Karen Fallon discusses knowledge sharing in NASA’s Scientific and Technical Information Program Office.
Karen Fallon is the Deputy Program Manager for the NASA Scientific and Technical Information (STI) Program and serves as the STI Knowledge Services Lead. The NASA STI Program is a critical component in the agency’s participation in and contribution to worldwide scientific, technical and aerospace research and development. The STI collection includes over 4.5 million records from active research results and historical collections to the first R&D activities of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). In addition to preserving historical R&D results and findings, in partnership with the STI management at each NASA center, the STI Program Office receives and aggregates STI submissions from across the agency. The results are curated for public dissemination via the NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) or restricted dissemination (NTRS-R) for use by NASA researchers and scientists.
Fallon joined NASA in 2011 as a Contracting Officer for the Langley Research Center. Prior to joining NASA, she served in the U.S. Navy for 23 years as an Aviation, Systems and Surface Logistician. Fallon holds a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s degree from the University of Kansas, and is a graduate of the U.S. Joint Forces Senior Command and Staff College and the University of Virginia Darden Executive Leadership Program.
Are there any successful knowledge efforts in your organization that you’d like to highlight?
I would point to our team’s knowledge efforts in managing the existing collection, which is a highly esteemed repository of scientific and technical research information. We have a technical team that preserves it, but also ensures that it is maintained at the highest degree of preservation in order to make the oldest documents from the early 1900s as searchable as submissions from yesterday. And then we have a functional team that tries to stay abreast of all the new, industry-leading practices as far as tagging information to make it more readily searchable and connecting subjects via terms and conditions that may not have been connected five, 10, or even 75 years ago. So, there’s a functional element of management of the repository and a technical element for preservation and searchability.
As we preserve, maintain and grow the collection, it’s really important for us to recognize that to be a resource for future NASA knowledge groups, we need to make sure the collection is complete, usable and current. We work with the centers to ensure they are collecting, vetting and submitting all of the research occurring at the field centers. The NASA STI collection isn’t just aged data and information. In addition to including a full collection of historical R&D, it also includes current results. If there is scientific and technical activity ongoing with results and/or associated findings, we work with the centers in their vetting process to make sure it’s reviewed and tagged properly for timely release to either the public site (NTRS) or the restricted site (NTRS-R). There is a portion of the information that we gather that’s not releasable to the public. It is, however, releasable to vetted, registered users of the NTRS-R repository. Much of that is SBU or ITAR/Export Control information or involves other attributes that determine limited releasability of information. We manage the two collections, making as much as possible releasable to the public.
Do you have a favorite story or example of tangible benefits of knowledge sharing?
A recent story about the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ may resonate. The author developed the idea for the story after speaking with her father. When she started doing research on the women in the story, she used the STI repository – the one that we manage — to validate information that was used in the book and movie. This included technical papers, engineering findings, and any of the scientific findings and research that was done, published or authored in whatever context by the women — the original computers. She was able to validate and obtain much of the information from the STI public NTRS collection.
For ‘Hidden Figures,’ she was able pull up copies of the engineering reports and recommendations made by Katherine Johnson and the other women who were pioneers in their fields. It is a great story, complete with validated reports from the NTRS.
Sometimes when you’re in the repository world it can interpreted as ‘flat’ data and information. We do our best to make sure that knowledge seekers understand that the information can either answer their questions or perhaps prompt their inquiry in different directions. I understand that additional characters were put in the book and movie based on some of the related findings when they were doing the search in the STI repository.
How do NASA STI knowledge sharing activities help ensure that the U.S. maintains its preeminence in aerospace-related industries and education?
The STI Program itself is more than just the repository. We work directly with STI leads at each NASA center to ensure we are preserving R&D in addition to collecting the most up-to-date science and technical results. It’s a premier collection of results from research and development, offering a resource of aggregated agency-wide results. This offers a potential to connect results or findings across projects, centers and missions. The NASA STI collection presents a platform to search for combinations of potential resources in support of solutions and innovations. While recognizing the ‘work and discovery’ happens at centers and in projects and missions, aggregating the most highly prized scientific, aeronautics and aerospace R&D results into one collection ultimately avoids the isolation and stove-piping of information.
