NASA brings new attitude to stimulate IT innovation

Friday - 8/16/2013, 6:10am EDT

Jason Miller interviews Sasi Pillay, chief technology officer at NASA.

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NASA's goal of bringing in a little of the Silicon Valley startup mentality is taking off.

The IT Labs program is finding plenty of options for rapid, low-cost, low-risk projects to improve the space agency's use of technology.

Sasi Pillay, NASA's chief technology officer, said the second call for ideas around specific areas of interest or emphasis produced 25 possible projects earlier this year.

"The whole idea is to create a culture of innovation. When I talk about innovation, I want to make sure not only the IT community is engaged, but our mission customers and people outside the IT community also are fully engaged," Pillay said after a recent TechAmerica event in Washington. "What we are trying to do is create an environment where anybody at NASA could suggest an idea, could sponsor it or could do any of the early stages, which is ideation, a working prototype, a proof of concept, or even help with a pilot if that's needed. The whole idea is to bring people of diverse backgrounds together to collaborate and innovate together. That helps to bring a better team so we aren't always looking at each other as a service provider and customer type of relationship, but true co-collaborators in advancing the mission of the agency."

Interns at NASA's Innovation Lab "grab on to the future" by creating a robot arm capable of grabbing an egg.

NASA started the IT Labs program in 2011 and conducted several pilots in 2012, based on the work that came from these initial efforts.

Several quick wins

One of those early pilots is the use of Google Apps for Government in the cloud using smart identity cards under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12.

Another was the idea of a secure computing environment, where employees could use whichever PC or device they want to work on the agency's network.

"In a sense, this idea of having a mechanism by which we can provide NASA enterprisewide services in a secure manner through either a thumb drive or a SD card, or by installing what I could call a secure bubble or capsule on the employee's own computer, we could achieve to some extent exactly what we want," Pillay said. "The nice thing about that is NASA is not owning the end point device, so there are significant savings that come as a result of that. We are basically providing the back-office and the environment to make secure computing possible."

He added NASA completed the proof of concept earlier this summer and is moving toward a pilot stage.

Within a year or so, Pillay said he hopes to make this as a service to offer to employees. "We did the ideation stage, we did the proof of concept, so now I would take it to what I'd call a working prototype," he said. "Not the pilot stage where I would put out a call asking for 100 or 500 volunteers to try it out. We may start with about a dozen people who haven't been a part of the project before to get fresh eyes."

Innovation slipping across government?

The Obama administration has encouraged agencies to use innovative approaches to solve problems. The White House has encouraged the use of contests and challenges to extend their reach to the private sector. Agencies also are looking internally to bring employees together to come up with and implement new ideas, such as the Office of Personnel Management's Innovation Lab.

But a recent report from the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte found governmentwide innovation efforts are slipping. The report's findings come as the Employee Viewpoint Survey saw the governmentwide innovation score drop by 1.7 points to 61.2 out of 100.

Despite the tight budgets and other challenges, NASA continues to take advantage of its IT Labs.

Pillay said the IT Lab in 2013 received more proposals in terms of numbers and diversity of ideas. The ideas came from employees from different disciplines and geographic sites are offering creative ideas, he said.

Each project goes through a similar process as the secure computing environment program.

"The reason we have short time frames is because we want people to work on it as hard as they can and come back with some results. The results are shared widely within our community," Pillay said. "We have established a website where people can populate what they are working on periodically, and then we make an assessment if we should take the project to the next stage of the early stages of the IT lifecycle. If it merits consideration, then we will try to find funding."