Open Innovation (A)

    The (A) case outlines these efforts and the organization members' reactions. The (B) case details what Davis and the SLSD strategy team learned, and how they adapted their efforts to successfully incorporate open innovation as one of many tools used in collaborative research at NASA.

  12. NASA Open Innovation Case Study

    NASA case study: The Future of Talent Acquisition and Innovation Great ideas are not created in a vacuum. Assist 2 Develop taps a global talent pool to quickly solve problems by using open innovation that cuts across blind spots, identifies creative solutions, and develops real-world results.

  13. Expanding Open Innovation at NASA

    Posted Nov 13, 2018 Next: Xceptor: Automating Data Automation In the last decade, NASA started using Open Innovation approaches to solve some of the world's most complicated problems. Now, the company will need to think about how to solve potential implementation challenges as the company scales up these approaches.

  14. NASA Announces Open Innovation Services 2 Contract Selections, Expands

    In 2015, the original NOIS contract equipped NASA and other federal government agencies with a toolkit for crowdsourcing and open innovation. The 10 contractors provided crowd-based solutions using commercial approaches to help solve problems and meet project goals. The NOIS2 contracts provide an expanded set of crowdsourcing tools, including challenges and prize competitions, freelance and ...

  15. The Reinvention of NASA

    Summary. Since the Apollo program, NASA has faced funding cuts, competition from other nations for space leadership, and a radical restructuring of its operating environment due to the emergence...

  16. Open Innovation at NASA: Impact in Culture

    The problem that NASA faces with the implementation of open innovation is how to organize and shift the culture, roles and processes to embrace such trend. At NASA the standard R&D process take 3 to 5 years. In 2009 when the open innovation initiative was first implemented, the average cycle took 3 to 6 months.

  17. PDF National Aeronautics and Space Administration ItechnologyNOVATION

    Central to NASA's innovation initiative is the new Space Technology program that builds off of the success of the NASA Innovative Partnerships Program to meet the Agency's needs for a broad range of technological solutions, as well as meeting the needs of other government agencies and the Nation's space industry. This NASA program com-

  18. Houston We Have A Problem: NASA and Open Innovation (A)

    Jeff Davis, director of Space Life Sciences Directorate (SLSD) at NASA, has been working for several years to raise awareness amongst scientists and researchers in his organizations of the benefits of open innovation as a successful and efficient way to collaborate on difficult research problems regarding health and space travel.

  19. Exploring the Frontier of Open Innovation at NASA

    Eric Knox NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) is breaking new ground in harnessing the power of open innovation to solve critical problems both within the agency and across the U.S. government.

  20. Open Innovation

    Open Innovation - About Us | NASA. NASA.gov brings you the latest images, videos and news from America's space agency. Get the latest updates on NASA missions, watch NASA TV live, and learn about our quest to reveal the unknown and benefit all humankind.

  21. Case Studies Catalog

    Case Studies Catalog | NASA NASA.gov brings you the latest images, videos and news from America's space agency. Get the latest updates on NASA missions, watch NASA TV live, and learn about our quest to reveal the unknown and benefit all humankind.

  22. Opening Up Innovation at NASA (NASA's Open Innovation Toolkit and

    Opening Up Innovation at NASA (NASA's Open Innovation Toolkit and Experience) Nov. 4, 2018 • 0 likes • 818 views Download Now Download to read offline Technology Stever Rader, NASA CSWGlobal18 presentation Crowdsourcing Week Follow Crowdsourcing Week Recommended NASA Case Study JPL Knowledge Management Puneet Bhalla 2.3K views•38 slides

  23. Houston, We Have a Problem: NASA and Open Innovation (A) Case Solution

    The (A) case summarizes these efforts as well as the organization members' reactions. The (B) case details what Davis and the SLSD strategy team learned, and how they adapted their efforts to successfully incorporate open innovation as one of many tools used in collaborative research at NASA. PUBLICATION DATE: May 05, 2014 PRODUCT #: 414044-PDF-ENG

  24. 2 Case-study 1

    The idea behind open innovation is not particularly new. The academic science has always been an example of open (albeit traditionally fairly slow) innovation: collaboration between various researchers has been a norm and the results of research have been broadly shared via seminars, academic journals, the internet, etc.

  25. Data Use

    The NASA Applied Remote Sensing Training (ARSET) Program offers free self-paced training modules, live webinars, and in-person courses for beginner, intermediate, and advanced practitioners. The program empowers the global community through remote sensing education and assists applied science professionals and policymakers in using Earth observation data to support management and decision-making.