We maintain and add to the collection with an appreciation that this is a collection of gold standard results and findings. The authors and the researchers participate in a thorough submission and vetting process, and the published results are of the highest quality. The NASA STI collection of aeronautics and aerospace research presents a collection that, I would submit, you really can’t find anywhere else. Maintaining the existing collection is essential, but the process to continue contributions — working with the authors and researchers — is also important. I think we have a unique opportunity at the STI Program at NASA to reach out to those researchers and authors to ensure that their efforts are combined with the full range of NASA efforts and then made available to anyone in the U.S. if they’re publicly releasable.
Another thing that we do to ensure preeminence of the collection as a resource is to work closely with other federal agencies for preserving the existing collection and determining where additional contributions add value. We are a founding member of an organization of federal agencies that all have STI endeavors, to include the Department of Energy, Government Publishing Office, Department of Agriculture, National Library Service, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, and Department of Homeland Security. The NASA STI program is in great company as we try to ensure that we have the latest and greatest technology and practices as far as maintaining, preserving and disseminating our information. Additionally, our repository is enhanced by collections that we bring in from other federal agencies such as DOD and NIH in addition to other space agencies such as JAXA and the European Space Agency. There are many, many cases where researchers and developers want to see information on a similar subject that we can aggregate for them. We also work with the JANNAF, which is the Joint Army Navy NASA Air Force interagency resource. We collect specific, additional non-NASA information to complement the collection and ensure that it remains the preeminent source for NASA scientists and researchers.
Who are the biggest users of the knowledge services provided by your organization?
On our public site (NTRS) we average about 400,000 downloads per month. It’s important to caveat this number. These are searchers who have not just googled something. They have come to search NASA STI for defined pieces of information. We also average 20,000 to 30,000 requests per month for specific, restricted information which is sourced from the registered user site (NTRS-R). The combined repositories have over 4.5 million entries from the early 1900s during the Wright Brothers up until today.
It’s encouraging to see the huge demand and wide range of interest. There are specialized, internal NASA researcher requests, and a large share of external requests. The requests come from other agencies, the public and academia — universities and colleges working on grants. There is a wide range of consumers of this incredible NASA information and we do the best we can to make sure it’s releasable to the greatest extent practicable, in accordance with releasability laws.
To see the volume of requests for NASA research information on a monthly basis is very encouraging. It’s an indicator that there’s a lot of interest in research, development and innovation, and they’re coming to visit this unique NASA collection in search of information.
What are some of the most prominent knowledge sharing challenges in your organization?
Collection management is one of our main functions, and as our incredible technical staff connects and tags documents with search words and strong topics, we have to make sure there is an informed practice behind that activity. We don’t want to too narrowly focus a submission that’s being uploaded to the repository by tagging it in one way without understanding the ramifications of another. There’s magic in the background that has to happen, and I would say that’s a challenge because the experts in the field want to put as much information as possible with every piece of data that goes into our repository, and we have to determine when it’s too much and alters the placement and discoverability.
Another challenge we face is how best to exist as an entity, transacting and cooperating as an agency information management resource — but also pursuing the sweet spot where the information management and knowledge management activities intersect within NASA. Our goal is to complement knowledge management efforts in addition to other large federal repositories, so we collaborate in a complementary way.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding that people have about knowledge?
Knowledge isn’t collecting information or data. It’s about taking collected information and connecting it, interpreting it or repurposing it to innovate, solve problems or move an initiative forward. Our role is to make sure the NASA STI collection is best positioned as a resource when the problem solvers and knowledge seekers are in search of ideas to prompt solutions. In that way I think we’re moving closer and closer toward information management, connected in knowledge creation, with the NASA researchers and scientists.